Alex Cranberg quoted in Texas Budget Source   2 comments

Cigarroa receives wide support for reforms

Curt W. Olson

The debate that raged over the cost, productivity, and efficiency of higher education in Texas calmed swiftly Thursday with the announcement of a higher education excellence and reform agenda branded the “Texas Plan.”

“It’s visionary. Some might consider it radical,” said University of Texas System Regent Alex Cranberg, who served on the Task Force on University Excellence and Productivity.

And yes, some even see it as a model for higher education systems across the nation to emulate.

Dr. John Mendelsohn, now past president of the UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, called it “a blueprint for the nation, not just Texas, after hearing the presentation from UT System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa.

The Task Force on Blended and Online Learning proposed a $50 million investment for the Institute for Transformational Learning, which would utilize technology for more strategic instruction. It was embraced in Cigarroa’s Framework for Excellence Action Plan.

This was part of more than $240 million in expenses regents approved Thursdsay directed to implement the plan.

Cigarroa’s plan generated unanimous support from all sides of the debate over the future over higher education that has raged for six months — sometimes quite fiercely.

More than one regent described the situation as stressful at times.

“Texas finds itself at the epicenter of the national debate on the future of higher education,” Cigarroa said. “I also firmly believe no university system is better poised than the University of Texas System to lead the debate and offer solutions to benefit our students, faculty and staff.”

The debate over higher education fiscal accountability and affordability has generated vigorous debate.

One side featured the higher education establishment, confronting record college debt for students, higher tuition and, and the need for greater accountability and transparency for outcomes. Higher education leaders have multiple allies in the Texas Legislature.

Jeff Sandefer and Rick O’Donnell, who challenged higher education leaders to reform higher education’s model with some new ideas, led the challenge to higher education.

Sandefer wrote a paper for the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation titled “Seven Breakthrough Solutions.” Sandefer is a board member for the Foundation. O’Donnell has been a senior research fellow at the Foundation.

Sandefer, O’Donnell and the small-government, market think tank had allies who agreed that students were being forgotten and the primary mission of universities and colleges is to teach students.

Cigarroa explained the nine elements to his plan, including:
• Undergraduate student access and success
• Faculty/ administrators/staff excellence
• Research
• Productivity and efficiency
• Strategic information and infrastructure and investments
• Enhance philanthropic success
• Ph.D. programs
• The Health of Texas
• Expand educational and health opportunities in South Texas

Cigarroa challenged each institution in the UT System to increase the number of degrees conferred and to reduce the financial impact on students and families while doing it.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Cigarroa repeated several times during his presentation to the board of regents Thursday morning.

He noted that in the past month UT-Austin President Bill Powers has established a task force to draft ideas. He said what works for UT-Austin may not work at other campuses, but each president is called on to do this.

The overriding goal is to reduce the time to a student earning their degree while reducing costs.

This is where information technology could prove pivotal for the UT System. The Institute of Transformational Learning will play a key role in improving guidance counseling options for students and generating other data useful to help a student and their parents.

The Institute will also generate information useful for measuring productivity with an interactive database — or dashboard — with information to help make decisions, Cigarroa said.

The UT System will conduct a search for a director for this new area.

The plan not only had the full support of the board of regents, but it also was supported by Dr. Tim Allen, leader of the faculty, and Melinda Hill Perrin, a member of the operating committee of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.

Perrin said no one supports the status quo.

She encouraged regents to give UT System leaders the freedom, flexibility and time to execute this plan.

“Wouldn’t it be a wonderful outcome, if plan—the Texas plan—could push the UT system to become the No. 1 system in the country?” Perrin asked. “Let’s work together to make that happen.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, praised the plan as aggressive and challenging, but quite feasible.

Cigarroa’s reforms also have support of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“We especially appreciate the focus on improving four-year graduation rates. Improvements in academic advising and the expansion of online learning should help more students complete their degrees sooner, reduce student debt burdens, and increase the number of students able to attend UT System institutions.

“Chancellor Cigarroa’s action plan is the first step of many that will be needed for Texas public universities to achieve the important goals of greater transparency and accountability, improved use of resources, more world-class research and high-quality graduates, and reduced cost of higher education to students and taxpayers. Today’s positive presentation is the beginning of the reform process, not the end – but it is a very good start.”

Gov. Rick Perry also likes the Cigarroa plan, and the governor’s office released the following statement.

“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. Moving forward, we need to continue focusing on efficient, innovative strategies to help make high-quality college degrees more affordable and attainable for all Texans. That’s a vital part of maintaining a world-class workforce, and continuing to attract employers and high-quality jobs to our state.”

Texas Budget Source is affiliated with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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