Debating the Debate

A chat about Texas higher education with the chairman of the Board of Regents.

Before we get to this interview, a word of context. About a year ago the first rumble of what we in Texas now refer to as The Higher Ed Debate was just beginning. The occasion was a letter from the president of the Association of American Universities, Bob Berdahl, warning Texas A&M that some of the changes it had been making could threaten the Tier 1 status the Aggies had worked for decades to achieve. Those changes—some of the infamous “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for higher education that the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the governor’s office decided needed implementing—signaled a fundamental shift in the mission of the state’s great public research universities.

Not long after Berdahl’s letter was made public, the debate erupted, just as the UT System had formed two task forces to study efficiency and blended and online learning. While UT alumni were learning the depth of political interference into A&M’s administration, individual UT regents were submitting massive data requests from the University about faculty course loads and teaching evaluations. When the System then hired Rick O’Donnell, a man with ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, it appeared Texas was indeed heading the way of Texas A&M. In March, Texas Exes president Richard Leshin took the rare step of emailing every UT-Austin alumnus to warn that “the mission and core values of the University were under attack.”

In the ensuing weeks, Rick O’Donnell was fired, settled with the System, and then publicly badmouthed the University. Likeminded critics lamented the rising cost of tuition and savaged UT and A&M’s faculty. A group of concerned Longhorns and Aggies formed the Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education to help raise the level of the debate. Meanwhile, our state’s tough legislative session raged on. Toward the end, there was enough concern about the governance of the UT and A&M systems that a new joint oversight committee was formed to take a hard look at the way boards of regents operate.

Then in August, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa unveiled a nine-point framework for excellence that drew widespread admiration across the spectrum of parties interested in higher education. Yet the discourse continued across the nation about the fundamental success measures and outputs we expect from our universities and how to judge faculty productivity.

Over this period, The Alcalde has covered the debate extensively. We have profiled Jeff Sandefer, author of the “seven solutions,” and traced their origin back to Sandefer’s time here at the University. We visited with state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, co-chair of the new joint oversight committee, who ripped the governor and others for claiming that Texas higher ed is broken. And on this page I have weighed in repeatedly to warn against short-sighted reforms that fail to carefully consider excellence and value.

In September, leaders of the Texas Exes met with Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to express our concerns. Because the debate had been so contentious, the Texas Exes had been flooded with requests from alumni for updates. As part of our discussion, Chairman Powell agreed to an interview, which I have excerpted here. I’ll say that, as a concerned UT alumnus, I left the interview feeling somewhat better but still not totally convinced that what has troubled Texas Exes has passed. I invite you to read it for yourself. And since the debate doesn’t seem to be going away, I urge you to get involved. The futures of the state and The University of Texas at Austin are on the line.

TIM TALIAFERRO: Mr. Chairman, there seems to be a disconnect between what UT alumni think is going on between the regents and UT-Austin and what you say is really going on. Do you as chairman support the idea of UT-Austin being the top public research university in the country?

GENE POWELL: Absolutely!

TT: Why do you think that alumni have the impression otherwise?

GP: The only thing I can assume is that the press has written a lot about the board or the chairman for some reason not liking research, which I have never said, ever.

TT: So you and the board all completely support the idea of teaching and researching?

GP: How can you say that the chairman doesn’t support great research at UT-Austin when the board just authorized an additional $75 million to support building a new engineering building?

TT: So is it your sense then that the Texas Exes as an organization has overreacted?

GP: I don’t know. We are all in higher education together, we all want the same thing for the System and for UT-Austin, I think. So what I would hope is that the Exes, if they hear rumors or allegations, that they come to us. We will be perfectly honest with you.

TT: Let me ask you about the “seven solutions.” For a lot of people, they cause concern. What was your reaction to them?

GP: I’ve never read the list. I don’t really know what they are. We never discussed the seven solutions.

TT: I bring them up because UT alumni worried that what happened at A&M might happen at UT, where this outside influence gained the governor’s favor and was going to push through its agenda without consulting the institution.

GP: That’s a little bit of deductive reasoning, but I can see how you can make that leap. What I would say now going forward, now that you all know us better, when that kind of thing comes up you can pick up the phone and say, ‘Can we come over and talk to you, because this really concerns us.’

TT: Let me ask you about the process of the task forces. What was your vision as chairman for how the process would work and what was important to you about how it was done?

GP: You had to think what the picture was at the time when I made the two task forces. I was facing what they tell me was a 22 percent reduction in funding potentially. I was facing students who are saying we can’t afford school anymore. I said we have to very quickly evaluate what is going on. Identify problems and identify solutions. Then I hoped they would make recommendations to the academic affairs committee and they would then sift through these different ideas and recommend some to the board and chancellor.

TT: So it sounds as though while you were going through that process, parts leaked out. Internal memos like the one about boosting UTAustin enrollment to 70,000 and slashing tuition, or the governor’s call for a $10,000 degree.

GP: Yeah, but I actually talked to Ralph Haurwitz [of the Austin American-Statesman] about the $10,000 degree.

TT: What did you say to him?

GP: Well, I can’t really remember. My point at the time was that we have all these degrees across the System from nine academic schools, and there might be room for one more, a $10,000 degree. Let’s say a student in Edinburgh is helping their parents run a retail store, helping care for some young children, and would really like to start college but just can’t do it. So we have the $10,000 degree where they can start an online course of learning and they can start on that, get into college, and feel like a full-time student.

TT: So was it ever considered as something UT-Austin would be forced to do?

GP: No, no. If UT Austin wanted to. My whole thought was, ‘Let’s get kids into college any way we can. If a $10,000 degree gets them started, let’s use it.’ But it was never ‘let’s make Austin produce this degree.’ That was totally misunderstood.

TT: Why is the $10,000 degree attractive in your mind?

GP: The Permian Basin is the size of the state of Georgia. There are potential students who live 100 miles from the campus. They don’t have money to drive, to rent an apartment, to eat there. So they start driving a truck, they get married, have a child at 19 or 20, then two, and they never come back. We lose them, the economy loses them, the state loses them as college grads. Think of what an effi cient degree that keeps the cost down would do. Go around the System to Edinburgh, El Paso, Brownsville, Tyler, Dallas, Arlington. If we could do that—not talking about Austin—think about the impact.

TT: Tremendous.

GP: Huge! That’s one of the reasons the $10,000 degree is tied up in blended and online learning and this whole desire for outreach.

TT: It sounds like there was a System-wide assessment that outreach and access was a priority. Is there a similar System-level priority to protect quality?

GP: Absolutely. Excellence starts everything. We want UT-Austin to be a No. 1 or top-fi ve public institution in the United States.

TT: I think the perception, however, was that the impulse to improve access was going to happen over concerns about quality. So we would have a giant UT-Austin and meanwhile slice funding for it. To alumni, it looked like there was no way UT-Austin would come out stronger.

GP: We do have to fi gure out how UT-Austin becomes more effi cient with classrooms, professors, and how it continues to create excellence. We have to enroll more students at some point and hold cost down. There’s never been a desire to dumb down Austin in any way. We wouldn’t be putting money up for buildings and a medical school if that was the case.

TT: Let me ask you about the hiring of Rick O’Donnell as a special advisor. Why was he hired?

GP: Well, let’s think about something. The task forces worked for 188 days. Rick O’Donnell worked for 36 days. The whole reason he was hired was because we were looking for someone to staff the task forces. That’s all he was hired for, not for policy or to give advice. So we hired him, and all the discussion in the press ensued. He got to a point where I think out of frustration he did a couple of things which caused him to be terminated. That was the end of that.

TT: After he was fired, he attacked UT-Austin. What was your reaction to that?

GP: I was extremely disappointed.

TT: Did you speak up at the time against him?

GP: No, I didn’t say anything at the time. Nobody asked me. I really thought, at the time, that’s one of the things best left alone. Don’t glorify it. Don’t give it legs. He was already vilified in the press, and I thought people wouldn’t pay attention to it. Sure enough, it had a two-to-three day story, and he went on.

TT: I think, Mr. Chairman, that some people perceived your not defending UT faculty as tacit approval of the attacks.

GP: Well, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. What’s really important is to look at what we got to on Aug. 25 and where the board came to and what the conclusions were and what the framework says. That’s really what this is all about.

TT: Do you think the reputation of UT-Austin has benefitted or been damaged at all by this debate?

GP: I don’t have a way of knowing that. My thought is, when you are debating things, you put everything on the table and discuss everything. If you come pluck one thing off the table and run outside with it and say, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible,’ yeah, I can see how people get upset. But if you wait to the end and see what was produced, we know the framework is being favorably responded to nationally.

TT: So from your perspective, as the chairman of the board of regents, the priority is the framework only.

GP: Absolutely, absolutely, that’s it. We are not discussing or talking about anything else at this point.

TT: If you had a parting thought to UT alumni, what would it be?

GP: That we are committed to seeing that UTAustin becomes the No. 1 public institution in America. Both in teaching and in research. We also are committed to the other 14 institutions in the System, and the greatness of the System. We do not want just a great fl agship—we want a great System for the taxpayers, the students, and the parents of Texas. We think they are great today, but we think they can be No. 1. I can’t say it any stronger than that.

Photo courtesy of Bob Daemmrich.


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