Student leaders deserve a response

Carisa Nietsche

Student leaders from the Senate of College Councils, Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly issued a letter to the UT System Board of Regents last week expressing qualms about the board’s recent discussions surrounding research and teaching as well as blended and online learning. In addition to outlining student concerns, the letter called for student involvement in these conversations and asked for increased transparency from the board.

Unfortunately, since the letter was delivered to the board, our issues have still yet to be addressed. Shortly after receiving the letter, the board sent a disheartening response. In a short email from Art Martinez, executive director for board services, the board vaguely outlined its commitment to UT and higher education in Texas and ignored the concerns mentioned in the letter. Rather than addressing student queries, the board instead attached a copy of a letter sent to the Texas Exes in mid-March on similar subjects.

As the Board of Regents engage in these important discussions that will affect the future of higher education in Texas and the value of degrees from UT-System schools, a 162-word email and a previously sent letter are not enough to address student apprehensions. By responding in such a way, the Board showed a failure to adequately consider the thoughts and opinions of students who attend the flagship university of the UT System they are appointed to represent.

While we appreciate the regents’ promise to commit to higher education and UT-Austin and the recognition that research is important, three main components of our letter were not addressed in the board’s response: the importance of both soft and technical research in a university setting, concerns about online learning and the call for transparency and student involvement in regent-level conversations.

All three of these goals were included in the letter because they are priorities for students at this University, and we, as students, believe the dilution of any of them would lead to a decrease in the value and competitiveness of our institution as well as detract from the core mission and purpose of UT.

Coming from all realms of study, UT students embrace all forms of research and realize the importance of both technical and so-called soft research. Both types of research are crucial parts of developing critical thinking skills, fostering intellectual curiosity and creating the future leaders of Texas. On Monday, Jeff Sandefer, architect of the controversial “Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education,” released an open email in which he seems to suggest that “scientific research” can be the only “productive” type of research for a university and that “soft,” non-scientific research is not of value to the University. As argued in our letter to the board, soft research holds a revered position at our institution and is a valuable part of receiving an education at UT. Our peer institutions as well as more prestigious Ivy league institutions have not weakened their commitment to soft research, and they seem to be doing fine in university rankings.

Another aspect of the letter that went ignored is the importance of not transferring a fixed percentage of courses online. The University must maintain faculty and student interaction in order remain competitive at a national level. On Monday, a memo titled “Draft Notes and Ideas for Discussion” was obtained by the Austin American-Statesman from Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell. In the memo, dated April 7, Powell outlines goals for the Board in the upcoming year and items for discussion. One suggestion is to reduce tuition across the UT-System by close to 50 percent, a notion aligned with Powell’s embrace for Gov. Rick Perry’s recommendation of a $10,000 degree plan. Many conversations regarding the feasibility of a $10,000 degree plan have centered around transferring a fixed percentage of courses in a student’s degree plan online, something expressly advocated against in the student letter that was hand-delivered to the Board of Regents office. Students still want and need interaction with faculty members, and by emphasizing cost over quality, the Board puts the quality of our institution and the value of our degrees at risk.

Including students in these conversations is a necessary step toward the goal of creating a more competitive and prosperous UT-Austin. Students are the future of Texas and the present of higher education. They deserve to have their concerns listened to and addressed.

Nietsche is president of Senate of College Councils.