UT board approves changes. Plan aims to boost productivity, academics.
By Melissa Ludwig
The University of Texas Board of Regents approved an action plan Thursday to raise quality and productivity at its 15 institutions in an era of declining revenues, fortifying the effort with $243 million in strategic investments.
The plan pleased higher education boosters and critics alike, including Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin think tank that’s served as a brain trust for those seeking radical changes in the state’s higher education.
“The plan unveiled today reflects important steps toward both increasing productivity and improving academic quality in the University of Texas System, and I applaud Chancellor Cigarroa and everyone involved for their hard work in this effort,” Perry said in a statement.
Cigarroa said the plan is meant to set goals, not dictate how they are achieved. A deadline looms for defining and achieving each benchmark.
“One size does not fit all,” Cigarroa said. “The innovation, the creativity of how to address these issues … is dependent on the creative leadership of our presidents and faculty.”
To help monitor the plan’s success, the system set aside $10 million to build a user-friendly “dashboard” that university presidents and citizens alike can use to access real-time productivity and success metrics at the system, university, departmental and even individual faculty level.
The dashboard will include salaries, number of credit hours taught and student evaluation scores of individual professors, data that kicked up controversy when they were first released to the public.
But unlike the previously released database, which presented a snapshot in time, the dashboard will include historical data to show trends over the years.
“You will be able to see the full contributions of (faculty), our greatest assets,” Cigarroa said.
It also could help provosts decide where to allocate resources and department heads make decisions about staffing, Powell said.
Faculty productivity has been one of the hottest topics of debate, with critics claiming many professors spend too much time on frivolous research and not enough time teaching.
The plan calls for strengthening post-tenure review, conducting outside audits of academic departments, and tweaking the pay structure to better reward performance. The plan also expands teaching excellence awards and allocates more money to recruit top-notch faculty.
“UT can benefit from clear, unambiguous guidelines regarding, research, teaching and service,” Allen said. “Some despair that we are not capable of accurately measuring (those duties). It is not beyond our capacity.”
To increase student success, the plan calls for increased degree production, higher four-year graduation rates and tuition policies that reward students for graduating within that time frame. Speeding time to degree for Ph.D. students is a priority as well.
The plan also demands more careful enrollment management, which could mean higher entrance standards at regional universities, and asks universities to find ways to reduce student debt and issue financial disclosure statements to increase transparency.
Money for online
Recognizing that technology could revolutionize education, regents dedicated $50 million to create an Institute for Transformational Learning, which will dole out competitive grants to develop high-quality online and blended courses, and to use technology to improve learning outcomes in large, gateway courses.
The idea sprang from a task force on online and blended learning chaired by Regent Wallace Hall, who said UT must compete in the online sphere or risk being left behind.
UT’s online brand must be “synonymous with excellence,” Hall said.
Ideas from two task forces on online learning and productivity and efficiency were blended into Cigarroa’s framework.
Regent Alex Cranberg, who sat on the productivity task force, helped broker a $10 million deal with an Austin-based company called MyEdu to provide custom, private-label services for UT that include electronic advising, degree planning and cost calculators.
Some of the data collected by MyEdu, including grades issued for each class, will likely be incorporated into the dashboard.
In terms of research, the framework encourages institutions to collaborate more freely and for the system’s four emerging research universities, including UTSA, to formulate business plans for reaching Tier One status.
Because philanthropy will play a bigger role in a time of declining state revenues, the plan sets aside $9 million to beef up development offices with experienced fundraisers.
The plan also allocates money to improve technology infrastructure and computational power.
Part of the $243 million investment will boost health and science education in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has openly criticized Chairman Powell for micromanaging and stirring up what she deemed “unnecessary controversy,” said she hoped the plan would unite stakeholders and calm the upheaval of the last six months.
“The controversy was unnecessary and a distraction,” said Zaffirini, who attended the meeting. “I hope the vote means regents will allow chancellors and presidents to do their job.”
Powell said he’s not bothered by the “slings and arrows” pointed at him. In his opinion, the debate churned up some great ideas.
“I would go through it all again,” Powell said.
- Alex Cranberg Interviewed – Seen in New York Times (alexcranberg.wordpress.com)
- Alex Cranberg and the UT Regents (alexcranberg.wordpress.com)
- Cranberg Quoted in American Independent – Credentials Vs. Achievements (alexcranberg.wordpress.com)
- Controversial UT Regent Hopes to “Push a Reset Button” (timesoftexas.com)
- Thoughts on Chancellor Cigarroa’s Message to UT Regents – Alex Cranberg (alexcranberg.wordpress.com)
- Alex Cranberg Interviewed in CoBizMag – Alliance for Choice in Education (alexcranberg.wordpress.com)
- The Texas Tribune: A Lightning Rod on U.T. Board, Regent Is Not Deterred (nytimes.com)
- Powers and Cigarroa Unavailable for Comment. Zaffirini Denied Anything Unseemly. (timesoftexas.com)
- A desire to find common ground (alexcranberg.wordpress.com)