Clouds Over Campus

With less funding, more competition, and a wavering vision, UT-Austin faces an uncertain future

Clouds Over Campus
by Jason Stout/John Anderson

The landscape of higher education is changing in Texas. More research universities and changing academic priorities mean the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin faces new competition for research dollars, while state contributions decrease. Whatever the inevitable changes, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa insisted recently, "Nobody is going to turn our back on the educational mission, because that's our primary responsibility." At the same time, he said, "UT-Austin is having to make some difficult choices, and those decisions are best made on the campus."

Unfortunately, at the moment no one on campus appears to have a clear vision of what the state wants or needs from its flagship university. House Higher Education Committee member Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said: "I would love to tell you that there's some consensus there. I don't know we've had that direct a conversation." The problem, she said, is that "UT means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and those things can vary depending on where you live." As for Cigarroa's belief that all these changes can be made without undermining the "primary mission" – teaching – Howard said, "There's a real quandary about how we're going to do that."

The recent shifts all started with the Texas Legislature, which last session made higher education a priority. The Senate finally established a Higher Education Committee (previously it had been a subcommittee under Educa­tion). The top 10% rule, whereby state universities must accept anyone in the top 10th of their graduating class at any Texas high school, became the top 8% – only for UT-Austin. There were attempts to set new controls on spiraling tuition costs, and extra money was designated for student financial aid. More recently, Cigarroa has announced that he intends to work with the UT System's six medical facilities to ensure they are ready for, and will benefit from, federal health care reform. However, statewide and long-term, the biggest ramifications may come from House Bill 51 – and its goal to increase the state's number of Tier One universities (unofficially, those ranked nationally among the first 50 or 60 major research institutions).

Currently there are three Texas universities generally classified as Tier One: UT-Austin and Texas A&M, among public institutions, and Rice, a private school. The Texas Higher Educa­tion Coordinating Board has designated seven state institutions as "emerging research universities": UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas, UT-El Paso, UT-San Antonio, Texas Tech, the Univer­sity of Houston, and the University of North Texas. The plan, over time, is to upgrade all of them to major research centers.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa

But the Legislature didn't enact HB 51 just because it wanted more Nobel Prizes in the trophy cabinet. According to Howard, it's at least in part due to a stark economic reality facing Texas. She explained: "The jobs of the future, the economy of the future, are going to be driven by the marriage of research in academia and entrepreneurship in emerging technology. We can't just rely on oil or gas or cattle any longer."

It's no secret that higher education in Texas is not a level playing field. Financially, UT-Austin is at the top of the slope: As part of the UT System and along with A&M, it has access to major cash supplies such as the Permanent University Fund that are not available to other state institutions. On the other hand, Cigarroa was also quite clear that he expects more from UT-Austin than he does from smaller, less research-centered campuses like UT-Brownsville. Yet what happens to that culture of expectations if, say, UT-San Antonio becomes serious competition? And what happens to UT-Austin if it's no longer the biggest dog in the yard?

The Scholarly Bottom Line

That's not a problem UT will face overnight or arguably in the next decade. The second-tier universities must overcome many hurdles to become Tier One campuses – the first being that there is in fact no such thing as Tier One status. While the term is regularly bandied around by policymakers, it never appears in HB 51 because there is no strict national or even regional definition. The consensus is that it's about research. Beyond that, there are no clear guidelines for what a Tier One university should look like. Howard said, "The difficulty is, do we want every university in our state to be the same and to offer the same programs and to have the same emphasis on every aspect of programming?"

A bigger problem is that while there is general support for the idea of adding new research centers, there are few resources to do so. To reach the goal, for example, of $100 million to $150 million in research cash for each of the seven emerging research campuses would take a vast and long-term cash commitment from both businesses and the state, and that kind of money has historically been in short supply. The main reason the state passed tuition deregulation in 2003, said Howard, was to "pass the funding burden on to the universities," and they can't deregulate twice. As for raising fees, while Cigarroa has claimed that he has heard no complaints about the most recently approved 4% tuition increase, families are already struggling to find the roughly $5,000 per semester in tuition UT-Austin requires. That raises serious questions about value for money: With a 78% six-year graduation rate in 2007, UT-Austin and A&M lead the field among Texas universities. But they lag severely behind UCLA (90%), MIT (93%), and Notre Dame (96%) – all institutions UT would like to consider its peers.

As for the state's contribution to the university budget, that's plummeted from around 40% of the total annual budget in the mid-1990s to only 14% today. For all the endless Capitol griping about federal interference, that puts the state's contribution barely ahead of the federal component – currently around 12%. Forget any incipient new cash: Courtesy of Texas' ineptly constructed (and recently deconstructed) tax system, the Lege faces an $18 billion deficit next session. Universities are as likely to have their general revenue budgets cut as much as any other state agency, and the impact could have a disproportionate effect on some academic disciplines. It's simple economics: Schools like science and engineering derive a larger proportion of their income from research and federal funding than do the liberal arts, broadly defined.

Rep. Donna Howard
Rep. Donna Howard (Photo by John Anderson)

With a fixed or shrinking budget, academic priorities will become a hotly contested issue. So while Center for Public Policy Priorities Executive Director Scott McCown says he supports some expansion of research institutions, he argues that any money might be better spent invested in broader job creation and training through two-year community colleges. Unfortunately, he added: "The state doesn't have the fiscal capacity to do [either]. Until it solves that problem, everything else is just talk."

Not only will there be no future windfalls, but UT-Austin recently announced major cuts to both administrative and teaching budgets. Less than eight months after signing what he called a balanced budget, in January Gov. Rick Perry requested that all state agencies find 5% savings in their general revenue expenditure. The UT System prepared a list of $176 million in savings over the biennium from across its 15 institutions, with UT-Austin shouldering about one-sixth of that burden. On May 10, President Bill Powers announced that the proposal will become a cost-cutting reality, with departments having to find a total of $14.6 million a year in savings.

Under this new proposal, 83% of the cuts will come from the administration and the rest from academics and estimated fringe benefits. By absorbing the bulk of the cuts into administration, the plan is that departments will only have to find 0.2% savings. While that might sound easy, that means Liberal Arts will need to save $193,735, while Natural Sciences will be looking for a massive $231,182. As for those administration cuts, UT-Austin has already lost 125 positions in the last year: When these cuts are implemented, that number will be closer to 200, and there are real questions about the long-term impact of losing skilled support staff in essential areas like information technology.

With the state deficit looming, UT-Austin's Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty also wants departments to prepare for potentially greater future cuts. This time, Perry asked state agencies to find a 5% reduction in their general revenue spending. If departments really want to prepare for the future, Hegarty said, the question they must ask themselves is, "If you had to cut 10 percent, what would it be like?"

What the administration has handed down is just numbers: It's going to be up to the individual deans to make the final decisions on what services or staff they slash from their budgets. Hegarty suggested that the best savings will come from stretching further what the university has in hand. He said: "The deans have really gotten into the analytics of how they are using their resources, like what are the semester credit hours produced in a given class? That way," he added, "You can really identify the classes that only have a handful of students. ... If you're going to cut anything, that's the kind of thing that you cut and then redeploy the faculty member to something that attracts more students." When the decisions are made, he said, "The last reductions that will be made are the ones that affect students in the classroom directly."

UT Chief
Financial Officer 
Kevin Hegarty
UT Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty (Photo by John Anderson)

Unfortunately, classroom cuts have already been made. Even before this latest round of cuts, there had already been an impact on course offerings, driven by financial pressures. For one telling example, even though it is the third most commonly spoken language in Texas, Vietnamese will no longer be offered to undergraduates: Budgetary pressures have made it untenable for the Department of Asian Studies to continue the courses, so the program was canceled (see "Putting the 'UT' in 'Cut,'" April 16). At the time, department Chair Joel Brereton explained that his department in general and Vietnamese in particular had always been underfunded. With only one dedicated lecturer and no higher division courses provided, it was a case of cutting his losses and dumping a language course he would rather expand.

Balancing Acts

What may be most surprising is that even with these cuts trickling down to the departments, Powers has recommitted to his proposal to establish a 2% merit pay raise pool. This means that while some staff will be facing the axe, others will get a pay raise. The declared purpose of this policy is to attract and retain the kind of top-flight researchers on which UT-Austin has built its Tier One reputation. Even before the latest announcement, Texas State Employ­ees Union Vice President Mike Gross warned that this inevitably means sacrificing lecturing jobs to attract researchers. He said, "From our perspective, it looks like they're waiting for the smoke to clear or for the problem to have a lower profile, but it doesn't look like [UT-Aus­tin has] changed direction in any serious way."

There's always a balancing act: At a simple level, lecturers don't research, and researchers don't lecture. While Cigarroa has said that he hopes to see more professors in the undergraduate classroom filling the contact hours traditionally provided by lecturers, tutors, and adjuncts, faculty who were hired to do research may not be so interested in nor suited to teaching undergraduate classes. That classroom/lab divide is clearly shown in the current search for a director for the School of Jour­nal­ism. The school is partially a practical skills instruction for young journalists and partially a research facility for communications theorists. There are two very different finalists for the directorship: Linda Steiner, direc­tor of research and doctoral studies at the University of Mary­land's School of Journalism, and Glenn Frankel, a 27-year veteran of The Washington Post. It was a third candidate, San Antonio Express-News Editor Robert Rivard, who revealed the extent of the tension. In his letter of withdrawal, he wrote that the faculty is "deeply divided [over] whether the next director should come from a newsroom or within academia."

Yet even while UT-Austin is cutting staff and graduate positions, it's also going on a building spree. On March 25, the College of Commun­i­cation broke ground on the $50 million Belo Center for New Media. In 2011, the College of Liberal Arts will start construction on its $100 million new home on the East Mall. "We've also got donor money to go ahead with a new Computer Science complex," said Hegarty.

It's another balancing act: Take out bonds now to build the facilities that are desperately needed, or wait in hopes of an economic uptick before the buildings fall down. However, deferred maintenance can only be deferred so long. Hegarty called Taylor Hall, the Computer Science Department's current home, "one of our worst buildings on campus" and described the ROTC building that will be replaced by the Liberal Arts building as "terrible." Since no one expects universities to be awash with cash any time soon, the decision has been to spend a lot of money now rather than even more later. For example, by taking advantage of the current slump in construction costs, Liberal Arts hopes to shave $5 million off its expenses on the new building. However, even after savings and donations, that still means issuing up to $68 million in bonds. That may sound like a major investment, but there are too many aging and unsuitable buildings to ignore. Hegarty explained: "You can only deny it for so long. You either have to get to it or just board it up and shut it down."

The pressure on facilities isn't just age but also increasing demand. While UT-Austin's total fall enrollment has fluctuated around the 50,000 mark over the last five years, students are facing creeping increases in courseload demands. The average workload rose from 12.09 credit hours per semester in 2002 to 13.33 hours in 2008. In part that's because UT-Austin is providing more remedial courses, to bring incoming freshmen up to the minimum standards required to begin their undergraduate studies (basically, backfilling the educational gaps left by the state's ailing high school system). The recent legislative adoption of a college or career readiness standard for high schools is designed to alleviate that pressure, but that will take years to have much effect. On top of that, currently enrolled students are mandated to take more out-of-department credit hours, known as "service courses," than ever before. On the other hand, those courses may not be a top priority for a department that is also being pressured to become a research center. Hegarty said, "If we're not careful, we don't necessarily incent departments to provide service courses, but just to provide courses that directly relate to their majors."

No School Is an Island

In coordination with the anticipated statewide changes, Cigarroa stressed that universities need to have strong community relations. The problem for UT-Austin is that, historically, it's often as though Austin and Travis County stop at the border of the Forty Acres – creating yet another balancing act. UT-Austin attracts students from all around the state and researchers from around the world – yet it's also the local college for tens of thousands of Central Texas students. When the Legislature introduced the top 10% restriction for UT-Austin last session, it was because 81% of the freshman class had been admitted under that rule, compared to 54% at A&M. The aim was to leave open more admissions opportunities for non-top 10% students from around the state. The concern now is that the change hurts Austin families by restricting access to the nearest state university. As Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, told her colleagues last session, they shouldn't punish high-achieving Aus­tin kids just because seniors from Dallas don't want to move to College Station. Howard shared her fellow Travis County delegate's concerns and noted that, whatever the state's plans, they must remember that "it's our main regional university."

If the plan is that communities will become advocates for their local university, then this couldn't have come at a worse time for UT-Austin. Relations with the community and local alumni have been stretched to a breaking point over the closure of the Cactus Cafe and discontinuation of the informal classes program, both historically core parts of UT-Austin's community outreach. A minor national media scandal erupted when former UT law professor Thomas Russell published an academic paper noting that Simkins Hall Dorm on the UT-Austin campus is actually named after Ku Klux Klansman William Stewart Simkins. UT-Austin characteristically made the problem worse by ignoring requests to consider changing the name. Meanwhile, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs unexpectedly raised its national profile by becoming part of the scandal over the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia, in which 29 miners were killed. The holder of the school's Centennial Chair in National Policy, retired Adm. Bobby Inman, is being sued by various shareholder groups as a director of mine owners Massey Energy. Inman's early public response was largely belligerent defense of Massey and its beleaguered CEO, Don Blankenship. More recently, the company hired Austin-based spin doctors Public Strategies, a PR firm which employs as vice chairman Inman's fellow LBJ lecturer Mark McKinnon. Inman hasn't helped his case by claiming that the dozens of safety violations recorded at the mine by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had nothing to do with the disaster – while advising outsiders to wait for the full investigation before jumping to conclusions. The closest he has come to criticism is to call Blankenship "tone deaf, politically."

Alas, that's a charge often leveled at UT-Austin itself. In part that comes from the long-established state tradition of Austin-bashing, an out-of-towner reflex that will only make it harder for UT to make its case in the next session. Howard said: "People love to talk about all the bad things that happen in Austin, meaning anything that comes out of government. In some ways, UT falls into that same trap and is perceived as the big university that gets all the funding and shouldn't have any wants or needs or complaints."

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