President Powers steers UT in new directions

Francis D. Fisher

While you were away from Austin this summer, President William Powers Jr. set new goals for UT. He shifted from seeking money to finance the ever-escalating cost of college in the pattern of the past and explained to us that UT must change itself to make college affordable in the future.

Remarkably, Powers effected this reorientation amid belt-tightening made necessary by the recession and the state balanced-budget requirement. While the recession concentrated attention on fiscal matters, Powers’ redirection does much more than shave costs from doing things in old ways.

The underlying problem, of course, is that higher education is labor-intensive, and since the invention of the book and movable type, it has not found ways to add capital to improve productivity. Historically, we have raised salaries to match what is paid beyond our ivy walls where productivity has increased. The resulting ever-escalating costs of higher education are unsustainable, and it seems we have reached the limits of what the Legislature and families can pay.

While the Legislature will support larger enrollments due to a growing Texas population and the greater rate at which Texans attend college, it will no longer pay more to teach the present college population with present methods just because productivity has increased elsewhere. Families, too, have reached the limits of what they can pay. Today, it costs about one-fourth of median family income to send one Texas resident to a four-year public university for one year. We risk limiting higher education to the rich.

The shift in Powers’ thinking from more state aid and higher tuition to changes in the form of college is dramatic. In his 2008 Report on Tuition, Powers sought to justify increases in tuition and state support because, as he reported, the costs of instruction at UT since 1990 had risen at an annual rate of 2.8 percent, after adjusting for inflation.

Now, the reality that real costs cannot continue to increase at that rate (doubling in the next 25 years) has sunk in. Powers concludes that changes must be made in at least in three areas: entering students must know more college material, technology can increase productivity of learning and success should be measured by outputs.

The Commission of 125, a group comprised largely of alumni, said in its 2004 report that “university-level curricula” should be learned at the University. Course requirements, it advised, should not “be easily satisfied through advanced-placement examinations.” And the Task Force on Curricular Reform, which Powers led while dean of the School of Law, echoed this dim view of learning college material in high school. It recommended establishing “limits on the number of examination and transfer credits that can be counted toward graduation.” Now, to condense learning and to move more rapidly to a degree, at less cost to students and the state, Powers proposes considering a three-year degree, with AP accomplishment to help achieve it.

In his important speech this summer, Powers cited the use of new information technologies “to support learning inside and outside the classroom.” UT has initiated course redesign programs for introductory courses in chemistry, biology and statistics “to shift the emphasis from traditional teaching methods to more innovative and effective student-centered learning.” Powers announced a partnership with Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities “to use advanced instructional technology and interactive tools to develop free educational materials and online interactive tutors.”

In his speech, Powers called for judging education by outputs, such as the number of degrees granted in a set number of years. This represents a healthy shift from earlier attention to inputs such as the student-faculty ratio, a perverse measure of productivity. While reducing a lecture class from 200 to 100 greatly affects the student-faculty ratio, it does nothing to increase student-faculty contact. In his speech, Powers also praised the new first-year signature courses, small classes taught by established faculty, as an important innovation designed to assure that every student has a small class, where a member of the faculty will know him or her well enough to give advice and write a letter of recommendation.

Fisher is a senior research fellow in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.