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Texas-Size Compromise

August 26, 2011

Texas Governor Rick Perry is surging in polls for the Republican nomination for president, but Francisco Cigarroa might be the Texan with the biggest political victory this week.

At a meeting of the University of Texas System’s Board of Regents on Thursday, Cigarroa, the system’s chancellor, presented a framework, which the board adopted unanimously, designed to improve accountability, outcomes, and efficiency at the system’s nine academic institutions and six health centers.

Cigarroa's plan, much like the efforts being pushed by Perry and conservative think tanks in the state, involves much more public reporting about faculty performance and focuses on using technology as a way to drive down college costs. But unlike those plans, it gives considerable leeway to campuses to determine how they will evaluate faculty members. It also avoids some of the controversial assumptions made by other reform efforts -- such as the view that there is a clear relationship between grants obtained and the value of research, or that student evaluations are the best way to measure a faculty member's teaching -- to which faculty members have objected.

The new plan is ambitious in its scope -- encompassing everything from a public database to evaluate faculty productivity to a new resource to develop online courses -- but its biggest success might be the fact that, so far, it has the support of groups on multiple sides of what has been a contentious debate about the future of higher education in Texas. The framework provides a rough outline for the system, and campuses will be left to figure out the details of exactly how they will meet the chancellor's goals, which could create tension down the road. But the fact that Cigarroa is being praised by conservative think tanks, faculty members, and even Perry is a notable departure from the rhetoric that has dominated higher-education talk in Texas.

“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,” said David Guenthner, senior communications director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank whose reform proposals have been at the center of many of the debates. “Today’s positive presentation is the beginning of the reform process, not the end – but it is a very good start.”

At the same time, the plan received approval from the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group formed in opposition to the reforms being pushed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Chancellor Cigarroa’s plan is in direct contrast to the simplistic, ill-conceived, and untested so-called ‘solutions’ being promoted by outside interest groups,” the coalition said in a statement. Democratic and Republican lawmakers also weighed in, supporting the chancellor's efforts.

Tim Allen, a professor at the U.T. Health Science Center in Tyler and chair of the University of Texas System Faculty Advisory Council, said in a presentation following Cigarroa that faculty approved of the plan.

During the past few years, system administrators, university faculty members, alumni groups, politicians, and think tanks have been embroiled in discussions about college costs, accountability, faculty productivity, and the value of research. The Texas Public Policy Foundation has pushed a series of contentious reforms called the "seven solutions" that include separating research and teaching budgets, placing more emphasis on student evaluations, and creating a separate accrediting body. The group has numerous ties to the governor (who has great influence on the direction of the state's public universities, having appointed every member of the state's six boards of regents), who has partially endorsed its reforms.

Officials stressed that such issues have come up in other states as well, and that the issues of college costs and accountability are not unique to Texas, just more high-profile. “Texas finds itself at the epicenter of the national debate on the future of higher education,” Cigarroa said on Thursday.

Efforts to impose parts of those reforms have not sat well with some faculty and alumni groups, who see them as overly simplistic and detrimental to the system in the long run, and particularly to the research mission. But several people involved in the system say the broad support for Cigarroa's plan, and the comprehensive nature of the plan itself, will likely help quell the disputes.

"I think we're mostly past all that now," said Charles Miller, former chairman of the Board of Regents, of the heated rhetoric. He said that in the beginning of the debates about faculty productivity and college costs, some regents and staff quickly moved ahead to solve problems before there was agreement about what the problems were, creating a lot of tension. "In the beginning, the process wasn't well done. But these are smart, capable people on these boards, and when they're being told they're doing something wrong, they dig in and work harder."

Senator Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who chairs the Senate's Higher Education Committee, said she hopes the plan serves as a "unifying force that looks beyond yesterday’s controversies and toward a brighter future."

The plan Cigarroa laid out Thursday is designed to make sure that taxpayers and students are getting their money's worth out of the system -- particularly at a time of diminished state revenue and rising student costs -- which has been a major goal of the reform efforts. "Our primary goal here is enhancing the University of Texas for students and their parents, maintaining high quality, while at the same time, figuring out how to reduce overall costs and cost per student," said Gene Powell, chairman of the Board of Regents, in an interview.

The reforms incorporate suggestions developed by two regents' committees created at the beginning of the year: one on productivity and efficiency, and another on blended and online learning. Faculty members and administrators, feeling like the board was trying to micromanage campus operations, objected to those committees. The board then vested more authority in Cigarroa to create the plan.

In presenting the framework Thursday, Cigarroa stressed that he didn't want to take a "one size fits all" approach. Instead he laid out broad goals while letting each campus determine the actual benchmarks it would use. "Innovation happens at the campus level," he said in an interview. "We're not going to be prescriptive, but we are going to hold them accountable on developing strategies."

In terms of undergraduate students, the framework calls on campuses to improve four-year graduation rates, increase the number of degrees granted, and reduce the financial impact of tuition on families. For each of these, the plan outlines smaller action items, such as tuition policies that encourage four-year graduation, and identifies individuals responsible for carrying them out on each campus.

One of the major pushes in the framework, growing out of the regents' committee, is a call to increase blended and online learning to drive down costs. The board authorized an investment of up to $50 million to create a new Institute for Transformational Learning. The institute will work with campuses to develop online learning resources.

The announcement comes slightly more than a year after the system shuttered the UT TeleCampus, a centralized office for distance-education programs. Administrators said that unlike TeleCampus, the new institute will be a bottom-up approach, with programs originating on campuses, which they hope will spur greater innovation.

It will be left to the individual campuses to hammer out the details for many of the reforms advanced for improving faculty accountability and productivity, including strengthening annual evaluations and post-tenure review and implementing incentive-based compensation.

The system is already working on developing a publicly available dashboard that will present detailed information about department and individual professor productivity that administrators can use to make decisions. Cigarroa stressed that the exact information included in the dashboard has yet to be determined and that each campus will be able to determine its own set of metrics.

The selection of metrics will likely be a contentious issue down the road. Recent efforts to hold professors more accountable, such as lists of professors based on how many students they teach compared to their salaries, have not been greeted warmly by faculty members, who said they felt like they were under attack.

Other reforms include finding new ways to fund and collaborate on research projects, promote shorter completion times for Ph.D.s, and develop health and educational opportunities in South Texas -- including investment in UT-Brownsville, which used to operate jointly with a community college, to make the university a stand-alone four-year institution.

Actual implementation of the plans will take place over the next few years, as campus presidents and administrators determine actual metrics on which to measure performance and productivity.

Miller, who said he has been pushing for similar reforms for years and has been critical of both sides of the debate, said the board and Cigarroa deserve praise for tackling a politically dangerous issue. "There are quite a few people who should take responsibility for not having this discussion sooner," he said."This kind of thing takes leadership at the state policy level, at all levels, and the board should be commended for what they've done."

 

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