Our degrees matter

Natalie Butler

To say that the conversations surrounding higher education in Texas over the past few months have been heated is an understatement. So-called “reforms” being pushed by outside interest groups have been proposed, opposed, discussed and scrutinized. At the center of this debate are a few key players, namely Gov. Rick Perry, members of the University of Texas System Board of Regents and the privately funded Texas Public Policy Foundation. After setting their sights on Texas A&M, they have now focused on the University of Texas at Austin, hoping to push their agenda on our campus. Sides have been taken, and the future of the University of Texas is, in many ways, on the line.

The University of Texas at Austin is one of the greatest public universities in the country. More than 32,500 students applied for just 7,000 undergraduate slots last year, demonstrating the clear demand for the valuable and quality education offered here. Unfortunately, the University has been falsely accused by a few of being stuck in its ways and unwilling to reform. What has been characterized as a “push back” to many of these reforms is not the result of an unwillingness to change. On the contrary, our campus is constantly changing and evolving, as it should. From signature courses to the Course Transformation Project, we have worked to imagine ways to improve the classroom experience with technology and exposure to top faculty. Our administration is fully invested in the future of our University, and we as students need to continue to take an active role in helping our institution grow and improve.

The push back, rather, comes from the fear that many of the proposed reforms are ill-conceived, untested and could undermine the excellence of our University. Some of the reforms that have been tossed around by think tanks and members of the Board of Regents could have long-term damaging effects on our University, our state’s economy and our futures. Massive enrollment expansion, separating the teaching and research missions of the University, packing students into huge classes or mandating that we take online courses are not the answer. Having each faculty member teach three sections of a 400-person class would admittedly reduce costs, but what would be the value of that education? It would be minimal compared to the great value of the UT education today, which includes an emphasis on writing, research and discussion. If we want our Tier One research institution to encourage analysis, foster critical thinking and teach writing skills while creating the leaders of tomorrow, we have to look beyond a data point and see both the tangible and intangible values of our education. Simply analyzing data, though valuable in certain regards, cannot capture all of the critical facets of a University education.

The decision-making and vision for the University of Texas should be established by those who are fully invested in the institution and have a full understanding of the University experience. Let the president, faculty, administration and, most importantly, students drive reform and innovation on our campus. It has been said in this debate over and over again that a one-size-fits-all model will not work for all of the institutions in the UT System. I absolutely believe that is the case and that the size that fits can only be determined by the institution itself.

The degrees from the University of Texas that we are earning mean something. They mean something because the University has a powerful and hard-earned brand of academic excellence. As students, it is in our interest to protect this brand because it ensures the value of our degrees and the number of doors they can open for us in the future. This is a time for students to show the state of Texas what we’re made of and what we want from our education. We are the thinkers and do-ers and leaders of tomorrow. We will not let fringe groups test their ideas on our University. I encourage my fellow students to stand up and voice their opinions to those who seek to undermine our educations. Check out resources like texaseducationexcellence.org and The Daily Texan to stay updated and get involved. When we cross the stage at graduation, I want us all to be able to say, “My degree matters.”

Butler is Student Body President.