Problem at the top

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Recent discussions and criticisms of the Board of Regents have largely centered on the role of the board in relation to universities. But perhaps it’s time to take a step back and examine the role of an equally important entity: the UT System.

The UT System is made up of nine universities and six health institutions, bound together by the words “University of Texas,” a nine-story headquarters in downtown Austin and not much else.

Student populations range from 4,000 to 51,000. At UT-Brownsville, about 48 percent of students receive Pell Grants and about 66 percent are part time, while at UT-Austin, about 21 percent of students receive Pell Grants and only 7 percent are part time, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Almanac. Only UT-Arlington and UT-San Antonio play in the same athletic conference — the Southland Conference — though, UT-Dallas and UT-Permian Basin both had high schools from their city play in the final game in Friday Night Lights.

The same hodgepodge arrangements of institutions persist at the five other state public university systems. And that’s not even getting into the medical institutions.

At last month’s legislative hearing on higher education that dealt primarily with governance, Aims McGuinness Jr., a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, testified before committee members about the challenges that face a consolidated system board.

McGuinness said one challenge is the tendency for regents to focus on the flagship at the exclusion of the other institutions, typically because many regents tend to be graduates of the flagship. The University of Houston-Victoria tried to get a bill passed in the last legislative session that would have moved them to the Texas A&M University System because some felt the University of Houston System was too focused on the needs of its main campus, according to The Texas Tribune. Eight of the 10 UT System regents are Longhorns.

Other challenges McGuinness listed include a propensity for micromanagement, an advocacy for a one-size-fits-all policy and a difficulty in determining the needed amount of oversight.

The stability of any entity lies in part to a clear delineation of roles among the members of the organization. The broadness of institutions in a university system such as UT’s lends itself to a structural confusion, which can allow for controversies such as last year’s to happen.

One possible remedy is to restructure the higher education governing system by grouping together similar institutions. UT and Texas A&M, along with aspiring-tier one institutions could be lumped together in a single system that is dedicated to pursuing the large, public research university of the future. This is the model used by higher education institutions in California, where then a second system would be comprised of universities dedicated to teaching and a third system would be community colleges.

The restructuring would better define roles of university systems, their administrators and their regents. It would also provide a better framework for cross-university collaborations, as institutions would have much more in common with each other.

However, there are multiple drawbacks to this new type of structure. One major issue is funding. Return on investments are much easier to quantify for research universities, and during tough economic times, legislatures may choose to simply appropriate money based on that.

To an extent, the value of a degree from an institution is pre-judged by people. Explicitly tiering, or labeling some degrees as more valuable than others, further accentuates the gap between institutions. It creates JV and varsity universities of the state and allows us to take the easy way out by judging a person’s degree rather than a person’s education.

Restructuring higher education governance would require legislative action and would put an end to more than 100 years of tradition. But a quest for the best way to serve students in Texas public universities needs to continue.

— Shabab Siddiqui for the editorial board

Printed on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 as: Problem at the top