A 'Culture of Excellence' at UT Inc.

The Commission of 125 report calls for a first-class (and blue-chip) university

Commission of 125 Chair Kenneth Jastrow II (l) presents the report to UT President Larry Faulkner.
Commission of 125 Chair Kenneth Jastrow II (l) presents the report to UT President Larry Faulkner. (Photo By John Anderson)

"A disciplined culture of excellence" – that's how the 218 Texans on the confusingly named Commission of 125 described their vision for the University of Texas in a report released with great fanfare (courtesy of the UT Wind Ensemble) in a presentation ceremony on the South Mall last week.

UT President Larry Faulkner appointed the commission in 2002 to honor the 125th anniversary of the Texas Constitution (hence the name); its job was to help UT meet its constitutional directive to be a "university of the first class." Currently, UT is ranked 46th overall and 14th among public institutions by U.S. News & World Report. But before your Longhorns start to droop, fear not: The commission has laid out a dramatic plan to turn things around. "These are complex, difficult, yet crucial structural changes to the University of Texas," said commission Chair Kenneth M. Jastrow II, the chairman and CEO of Temple-Inland. "Even though this is a great place, there is more that can be done."

While the language of the report is somewhat vague – the commission leaves implementation up to the university – it nevertheless paints a picture of an institution that is more centralized and hierarchical, where goals of "excellence" are pursued through "accountability," and where a centrally planned "core body of knowledge" replaces the "a la carte menu" to which many undergrads currently help themselves. It's a picture that seems well in tune with the business background of many of the commission's members, but one that also raises serious concerns for some professors.

The report defines two main "strategic initiatives." First, the university should develop a new core curriculum for all undergrads: one that includes the humanities, science, ethics, and leadership, as well as skills in research, writing, and teamwork. To many, this sounds smart. "The last time they did this it was 1981," said Archie Holmes Jr. an engineering professor who serves on the UT Faculty Council. "Given that the world is so different, I think the whole idea of reviewing what the university teaches its students is a good idea."

But the initiative includes language that some find troublesome, such as the need to correct a "lack of exposure to the great books of civilization," and the need to abandon the "fully comprehensive" model the university pursued "during the 20th century." That, according to the report, means axing "outdated" or "underperforming" departments that are not ranked in the Top 20 nationwide. "Curriculum becomes a budget issue, and there are not unlimited funds," said Jastrow. "We need to look at areas that do not meet standards of excellence, and not try to be all things to all people."

English professor Mia Carter – who served on one of the commission's advisory committees (which involved going to one meeting) – wonders what that means for programs like women's studies, Mexican-American studies, or medieval studies, that due to their small size or narrow academic focus (or political unpopularity) would seem likely candidates for culling. "This ranking system is too market-driven, too corporate-sounding," she said. "The notion that every 'program' on campus should 'at least' rank in the Top 20 is absurd. There are certainly other standards of assessment and other measurements of value that need to be taken into account."

In addition, she wonders whether abandoning a broad vision in favor of a model focusing on specific areas of excellence (a model that, when combined with "great books"-style language, sounds to Carter a lot like "Harvard in the 1940s") is really the best way to build on UT's strengths as a large, public institution. "Most of my very best students have at least three majors," she said. "I would hate to have to see students lose those kinds of opportunities to explore, discover, make, and find themselves; that is exactly what makes UT students so wonderful to have in the classroom – that creative, dynamic sense of invention and discovery."

A market-driven approach is evident also in the second strategic initiative, which would transform the role of department chair, which is currently a position professors fill for a few years while simultaneously teaching and doing their own research. Instead, the report says it should be a dedicated, long-term position; chairs could be recruited from outside the university and would enjoy much greater power and resources than current chairs enjoy. While this would make it easier for the administration to hold chairs individually accountable for their departments' excellence, Department of American Studies Chair Janet Davis believes it would create unnecessary distance between chairs and their departments. "There's energy that comes from the synthesis of teaching, research, and administrative duties," she said. "I think there would be enormous resistance to the kinds of changes they're suggesting."

Resistance is also likely to the report's call for abandoning the state policy granting automatic UT admission to all Texas high schoolers in the top 10% of their classes – although that issue will be fought out in the Legislature. On the other hand, many of the report's recommendations will no doubt enjoy wide welcome; Carter, for example, praised such recommendations as greater support for libraries and graduate students, and decreasing student-faculty ratios.

"I do think that great changes can come out of this Commission of 125 report," she said. "I just hope that they are visionary and forward-thinking, big and bold, future-oriented goals, rather than ideas that are based on some notion of a once-glorious past."

But like the Bush administration's calls to privatize the social safety net by calling it the 21st-century thing to do, the question of who is looking backward and who is looking forward – as well as whose vision ultimately wins out – is sure to be quite a debate. This is, after all, a university.

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University of Texas, UT, Commission of 125, Larry Faulkner, Kenneth Jastrow, core curriculum, Top 10%, Mia Carter, Janet Davis

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