To improve student-faculty ratio, UT must hire more faculty for less

Alberto A. Martinez

One reason why Harvard University constantly excels as a top university is its low student-faculty ratio. Remarkably, for each professor at Harvard, there are only about seven students. Those students therefore benefit from close learning interactions and mentorship from expert educators and researchers. Seventy-five percent of classes at Harvard have fewer than 20 students. 

The student-faculty ratio at Princeton University is 6:1. The ratio at the University of Pennsylvania is about the same. The ratio at Caltech is 3:1. At the University of Virginia, it is 16:1. At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, it is 15:1.

How does UT Austin compare? Back in 2001, the ratio of students to faculty at UT Austin was 21:1. This proportion left much to be desired, so UT’s president, Larry Faulkner, announced a plan to add 300 tenured and tenure-track faculty to our University. Faulkner’s goal was to enhance education at UT by lowering our student-faculty ratio to 16:1. 

In 2006, UT’s new president, William Powers Jr., in his inaugural address, emphasized the importance of fulfilling Faulkner’s initiative. Moreover, Powers set a higher goal: to eventually reach 445 new faculty positions.  

So where are we now? 

At the start of the academic year 2014-2015, UT Austin had 2,462 full-time equivalent teaching faculty, that is, 435 more than when Faulkner began his initiative 14 years ago. So it almost sounds as if we reached our presidents’ goals. But unfortunately, that’s not the case, because our student population has also grown.   

To calculate student-faculty ratios, we divide “student full-time equivalents” by “faculty full -time teaching equivalents.” (It’s not enough to just divide student headcounts by faculty because some students are only enrolled part- time, and some faculty do not teach full-time.)

As of September 2014, UT Austin has 45,720 student full-time equivalents. Therefore, our student-faculty ratio is now 18.6:1. We have almost reached midway from the goal that we had hoped to reach by 2010.

That goal was reified in 2002 by the Commission of 125, a wisely convened group of 218 distinguished members, who earnestly sought to fulfill the mandate of the Texas Constitution of 1876 and establish “a university of the first class.” The Commission labored for two years to systematically evaluate UT Austin’s entire curriculum. Finally, their No. 1 recommendation was to “reduce the undergraduate student-faculty ratio to 16:1.” 

They rightly concluded: “The quality of education the Commission seeks for UT students can be achieved only if there is a direct and meaningful engagement between students and professors. Such engagement is essential if we are to prepare students for an increasingly complex world. The student-faculty ratio is an important and traditional measure of a quality undergraduate education.” 

Naturally, it was not sufficient to simply hire more instructors, because if enrollments also grew, then our student-faculty ratio might not be improved. Therefore, the Commission added another goal: “Decreasing the student-faculty ratio will require reducing enrollment while also expanding the faculty. But the latter objective must not undermine the University’s commitment to recruit and hire new tenure-track professors of the highest quality.” 

This issue has now been raised in Faculty Council. Our likely next president, Gregory Fenves, will face this challenge: How can we fulfill the important goals set by the Commission of 125 and by our past two presidents? 

My recommendation will be that instead of hiring a few new faculty members at ever-higher salaries, UT should hire more quality faculty at moderate salaries. 

Martínez is an associate professor in the Department of History.