Heat and Work

Heat and work

I teach chemistry and spend a lot of time discussing the differences between heat and work. Heat is a fire and work is a battery—both are good, but one clearly gets the big jobs done better.

How might this apply to the Forty Acres?

This is a campus steeped in Texas individualism, and there is a lot of heat produced in our decentralized and independent approach to research and teaching. I certainly took advantage of this tradition while performing research for more than a decade in Welch Hall, and I can guarantee you that no one was about to tell me or anyone else how to do it. UT-Austin is a powerhouse research institution precisely because of this academic freedom. Great teaching is in many ways the same: Professor James Pennebaker’s synchronous online course or Professor Andrew Ellington’s freshman research initiative stream are both the spark of inventive and unencumbered minds.

But work is different from heat. It begins with a common purpose, something easy to say, easy to understand, and pretty hard to argue against. Something you can state simply on the cover of an alumni magazine like: graduation rates.

The nice thing about improving graduation rates is that everyone can get behind it. Student-success advocates exploit it to help students achieve their goals. The budget office sees it as improving the bottom line. Even academicians can approach it as a systems-optimization problem. Now everyone can ask the question, “What can I do to make it better?” Fueled by $15 million in programs and scholarships my office has awarded just this year, the answer is a lot.

These days, each incoming freshman is in a small community from day one. The Registrar is working with academic advisors to make course registration fairer. Mental Health Services is deploying counselors to the academic units. Campus partners are working with Financial Aid to provide on-campus internships for our 2,000 neediest students. New Student Services is working with University Marketing and Creative Services to brand and build cohorts that will want to graduate together in four years.

In my opinion, a culture change is happening on campus, certainly at the highest levels of the university, but I also believe it is percolating down to the individual student and faculty member. Right now a professor is giving a make-up exam to help a student pass a course. A department chairman is adding a course for the fall to meet demand. A student is deciding to take a Friday 8 a.m. class to graduate on time (OK, maybe that was pushing it).

Is it paying off? The early returns say yes. The Class of 2016 has UT’s highest-ever first-year persistence at 93.5 percent, and the recently arrived Class of 2017 is on pace to beat it, with the best-ever first-semester persistence of 98.8 percent. (By contrast, first-year persistence in 1981 was just 79 percent.)

For those who are alarmed that the Wild West campus they loved is becoming perhaps a little too orderly for their tastes, we are still very much a campus of individuals. But it is a campus that is working together now—perhaps better than ever, even in the toughest of times—and if we wake up in a few years and measure a graduation rate that has taken off, we will be able to point to what is taking place right now: a campus at work.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.


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