Powers: UT System administration should give clearer academic goals to UT campuses

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A state senator said the UT System chancellor did not defend UT-Austin during last spring’s higher education controversy in which faculty productivity came under fire. President William Powers Jr. suggested the UT System Board of Regents should stick to policy-making instead of micro-managing campuses.

The state Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency met with the presidents and chancellors of the state university systems for its third meeting on Friday. The committee formed this spring following controversy surrounding a conservative think tank’s Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education.

Part of the controversy included questions surrounding Rick O’Donnell, the former UT System special adviser whose job was terminated shortly after being hired. Public criticism increased about O’Donnell’s productivity objectives and the creation of his job position, which appeared to undermine the role of the UT System Chancellor.

President Powers said the UT System approached productivity goals in a manner that unnecessarily criticized University faculty and made faculties across the country feel under attack. He said the UT System should have asked faculty to help in efforts to improve productivity.

“The rhetoric and literature was putting the blame on faculty, lazy faculty and we know these people — they’re hardworking,” Powers said.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, committee co-chair, commended Powers for defending UT-Austin’s faculty throughout the course of the controversy even though it was rumored that he might be fired.

“You were criticized,” Zaffirini said. “Anytime you open your mouth, it seems you are criticized.”

Zaffirini turned her questions to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, whose job was also rumored to be at-risk during the height of controversy.

“You didn’t defend UT,” Zaffirini said. “Why not?”

Cigarroa said he decided not to voice as much concern after talking to the regents’ chairman who originally hired O’Donnell. Individual board members requested productivity information about faculty at each of the UT campuses.

Cigarroa said productivity information did not go through his office and instead went directly through the regents’ office, which caused him difficulties in carrying out his job.

Cigarroa said he personally spoke at the regents’ meetings about his concerns, that they were “leaning towards micromanaging.”

“In my voice, I spoke out to the best of my abilities,” Cigarroa said.

Cigarroa said since he presented his Framework for Excellence Action Plan at the end of August, he has been more vocal about his goals for the UT institutions.

“I’ve actually been encouraged by the chairman to write op-eds,” Cigarroa said.

Powers said big policy decisions, like the productivity information requests, should be made by the entire Board of Regents and not individual board members. Powers said the System should promote bottom-up innovation so campus faculty actively improve teaching and research goals instead of UT System administrators.

“Innovation very rarely comes from the top,” Powers said.

Powers said as Texas higher education moves past the controversy, it is important that UT-Austin faculty is not pitted against the UT System administration.

He said the UT System administration should give clearer academic goals to each of the UT campuses instead of a multitude of ever-changing goals.

“Zigging and zagging is a real obstacle to improvements on campuses,” Powers said.

The UT System wants to improve four-year graduation rates and faculty productivity, but the System has not decided what measurements the campuses should use to measure these broad goals. Powers said the measurements in Cigarroa’s Framework for Excellence Action Plan are not adequate measurements of UT-Austin faculty because it leaves out significant achievements like becoming a member of the National Science Foundation.

Powers said as the UT System bases more policy on productivity measurements they should follow the method of tailors and “measure twice, cut once.”

Printed on Monday, November 21, 2011 as: Committee addresses productivity controversy