Powers: Data Important, But Imperfect

Is gathering more data the key to improving a university’s effectiveness? Yes and no, says UT president Bill Powers.

Speaking on campus in what was supposed to be a panel discussion on higher education reform before fellow panelist Alex Cranberg, a UT System regent, was pulled, Powers told the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith that data, while helpful, has its limits.

“Data is important, and things we can count and put into algorithms are nice,” Powers said. “But we have to figure out the right things to count and to recognize that educating takes judgment sometimes from people with experience and we have to put our faith in them.”

Cranberg has been the most vocal advocate on the UT System Board of Regents calling for far more emphasis on data. He was removed from the program, part of the Texas Tribune’s inaugural festival, at the last minute by Chairman Gene Powell, who said Cranberg’s participation would be inconsistent with the board’s support for Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s plan for the System.

Cranberg could not immediately be reached for comment.

Powers has publicly cautioned against an overemphasis on data, such as the red-and-black reports implemented to assess faculty productivity at Texas A&M. In his State of the University speech this month, Powers called on the regents to more actively defend UT faculty from attacks characterizing them as lazy and unproductive.

The limitations of data to assess productivity, Powers said, have to do with the complicated outputs a university produces. Some of those, like leadership, quality of life, critical thinking, and seemingly esoteric research take years or even decades for their value to be realized.

“We are for productivity,” Powers said, “our faculty are productive. But we can measure in ways that leave out what we really produce. We have experts on our campus who know how to do this, and they’re called faculty.”

Asked about the rising “sticker price” for tuition at UT-Austin, Powers said that 20 percent of new tuition increases goes into financial aid and that a quarter of UT undergraduates pay $2,500 a year. In recent years, Powers said, UT has distinguished itself by not jacking up tuition the way California and other system schools have with double-digit increases.

He also pointed out that state support per student is down 40 percent in real dollars since 1985 to its lowest point since 1964. The state now covers just 13 percent of UT-Austin’s budget. That UT manages to leverage that $300 million investment into a $2.2 billion annual budget, Powers said, is a tribute to how great a value the University is.


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