The Number Crunch

In 1989, UT had too many students, too few classes, and an antiquated registration system. In his new book, former UT president William Cunningham takes readers behind the scenes of that crisis and the birth of TEX.


Enrollment management was the greatest student crisis I faced as president of UT-Austin. It manifested itself in two ways. First was the question of whether the University was going to be able to control its overall enrollment. Second, could the University structure its registration process so that students would be able to obtain the classes they needed to graduate in a reasonable period of time? If we could not answer both of these questions affirmatively, then the legitimacy of the University’s entire mission would be in question.

Growing demand for higher education within Texas placed tremendous pressure on the enrollment of UT-Austin in the 1980s and 1990s. The University tried to balance two competing enrollment priorities: One, to serve a broad cross section of Texas students, including a growing number of minority students who had historically been denied full educational opportunities. And two, to be competitive with the best in the nation, thereby serving students of superior ability from Texas and around the world.

If both priorities could be realized, UT-Austin would be not only the biggest public university in the nation, but also the best. Few, if any, universities have ever tried to reach both of these goals, and even now in the 21st century it remains to be seen whether UT can do it. For several years at the end of the 20th century, we did succeed at being the biggest, and we made significant progress toward being the best.

As the Texas population burgeoned, it was clear that UT and other universities faced the prospect of significant enrollment growth. Most of the state’s universities were eager for this growth, but UT–Austin was about as large as it could be without compromising quality. This meant we needed to take serious steps to control admissions.

The strategic plan for the University released in November 1985, after I had been president only two months, reflected a long-running theme when it said that enrollment should be stabilized at 48,000, “a level that is consistent with the capacities of the University’s programs and that will not produce intolerable congestion or failures in providing counseling, advising, recreational and other support services.”Very simply, I felt the University lacked the budget, the space, and the faculty to serve more than 48,000 students.

The admissions policy that had gone into effect in fall 1982 provided that students who had taken specified courses in a Texas high school would be admitted if they were in the top quarter of their high school class. Even students in the bottom three-quarters of their high school class could be admitted if they had acceptable grades and test scores. For applicants who still could not meet these requirements, the University offered the Provisional Admissions Program, which allowed students a chance to prove themselves by enrolling in the summer and achieving an overall 2.0 GPA at the end of the fall semester.

registration2The provisional program, which began in the late 1960s, was first envisioned as an affirmative-action program for minority students who did not meet regular admission requirements but might be able to demonstrate that they could succeed at UT if given a chance. The program proved popular among white students and was only marginally successful in recruiting minority students. Unfortunately, most students who had not done well in high school did not have a magical experience that transformed them into brilliant college students.

Another advantage of the program was that when politicians or important donors put pressure on me to admit a marginal student, I could easily say that while the individual they were interested in had not done well in high school, UT would let him or her attend in the summer and all they had to do was earn a 1.5 GPA in the summer and an overall 2.0 GPA by the end of the fall.

Four major concerns led us to revise these admissions policies in 1987, effective with the freshman class in fall 1989. First, the 1982 policy had brought overall enrollment down below 48,000, but growth pressures were returning. By late spring in 1987, undergraduate applications were up 5 percent and admissions were up 11 percent, and enrollment in 1987 was 47,743, up from 46,140. The University was rapidly moving back up to an enrollment level at which economies of scale no longer continued to add value.

Second, the admissions policies had produced a situation in which the campus actually had two freshman classes, one highly competitive and well-prepared academically, the other only marginally prepared for the challenge of UT’s academic programs.

Third, there was a growing concern that the SAT was being given too much weight in admissions decisions. At the extremes of very high and very low scores, the SAT was a good predictor of academic success. For students in the middle the test was not a very effective indicator of academic success or failure.

The crisis was one of the clearest signals up to that time that the University’s enrollment and the quality of services provided to students were intimately connected.

Fourth, in keeping with its comprehensive mission as a major research institution, the University had been placing increasing emphasis on its graduate programs, and we expected growth in the number of graduate students in most fields. Enrollment needed to strike a balance between resources employed in graduate and undergraduate programs.

These concerns were reflected in various ways in the overhaul of admissions policies approved by the Board of Regents in 1987 after extensive campus discussion. The new policy was not implemented until fall 1989. That would give students, parents, and counselors ample time to adjust.

In the new policy, the automatic admission category was changed from students in the top 25 percent of a high school class to the top 15 percent, and students scoring at least 1250 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT were automatically admitted regardless of class rank. Based on the availability of space, other applicants would be admitted as a function of both class ranks and test scores. The Provisional Admissions Program was kept in place, as were a broad range of other affirmative-action programs for African-American and Hispanic students. Ethnicity was always one of numerous factors but was never the sole determinant.

The great advantage of the new policy was the increased flexibility it gave the admissions office. The most critical decisions focused on applicants whose scores and high school rankings were close to the borderline for automatic admission. Students in this group would have their applications reviewed by a committee that would consider writing samples, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, the academic quality of the student’s high school, the student’s intended major given the enrollment needs of UT colleges and schools, and the students’ ethnicity. We hoped that these admission procedures would help lower the undergraduate attrition rate and lead to more productive and fulfilling campus experiences.

From 1987-89, enrollment increased gradually, but steadily. The fact that the increase was so slight was an indication that the new policy was beginning to work.

Even before freshmen began arriving on the campus in the fall of 1989, we knew from the number of applications and admissions that the 1987 enrollment management plan would need to be revisited and, as a result, we increased the academic requirements in the Provisional Admissions Program for summer 1989. Instead of simply making a 1.5 GPA in the four required summer courses, now a provisional student would have to make no grade lower than a C and would have to make at least one B or higher.It had become very clear that students from around the state understood that if they were not regularly admitted to UT, the back door was wide open. It was apparent that it would not be long before more than 20 percent of the freshman class would be admitted via the provisional program.

We also implemented a system-wide admissions referral program allowing applicants who had been turned down by UT–Austin to be automatically admitted to other UT System schools. This program was designed to help students who were not admitted to UT-Austin to stay within the UT System. Unfortunately, it was not successful. Recent high school graduates who wanted to go to UT-Austin generally had little interest in other UT institutions.

The second shoe in the enrollment management problem fell in dramatic fashion in September 1989 when thousands of students found it difficult or impossible to register for courses. The crisis was one of the clearest signals up to that time that the University’s enrollment and the quality of services provided to students were intimately connected.

registration3When I became president, students filled out a form indicating which classes they wanted, and they were given an opportunity to select one or two options if any of their first choices were not available. A computer then took everybody’s needs and wants and tried to find schedules that would accommodate as many people as possible.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this system worked quite well. Unfortunately, by the mid-1980s, and increasingly thereafter, enrollment had grown so much that the majority of students found it difficult to register for the classes they needed. This meant that tens of thousands of students were forced to go through the infamous “adds and drops,” revising and completing one’s schedule by dealing in person with registration advisors.

Although the computerized registration system was out of date, the real problem was the inability to provide enough sections of basic undergraduate classes to meet the demands of our growing population. This was a function of a rapidly growing undergraduate enrollment, a shortage of resources to hire faculty and staff, and a failure on the part of several colleges to allocate resources in a way that would best meet undergraduate needs. Well before the crisis of 1989, students knew that the system was beginning to fail. Students began to talk about the fact that if you went to UT you might not get the courses you needed to graduate “on time.” The problem was campus-wide at the undergraduate level.

A year before the crisis, Ron Brown, vice president for student affairs, had recommended that we consider a new system. He maintained that we needed some type of automated registration system, in which students would use the telephone to log on and register for their classes and then be able to complete the process in a timely manner. Although such a process would involve computers and telephones, it would have the merits of the old-fashioned registration systems when students visited Gregory Gymnasium and went from table to table to sign up for classes. You might not get your first choice, but you could stay in the room and move among the tables until you succeeded in putting together a complete schedule. Most students did not have to go through the add-and-drop process.

Brown’s idea was to develop a system in which the University’s computer would take the place of Gregory Gymnasium. But there was no off-the-shelf software available to handle an institution the size of UT. As a result, the University would have to design its own customized program. We put together a task force and made a commitment to spend the money necessary to create the new registration system and make it work. Unfortunately, we had not acted in time to head off the crisis in the fall of 1989, although thanks to that earlier planning the new telephone system was ready the following fall.

To deal with class availability issues, I went to work with the Provost’s Office and the deans of the colleges and schools to find out what had gone wrong. This meant addressing allocation of resources, assignment of faculty members to high-demand classes, and monitoring class sizes. Those are not the kind of details that the president or the provost usually deals with at an institution the size of UT, but 1989 was not a usual time.

An editorial in the Daily Texan argued that the fault for the problems students were encountering lay on the fourth floor of the Main Building—in the president’s office. The editorial urged students to call my office or my home and complain, and the paper published both telephone numbers. We received some 160 telephone calls from students at my office, although relatively few called me at home.

In my own experience dealing with bureaucracies, the greatest frustration has never been the problem itself, but the sense that no one cares and no one recognizes that there is a problem. I was determined that the University would not make those mistakes.

I returned every call of every student who telephoned me and left a number. It was clear that many students felt no one cared about them. I assured the students that I recognized that we had a problem, and that I would solve it.

I explained that one of the reasons for the problems they were experiencing was a shortage of financial resources, but I emphasized that our goal was that every student who came to the University would be able to make timely progress toward completing a degree. I made a personal commitment to every student I talked to that their dean’s office would advise them on what courses to take during the current semester. In some cases this meant that academic degree requirements would be changed so that students could take another course toward their graduation that usually would not have been in the degree plan.

Students seemed very pleased that I called them back. Most, in fact, apologized for having called me in the first place. They were very pleasant on the phone and seemed appreciative that I cared about the problem. In my own experience dealing with bureaucracies, the greatest frustration has never been the problem itself, but the sense that no one cares and that no one even recognizes that there is a problem. I was determined that the University would not make those mistakes.

I always arrived at my office by 7:15 a.m., and Connie Saathoff and Joyce Moos were usually already at their posts by then. I started returning the students’ calls by 7:30. I did discover that most of our students were not taking 8:00 a.m. classes. In addition, I returned a call to one irate philosophy faculty member at 9:30 a.m. who had called me the previous day complaining that the University was not adequately staffing its undergraduate courses. I woke him up. My first reaction was that if you would get out of bed and go to work, we might not have such a significant staffing problem. However, I did attend the Shirley Bird Perry school for politically correct comments. As a result, I held my sarcasm.

To begin dealing with the problem, I asked Provost Gerry Fonken and Vice Provost Steve Monti to examine the issue of class availability and to bring recommendations to me as soon as possible—meaning a matter of days if not hours. They concluded that while there was a serious problem of overcrowding, most of the registration problems focused on 32 high-demand undergraduate courses, each of which was offered in multiple sections each semester. The good news was that if we could solve the problem in those 32 courses, we could resolve most of the issues. I felt we had to deal with this problem effectively in the spring 1990 class schedule. We had to avoid at all costs a spring registration disaster.

Most of the deans were very cooperative. Fonken and Monti pointed out that a number of classes in the College of Communication had five or six graduate students each, while the college was unable to provide the faculty necessary to offer enough sections of basic undergraduate speech courses to meet student needs.

I asked Dean Robert Jeffrey to come to my office in October 1989 to try to resolve the matter, and he pushed back very hard on Fonken’s position that the college needed to reallocate its faculty resources for the spring to deal with the undergraduate problem. After about 20 minutes, I looked at him squarely and said that I understood his position and he did not have to worry about it in the future because starting in the spring the provost and I would schedule all classes of the College of Communication in my office.

Jeffrey got the message and he immediately became much more flexible. I have no doubt that he was very upset with me at the time, but he went downstairs to the provost’s office and in a very short time they resolved all the scheduling issues. Several faculty members who were teaching very small graduate courses were pulled out of those courses and were assigned to teach sections of the high-demand undergraduate speech courses.

Bill LivingstonI knew that this kind of action could be only an immediate and short-term solution. For the longer term, we would have to have additional financial support to expand the size of the faculty and would have to further control the size of the student population in order to maintain the health of both undergraduate and graduate education. But in the fall of 1989 the most immediate problem was not the vitality of any particular graduate seminar but the ability of the University to meet its most fundamental obligations to its undergraduates.

Our next steps to head off another explosive situation in spring 1990 were to find the money to add as many faculty and course sections as we could for spring registration, and for the provost’s office to take over the adds and drops process in January 1990 to make sure student needs were met.

Fonken and members of his staff went to adds and drops in January 1990, and with my full authority, sat there for three days and made decisions on class size for the 32 problematic courses. When a college proposed class sizes that were unreasonably low, Fonken would make the final decisions. As a result, we succeeded in adding 8,800 class seats in the spring of 1990.

I had some complaints from deans about Fonken “meddling” in the affairs of their colleges, but I backed up his decisions. From one perspective, it was meddling. But from a more important perspective, it was problem-solving. We had no choice but to take such actions as an emergency matter. I know that increasing class sizes may have involved some damage to pedagogy in some courses. Nevertheless, the class availability problem had to be solved, one way or another. When Dean Standish Meacham called me to complain about Fonken’s “micromanagement” as it affected the College of Liberal Arts, my response was, “Standish, you broke the code. We are going to manage (or micromanage) our way out of this crisis this semester.”

While the University was fighting its way through the class availability problem, I had not lost track of the fundamental enrollment management issue—our ability to control the number of undergraduates who were matriculating to UT.

In the spring of 1990 I shared with the UT System and the UT Board of Regents a series of additional requirements to help achieve the goal of 48,000 students by 1994. In August 1990, the Board of Regents approved my recommendation to further tighten the rules for admission of transfer students, those who had started their college careers elsewhere but wanted to finish their undergraduate degrees at UT-Austin. The next major change came in August 1992, when the regents approved further restrictions to be effective with the 1994 admissions cycle. These changes continued the trend of increasing admissions standards, reducing the number of students gaining automatic admission, and increasing the number whose applications were reviewed individually. We kept in place an affirmative-action measure that provided for an individual review of every African-American or Hispanic applicant in the top half of their high school classes.

The great news was that the new telephone registration system (called TEX) worked as advertised. I went to the computing center with James Vick, who had succeeded Ron Brown as vice president for student affairs, on Sunday night, April 22, 1990, when it was officially turned on for fall 1990 registration.

The Texas WayI wanted to be there because I knew this new technology was going to be central to the success of the University. If it had failed, we did not have a Plan B. If we had been forced to go back to the old system, I would not have been surprised to see riots on campus. Fortunately, the new computer system worked. With the flick of a switch, students anywhere in the world were now able to sign up for classes, change their classes, and operate with all the flexibility of being in a large room in the old days, with none of the long lines. The telephone registration system made a dramatic improvement in the University experience and it added a new twist to the distinguished administrative career of William S. Livingston, vice president and dean of graduate studies. His memorable speaking style helped him become “the voice of TEX,” always signing off with this congenial wish for students: “Goodbye and good luck.”

 From top: UT students registering by phone using TEX; Registration crowds at Gregory Gym in 1967; Students learn how to use TEX; William Livingston, the voice of TEX, in 1990. Photos from the Cactus Yearbook.

Excerpted from The Texas Way, to be published in September by the Briscoe Center for American History and distributed by the University of Texas Press.


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