What the Roman emperor Augustus can teach us about changing higher education at UT-Austin

Jennifer Ebbeler

Editor’s Note: This column is the first in a series by associate classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler on the changing nature of higher education at UT-Austin and other institutions. Look for Prof. Ebbeler’s column in the Opinion section of this paper every other Wednesday. 

The personal motto of the Roman emperor Augustus — Festina lente, “make haste slowly” — is an apt adage for those who are making important decisions about the future of public higher education. The choices that are made over the next 12 to 18 months will have long-term consequences for universities, as well as for students and faculty. There is little question that we are in the early days of a new era in public higher education — in Texas and around the country. 

This era of austerity is defined in Texas by decreased state support, stagnant tuition rates and serious pressures to slash instructional and operating budgets while maintaining the high quality of an education at a public research university. The fiscal model of the 20th-century UT is broken, yet it’s not apparent what a 21st-century UT should look like. The challenges are real and daunting, but this is also a time of great opportunity, particularly in the area of student instruction. The University is working hard and imaginatively to address the fiscal challenges without losing sight of its highest priority: making available the high quality, affordable education that UT Austin students expect and deserve.

To achieve this goal, we need to move forward quickly but also strategically. As we do so, the education of our students must be at the heart of this 21st-century UT. Various forms of educational technology — i>clickers and other student response systems, lecture capture technology, discussion boards, chat tools, smartphone apps designed to instill and reinforce good learning habits, Google Hangout for virtual office hours, etc. — will unquestionably play a central role in this re-imagined UT. Both online and on-site blended courses are likely to play an even more prominent role than they currently do in the education of both current and future UT students. President William Powers Jr. highlighted this point in his recent paper on technology-enhanced education. A central focus of the paper was the role that faculty would play in the development of a well-designed and fiscally sustainable curriculum of courses. Indeed, faculty ought to and will contribute to the project of charting and implementing this innovative model of higher education at a public research university.

As Powers pointed out, students will be indispensable partners to faculty as we work to develop these new courses. We faculty depend a lot on the feedback we receive from our students: Did we do a good job of clearly explaining our learning objectives? Did we provide enough structure and guidance for you to accomplish those objectives? What could we have done better? While we hope that our courses are fun, our primary objective is improving student learning. 

Substantial changes in the ways that students take classes and demonstrate learning will be at the center of the re-imagined UT. For this reason, it is essential that students take an interest in the conversation, become informed about the stakes of the debate and make their experiences heard. Students’ experiences in the classroom — both physical and virtual, both good and bad — will help faculty make decisions about the design of their courses and will also help the University make decisions about where it makes the most sense to invest limited resources. 

For this transformation to be successful, we need everyone — administrators, faculty, and students — to have a voice.

Over the course of the semester, I will be putting a spotlight on a handful of courses around campus that exemplify the qualities of sound pedagogy combined with innovation. These will be pioneering courses, where we can catch a glimpse of the future of student instruction. Some of these courses will make use of educational technologies to re-imagine the function of the class meeting. I will be visiting classes, interviewing course instructors and soliciting feedback from their students. If we can start to see what already works on campus, with close attention to the student perspective, it will be that much easier to design high-quality courses that meet the needs of our current and future students.

Ebbeler is an associate professor in the department of classics from Claremont, Calif. Follow Ebbeler on Twitter @jenebbeler.