UT System

UT System Chancellor William McRaven, center, and Daniel Sharphorn, General Counsel and Vice Chancellor for the UT System, right, met with the Board of Regents on Monday morning to discuss Regent Wallace Hall's document request. The board voted to file a brief with the Texas Attorney General's Office regarding the request.

Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

Updated (3:34 p.m.): In a brief submitted on behalf of Chancellor William McRaven and the UT System Board of Regents, lawyers for the System asked the Attorney General to dismiss Regent Wallace Hall’s request for advice on Hall's disputed right to request thousands of admissions-related documents.

The nine-page brief comes after a two-hour meeting this morning when the Regents met with the Chancellor and the System’s legal advisers to determine their position on Hall’s request.

In the brief, Daniel Sharphorn, vice chancellor and general counsel for the UT System, and Francie Frederick, general counsel to the Board, argue that Hall did not have standing to seek formal advice from AG Ken Paxton in the first place.

“We respectfully suggest that the Attorney General consider the following...the request is not properly presented for formal advice from the Attorney General,” they wrote. “An individual Regent is not authorized to seek an opinion of the Attorney General in his official capacity without the consent of the Board, nor may an individual Regent be represented in his official capacity by private counsel. In addition, the Attorney General generally declines fact-finding and answering hypothetical questions, both of which would be required in answering the questions presented.”

Even if Paxton did agree to provide Hall advice, Hall’s requests for thousands of documents used in the admissions investigation should still be denied, they wrote.

“A Regent’s access to information is not ‘unfettered,’” Sharphorn and Frederick wrote. “Given the potential volume of a request for information by an individual member of the Board and the impact on workload priorities, it is inherently reasonable that the Regents’ Rules provide checks and balances.”

To read the full brief from Sharphorn and Frederick, scroll to the bottom of the story.

Original story: After more than two hours in executive session, the UT System Board of Regents voted to file a brief with the Texas Attorney General’s Office relating to Regent Wallace Hall's search for documents about UT-Austin admissions. UT System Chancellor William McRaven said the brief will be filed later today but declined to elaborate on its contents. 

Although the brief will address Hall’s appeal to Attorney General Ken Paxton for assistance in obtaining access to thousands of documents Kroll Associates, Inc. used in its independent investigation of UT-Austin admissions practices, board members also declined to address what the brief’s specific focus will be. The board voted to file the brief by a unanimous vote of eight, with Hall abstaining.

After the board reconvened in open session, Regent Alex Cranberg indicated the System brief will likely outline reasons Hall should not be granted the documents.

“I certainly feel it’s very important to express the need for individual regents to have [the] capacity to ask hard questions, even as the majority of the board might feel uncomfortable, but I don’t think this response suggests that the regents don’t have that capacity,” Cranberg said. “[I believe the response suggests] merely that there might be some limits placed on what a regent might reasonably ask for.”

Cranberg also alluded to concerns that some of the documents Hall is requesting might contain personal student information, protected under federal privacy laws.

“If anyone is asking, in effect, for the System to violate federal law, that should not be allowed to occur,” Cranberg said.

Hall began asking for this round of documents in early March, after the Kroll investigation concluded that President William Powers Jr. had exerted influence in the admissions of a handful of students but had not technically broken any rules. The investigation found that administrators at the University and within the UT System held “wildly divergent” attitudes about whether considering relationships between the University and high-ranking officials is an appropriate factor in the holistic review process.

After the results of the investigation were released, McRaven declined to take punitive action, although he said he would like to see admissions policies clarified going forward.

“There are a lot of thing we could do better, but, at the end of the day, no willful misconduct [occurred], and I found no criminal activity, and, therefore, I intend to take no disciplinary action,” McRaven said in February.

When Hall asked for the documents Kroll had used in the investigation, three regents, including Hall himself, voted to allow him access. Under Regent Rule 19801, “Policy on Transparency, Accountability, and Access to Information,” UT System employees must respond to information requests “without undue delay” if two or more regents vote in support of the request.

However, McRaven said Hall’s request fell under the category of “inquiry and investigation,” invoking another policy that would require a majority board vote for approval.

“I have no concerns about giving you information that is consistent with your regental needs to be better informed, i.e. how the admissions process works … that is what the board approved,” McRaven told Hall in a terse email exchange in April. “However, your twelve requests for information lead any reader to believe that you are further investigating the Kroll report, the Fisher litigation, Legislative compliance, all of which are perfectly acceptable for a board, if procedurally the majority of the board wants to undertake these new inquiries...If it is [a new inquiry], I have no problem with that, as long as the majority of the board approves.”

Hall responded by having his lawyer, Bill Aleshire, ask Paxton to address whether the board or the chancellor have the legal authority to prohibit regents from having access to copies of records they believes are necessary to fulfill regential duties.

“Regent Wallace Hall has concerns about corrupted processes at the University of Texas at Austin, most recently regarding student admissions practices,” Aleshire wrote to Paxton. “Other opinions of the Attorney General also demonstrate that a regent’s inherent right of access to [records] is not subject to the judgement of other board members (or of the Chancellor) as to whether they think the regent ‘needs’ that information.”

Read the brief the UT System counsel filed with the Attorney General's office here: 

Brief to Attorney General Ken Paxton on behalf of UT System Board of Regents and Chancellor William McRaven...

UT System Regent Wallace Hall is continuing his investigation into the University’s admission practices.
Photo Credit: Xintong Guo | Daily Texan Staff

UT System Regent Wallace Hall is appealing to the attorney general to review student information, despite UT System Chancellor William McRaven’s admonition that Hall’s requests go “well beyond any reasonable desire to be better informed as a regent.”

In a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office earlier this week, Hall’s attorney asked Paxton to intervene after McRaven denied Hall access to requested material. Hall is seeking files used in an independent investigation into admission practices at the University.

In early March, Hall asked to be provided with the documents Kroll Associates, Inc. used to review admissions. The results of the investigation, released in February, found that UT President William Powers Jr. had exerted influence in the admission of a handful of students but concluded that no formal rules were broken. 

Three regents voted to support Hall’s requests, but the Chancellor said Hall would not be given the records unless the Board authorized such access by majority vote, according to the letter Hall’s lawyer sent Paxton, first obtained by the Texas Tribune.

“The Chancellor asserted that giving Regent Hall access to the Kroll records constituted reopening the investigation of student admissions practices or involved FERPA-protected records,” the email said. “The Chancellor decided that Regent Hall did not have an ‘educational purpose’ for reviewing the Kroll records that was sufficient in the Chancellor’s opinion.”

In the email, Hall’s lawyer, Bill Aleshire, asked the attorney general to consider two questions: whether the Board of Regents can prohibit a regent from obtaining access to records the regent believes are “necessary to review to fulfill his duties as a regent,” and whether the chancellor can do to the same.

Aleshire invoked Regent Rule 19801, “Policy on Transparency, Accountability, and Access to Information,” which says that UT System employees must respond to requests for information “without undue delay.” 

“For the purpose of a Board vote on this issue, the vote of any two or more Regents in support of the request is sufficient to direct that the request will be filled without delay,” the policy says.

Barbara Holthaus, UT System assistant general counsel, said there is an exception to FERPA rules called the university official exception. Under this exception, anyone employed by the University who needs access to the confidential information to perform a job may have access. 

Holthaus said any University official seeking access must have an educational purpose, and a person’s position or title does not immediately justify a request for confidential student information. 

“In the case of a regent or a chancellor or president, as long as the access they are requiring is pursuant to a legitimate educational purpose and it’s part of their duties, then they can have access to information that is subject to FERPA,” Holthaus said. “What we know under FERPA, though, is the mere fact that you have a position such as a chancellor or a president doesn’t mean that you get access to any information that you need.” 

In another email to Hall, McRaven further attempted to explain why he did not feel Hall’s requests met those criteria.

“I have no concerns about giving you information that is consistent with your regental needs to be better informed, i.e. how the admissions process works … that is what the board approved,” McRaven wrote. “However, your twelve requests for information lead any reader to believe that you are further investigating the Kroll report, the Fisher litigation, Legislative compliance, all of which are perfectly acceptable for a board, if procedurally the majority of the board wants to undertake these new inquiries. I remain willing to meet with you and provide you information as long as that information isn’t part of an additional inquiry. If it is, I have no problem with that, as long as the majority of the board approves.”

Last week, a UT System executive vice chancellor announced he will step down from his position.

Pedro Reyes, UT System executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, will step down once a replacement is found, according to a statement released Thursday.

Reyes joined the UT System in 2003 after being a faculty member at UT-Austin since 1991. Aside from some special projects with the UT System, Reyes will return to the UT College of Education to teach full-time, according to the statement.

UT President William Powers Jr. said Reyes’ move is not surprising, considering he, himself, is planning to teach after he steps down from his position as president in June.

“I think it’s quite typical of administrators to come back to teaching — that’s what I’m going to do,” Powers said.

Wanda Mercer, associate vice chancellor of student affairs, said she knows Reyes well after working with him for the past five years.

“What I really appreciate is his dedication to students, his commitment to UT and his work ethic,” Mercer said. “There is no one that works harder than Pedro Reyes. I come in every day early to do morning workout, and he’s there by seven in the morning and seldom leaves
before six.”

Mercer said in his time at the UT System, Reyes has established a policy of helping the System universities without necessarily exerting complete control. She said this approach is unique to the UT System.

“He is just trying to provide support to the campuses without directing what they do,” Mercer said. “He is trying to help them achieve their goals.”

At a conference in March, UT System Chancellor William McRaven said, like Reyes, he supports the System universities in their own aspirations.

“I’m going to support the [University] presidents,” McRaven said. “What I learned over my years in the military is it’s not about the higher headquarters, it’s about how the higher headquarters support the individual institutions.”

Mercer said students remained Reyes’ primary focus throughout his career.

“What I think is most important is the commitment to students, trying to do what’s right for students, even at the System level,” Mercer said. “Whether he’s setting up [UT Rio Grande Valley] or leading us to establish student success efforts, at every endeavor, students are at the heart of his commitment.”

Mercer said she understands why Reyes would want to step down to return to teaching.

“The job as executive vice chancellor is very demanding, almost all-consuming, so I was quite understanding of the intention of going back to something he still loves to do that might help him achieve a little more balance in his life,” Mercer said.

In his time at the UT System, Reyes has continued to teach part-time in the College of Education. Mercer said Reyes has always been passionate about teaching.

“He’s always been teaching — he’s hardly given that up,” Mercer said. “I think he’s enjoyed his job at the System, but he truly loves teaching and research.”

The UT System Board of Regents declined to announce the candidates for the UT presidency after a closed-door session Wednesday.
Photo Credit: Graeme Hamilton | Daily Texan Staff

After seven hours in a closed-door session Wednesday, the UT System Board of Regents declined to name a president or announce the names of the finalists for the UT presidency. 

According to a UT System press release, the Board “must vote to name one or more finalists and then must wait 21 days before making an official appointment.” 

The three finalists have met with a small search committee but have not met with the Faculty Council or the System Faculty Council. 

Following the meeting Wednesday, UT System Chairman Paul Foster spoke about the leaked information regarding the candidates for the presidency. An unknown source close to the University leaked the identities of the three candidates in late February, although Foster could not confirm the leaked identities. 

The source named Greg Fenves, executive vice president and provost of UT, David Daniel, president of UT-Dallas, and Andrew Hamilton, vice chancellor of the University of Oxford in England, as candidates.

“I’m as frustrated as anybody whenever there are leaks,” Foster said. “The search committee was a broad cross section of a lot of different people, and I don’t know where the leaks came from. I certainly don’t want to point fingers at anybody; I wouldn’t even know who to point my finger at.”

Foster said despite the hushed nature, the presidential search included input from large stakeholder groups. He said even though having a large group means leaks are harder to prevent, the additional input is worth the risk.

“I think the process is a good one. I think the students, faculty, staff, they all have to be included,” Foster said. “Alumni [and] all constituencies need to be included in the process. One of the risks [is], the bigger a group gets, the more likely you are to have a leak, and that’s just something we have to deal with.”

Foster said candidates were warned that their identities could be leaked because of the high number of people involved in the search process.

Biomedical engineering senior Anuj Kudva, a member of the presidential search committee, said he felt the search was effective but that students could always benefit from more input.

“I think they handled it really well, but there could always be more student input, but I also understand where they’re coming from in terms of why they didn’t do a town hall,” Kudva said.

In the press release, UT System Chancellor William McRaven said he is happy with the outcome of the search committee’s recommendations.

“This is one of the most important decisions the Board will ever make, and it will have a tremendous impact not only on UT-Austin, but on the UT System and entire state of Texas. Therefore, I think it is in the best interest of the University for the Board and me to take a little time for consideration,” McRaven said. “And, after what we learned today from each of the candidates, I can say with great confidence that UT-Austin will be firmly poised to accelerate its strong trajectory toward preeminence.”

The UT System Neuroscience and Neurotechnology Institute will accept applications for $100,000 seed grants for human brain research.

The institute, which the UT System Board of Regents established in August 2014, will be giving up to a total $5 million to applicants in an attempt to enhance brain research, according to a statement from the UT System.

The seed grants, which are grants that go toward approved projects, will fund innovative brain research projects, according to institute director Daniel Johnston. Johnston said he is expecting around 200 applications from UT System institutions.

“The purpose of the seed grants is to allow researchers to pursue new high-risk areas of research and to form new collaborations with other scientists that might not have occurred without the seed funding,” Johnston said.

Patricia Hurn, UT System vice chancellor for research and innovation, said the institute, also known as UT Brain, will benefit from the seed grants because the researchers will be in a better position to receive federal funding.

“The really important output is that our researchers be well-positioned to compete for the national [Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN)] Initiative,” Hurn said. “To do that, they need to be not only fabulous scientists, but they need to be innovative.”

Because of decreased federal funding for neuroscience research, there will be increased national competition, according to mechanical engineering professor Dale Klein.

Although the seed grants will only be available for UT System schools, they are intended to garner competition for federal grants.

“It appears that federal funds are going to become more challenging to obtain, [and] the amount will be reduced, so the competition is going to be more challenging,” Klein said. “So this seed grant is to put people together to be more competitive for what we expect to be reduced federal funds for research.”

UT-Austin will be administering the grants in a partnership with the UT System. Applicants for the seed grants will come from departments and faculties from across the state, Klein said.

“The applicants we expect will be mainly within the UT System campuses, but they could also partner with schools outside the system,” Klein said. “Our funds will only be to the System schools. We expect it will be the neuroscience faculty or those faculty involved in that.”

President Barack Obama announced the launch of the BRAIN Initiative in April 2014. The initiative is “focused on revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain,” according to a White House statement.

“Currently, the BRAIN Initiative that President Obama is pushing is several hundreds of millions of dollars per year,” Klein said. “So what we want to do is enable our faculty to be more competitive to go after those funds.”

The UT Neuroscience and Neurotechnology Institute was founded to foster collaboration among researchers, according to Klein.

 “It really is intended to enhance communication among the faculty at both the academic and the medical health-science institutes to help focus on research needs,” Klein said.

Patrol rifles, Humvees  and a mine-resistant vehicle are among some of the military-grade equipment the UT System acquired under a U.S. Department of Defense program. Known as Section 1033, the program allows law enforcement agencies across the country, including the System police, to receive surplus military supplies from the government since 1997.

System spokeswoman Karen Adler said the program helps universities acquire supplies used by police in a cost-effective way.

“The UT System participates in the 1033 program so that we can acquire equipment necessary to protect students and staff at little or no cost to taxpayers,” Adler said.

According to Adler, the System has acquired several forms of military equipment, including rifles, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle and two Humvees over the past few years. Most of the equipment is used to fulfill policy requirements or protect police and victims in the event of an emergency, Adler said.

“The rifles acquired by the UT-Tyler police department, for example, fulfill a System policy that requires all System police officers to have access to a patrol rifle,” Adler said. “The two Humvees acquired by UT System are used by the System Rapid Response Team in the Rio Grande Valley to protect the UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American campuses and would also be deployed elsewhere in the System, if needed.”

While one of the most intimidating pieces of equipment acquired does not carry weapons, it could also be used for either police or civilian protection in an emergency or natural disaster, Adler said.

“The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, was acquired this past spring and is located at UT System’s police academy,” Adler said. “It doesn’t carry any weapons, but it would be used to provide protection to officers or victims in the event of a catastrophic armed intruder or active shooter. The vehicle also would be used to access areas devastated by a natural disaster to locate and rescue survivors.”

UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey said UTPD had not received any equipment from the 1033 program, although it is part of the System.

Adler said universities are required to provide justification for why they need certain pieces of equipment.

“The process requires law enforcement agencies to apply through the Texas Department of Public Safety and submit justification,” Adler said.

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety website, participating agencies in the program are given equipment free of charge and are prohibited from reselling or leasing the gear. They also must provide updates on the location of “tactical” gear, such as armored vehicles and weaponry. 

APD Lt. Kurt Rothert said APD has also received several items through the program, particularly military helmets and helicopter parts.

“We probably get around 400 to 500 helmets a year,” Rothert said. “They’re useful for crowd control situations, and being able to reuse items is a good use of money because, otherwise, we’d have to pay hundreds of dollars for them on the civilian market.”

Rothert said items are either transferred to other agencies or returned to the government after they have outlived their usefulness. 

Adler said all UT System officers go through a minimum of 833 hours of basic training, which reduces the possibility of any equipment misuse.

“Through training and policy, we bring to an absolute minimum any possibility that mistaken or inappropriate use of equipment could occur,” Adler said.

Cigarroa: "I knew the day would come when I would return to transplant surgery."

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who has served in the position since 2009, will resign at a specially called press conference Monday.

Cigarroa will stay in his current role until a replacement is found, after which he will become head of the pediatric transplant team at the UT-Health Science Center at San Antonio.

In an email he sent to UT System employees late Sunday evening, Cigarroa explained his decision to step down and said he was ready to take the new opportunity, which was initially offered to him in late 2013.

“When I began my journey as chancellor of the University of Texas System in February 2009, I knew the day would come when I would return to transplant surgery,” Cigarroa said in the email. “The time has come for me to return to my lifelong love and passion — saving lives one individual at a time.”

Cigarroa said he felt proud of the goals the System has achieved during his tenure as chancellor over the course of the last four years.

“[The position] presents an opportunity for me to do what I trained so many years to do, and I view it as an important calling at an ideal time,” he said. “Thanks to your extraordinary work, many of the U. T. System goals we developed together are now in the implementation stage and in excellent hands. I can leave the U. T. System Administration with the highest degree of confidence, knowing that together we have successfully achieved what we set out to do.”

Cigarroa has been a key figure in ongoing tensions between President William Powers Jr. and members of the regents over the course of the last several years. At the board’s December meeting, where the board discussed Powers’ employment, Cigarroa recommended Powers remain president but also issued a strong warning to Powers to “improve relationships” with the UT System.

Cigarroa said Powers had made public statements misrepresenting the relationship between the University and the System even in times when there was no conflict.

“The main reason for the strain is that [Powers] and I would agree on certain principles, and then I would act on those principles, but then [Powers] would often convey a message of misalignment,” Cigarroa said at the meeting.

After the decision, Powers said he was thankful for Cigarroa’s continued support.

According to Cigarroa, his decision to step down is largely based on his feelings for his communities, the UT System and his own family.

“My new position will allow me to remain in the U. T. System family, an environment to which I am dedicated and committed,” Cigarroa said. “Additionally, I will be able to convey gratitude and respect to my parents for the sacrifices they made for my siblings and me to spend considerable years in school to train as physicians.”

Cigarroa will be returning to where he began his career at the UT System, as he served as director of pediatric surgery at UTHSC-San Antonio from 1995-2000 and served as president from 2000-2009. In 2009, he was named chancellor of the System by the Board of Regents.

Two years ago, Cigarroa told The Daily Texan he originally planned to return to practicing surgery full-time after his tenure as president expired but changed his mind when the chancellor position opened up. Cigarroa has four other siblings who practice medicine.

“You will never separate the love for medicine from a Cigarroa,” Cigarroa said in 2012. “It’s in our genome.”

Cigarroa will make his announcement at 11 a.m. at Ashbel Smith Hall.

The UT System offices on July 11, 2013. 


The Daily Texan file photo | William Crites-Krumm 

Photo Credit: William Crites-Krumm | Daily Texan Staff

As the tense relationship between UT and the UT System continues, the UT System Board of Regents reshuffled its leadership in its meeting Thursday.

The board elected Regent Paul Foster as chairman, while naming former Chairman Gene Powell and Regent Steve Hicks as the board’s vice chairmen going forward. The change comes in the wake of accusations by state legislators that the regents have been conspiring to oust President William Powers Jr. 

After the meeting, Foster said he hoped to move past the controversy and affirmed his support for Powers.

“I’m very supportive of [Powers],” Foster said. “He’s our president.”

The University has had a particularly difficult relationship with the regents since 2011, when some regents sought to make significant changes to UT’s curriculum, according to student leaders. Tensions have also been high among some students and faculty, who claim regent actions have been too intrusive.  

University-affiliated external foundations, which raise funds for the University with little oversight from administrators, became a point of contention after it came to light that former UT School of Law Dean Lawrence Sager received a $500,000 forgivable loan from the UT Law School Foundation in 2011. Sager later resigned at Powers’ request. 

Powers said he was not aware of the loan at the time, although Regent Wallace Hall accused Powers of knowing about its existence. The regents formed the Advisory Task Force on Best Practices Regarding University-Affiliated Foundation Relationships to create guidelines for relationships between foundations and system institutions. The task force presented its final report at last week’s board meeting and will release its final written report this week.

More recently, the controversy has centered on Hall, who faces possible impeachment from the Texas Legislature. Hall’s large open records requests from the University caused state legislators to accuse him of micromanaging the University and working with other regents to remove Powers as part of what has been called a “witch hunt.” 

Hall is now being investigated by the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, which met multiple times over the summer as part of the investigation. 

At the committee’s July 29 meeting, Co-Chair Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said Hall would likely be one of the first witnesses called to testify before the transparency committee at future hearings. The committee has stated that it would begin holding the hearings in late August or September. On Friday, the committee hired Houston attorney Rusty Hardin as its special counsel for the investigation.

If impeached, Hall would be the first state appointee to be impeached in state history.

In cooperation with the investigation, UT decided to cancel and suspend all open records requests from the UT System, including any requests made by Hall. At last week’s meeting, the board approved a compliance review regarding the Texas Public Information Act, to ensure the system administration, UT and two other system institutions are in line with the law. 

In a letter sent to the transparency committee co-chairs Thursday, Stephen Ryan, Hall’s attorney, defended Hall’s actions and claimed Hall has evidence that two state legislators inappropriately influenced UT officials to accept two students to the University.

While the investigation into Hall continues, the regents’ decision to invest $10 million into MyEdu in 2011 has also come under criticism over the summer from former student leaders as the company continues to expand its website to offer career services to students. At the board’s July meeting, MyEdu Chairman and CEO Michael Crosno explained the changes in a presentation to the regents on its move to include career services on its website. 

“What MyEdu has always been about is helping kids succeed in college. We really focused in on how we can bring in jobs,” Crosno said. “This is a marketplace that puts supply and demand together.”

The company also made changes to its professor review system by removing negative reviews from students as well as its star-rating system.

However, in July, Michael Morton, former president of Senate of College Councils who served on UT’s MyEdu steering committee, raised concerns about the system’s partnership with MyEdu.

“It presents a lot of ethical dilemmas when there’s a partnership between the UT System and MyEdu if students’ information is being given to employers,” Morton said. “It really presents a lot of questions regarding what information is being used and how employers are having their jobs targeted toward students.” 

While the House Transparency Committee’s investigation into Hall will continue into the fall, electing Foster as chairman might be one of the last acts of the regents for a while, as they are not scheduled to meet again until mid-November. Steven Leslie, UT’s executive vice president and outgoing provost praised the new chairman and his plan to move forward.

“I’m confident that he’s going to be a powerful leader of the University of Texas System as our new chairman, and I think the University of Texas at Austin will advance strongly under his leadership,” Leslie said.

MyEdu CEO Michael Crosno and Vice President Deepak Surana present to the UT System's Board of Regents in July.

Photo Credit: Will Crites-Krumm | Daily Texan Staff

MyEdu claims students support changes made by the company in the past year, but former student leaders doubt the changes are beneficial or worth the $10 million the UT System invested in the company. 

At the UT System regents meeting earlier this month, MyEdu showcased new features providing career services to the company’s website. MyEdu executives cited student satisfaction in their short presentation, which elicited few comments from the regents, but the company’s new career services options may not be the best direction for students, said Michael Morton, former Senate of College Councils president and UT alumnus. 

"I haven’t really been impressed with MyEdu and their communication with students on what exactly they’ve changed in their product," Morton said. "There’s a long way to go in order for MyEdu to be an effective company."

In October, MyEdu began offering career services on its website, as well as a “student profile” service. In an interview with The Daily Texan, Frank Lyman, chief product officer at MyEdu, said the profile gives students a place to showcase their skills to employers.

The partnership between UT and MyEdu began in 2011, when the UT System made a $10 million investment into MyEdu, a website that helps college students select their courses and professors online. John Cunningham, one of the company’s founders, is the son of former UT-Austin President and UT System Chancellor William Cunningham. The UT System Board of Regents were aware of the connection when the investment was made.

“MyEdu has always been an academic platform that helps students plan and succeed in college,” Lyman said. “What we recognized is that for a lot of students, the goal was really broader than just their academic success.”

However, Morton and former Student Government President Thor Lund both said they were concerned with MyEdu’s new focus on connecting students with employers. While in office, Lund and Morton were the only student members on UT’s MyEdu steering committee. 

“It presents a lot of ethical dilemmas when there’s a partnership between the UT System and MyEdu if students’ information is being giving to employers,” Morton said. “It really presents a lot of questions regarding what information is being used and how employers are having their jobs targeted toward students.”

The committee, also made up of faculty and staff members, meets with MyEdu representatives every month during the regular semesters to discuss ideas and issues with the company’s product. 

Lund said MyEdu’s job matching service is not the best place for UT students to find jobs. Lund pointed out that there are already Career Services offices and job fairs offered on campus.

“I don’t think that’s how the job process should go,” Lund said. “I don’t think people should be picked out for jobs based on what activities they’ve been in or how they did in certain classes. I think each person is a unique case, and you can’t judge them based on an online profile.”

Not all members of the steering committee share these concerns. Brad Englert, UT chief information officer and head of the steering committee, said students can choose not to use MyEdu if they do not want to use the service.

“We’re all for students getting jobs,” Englert said. “I’m not sure what the concerns would be, but you opt into it. It’s not that you’re required to use it.”

Englert said more than 90 percent of UT-Austin students have a MyEdu account.

The company also made changes to its professor review feature. Previously, the website allowed students to write both positive and negative reviews of professors and rate them on a five-star scale. According to Lyman, MyEdu removed the negative reviews and star-ratings as part of the company’s decision to move to an objective review method. Lyman said the site now offers questionnaires about professors’ classes.

“We changed our professor [review] model to a recommendation model,” Lyman said. “Every semester, we do a customer satisfaction survey with all of our students across the country. I specifically looked at the UT-Austin feedback for the April survey and there were zero negative comments around professor reviews and recommendations.” 

However, Lund said the company’s previous professor review system better served UT students.

“The reason I go to MyEdu is because I want to know how a professor teaches,” Lund said. “If they really wanted to be a successful company, they would bring back honest professor reviews. But for some reason, the company has decided that they’re a job hunting company.”

Michael Redding, former Graduate Student Assembly president, also expressed his frustrations with the company. Redding said while serving as GSA president, his attempts to contact MyEdu representatives about expanding the company’s services to graduate students were unsuccessful.

“My impression was that they weren’t very responsive when it came to working with students,” Redding said.

In a March letter to Rep. Roberto Alonzo, R-Dallas, Redding called the company an “unproven system.” Shortly after, he received an email from MyEdu CEO Michael Crosno regarding his comments. Redding shared the email exchange with The Daily Texan.

“We have worked very hard over the last year to build a partnership with all the System campuses and especially UT Austin,” Crosno wrote in the email. “Hopefully, you will take the time to learn more about what we are doing at UT Austin to work cooperatively with the administration, students and faculty.”

According to Crosno’s email, Crosno discussed Redding’s comments with UT Provost Steven Leslie.

“That was something that I’ve never seen before: The CEO of a company calling me out for calling his company out,” Redding said.

Lyman said Crosno always takes an interest with any student public opinion on MyEdu. 

“In this case he reached out to Michael Redding to invite him to lunch and try and better understand his thoughts on MyEdu,” Lyman said.

Redding and Crosno were unable to schedule a meeting with each other. 

“None of the other student leaders I have worked with like MyEdu,” Redding said. “I would definitely say that it is not the case that students, at least the elected student representatives at UT-Austin, like it.”

Responding to Lund, Morton and Redding, Lyman cited a MyEdu survey that found 96 percent of UT students surveyed expressed satisfaction with the company’s product.

“That suggests to me that most students are really pleased with what we are doing,” Lyman said.

In the future, Morton said the UT System must find a new way to make its partnership with MyEdu more beneficial to students since it now cannot take back its investment, 

“I can think of about 10 million areas that are better spent for the $10 million,” Morton said. “But you have to move forward. The money is spent. If [MyEdu and the UT System] can find a way that will improve how students find the courses that they need, and how they plan for their four years at the University, then that’s the key.”

Follow Jacob Kerr on Twitter @jacobrkerr.

Photo Credit: Natasha Smith | Daily Texan Staff

The Commission of 125 set the tone for the last nine years of progress at the University and UT has recently drawn attention from UT System regents and former commission members on its progress toward fulfilling the commission’s goals.

After three regents criticized the University’s work on benchmarks set by the Commission of 125 during a heated meeting in February, UT President William Powers Jr. received an outpouring of support from the Legislature. Since February, regents and state legislators have exchanged criticisms, both under the Capitol dome and in editorials. Last week, four regents voted to call a special meeting Thursday to discuss new developments between the board and the Legislature.   

The commission, composed of 218 outside executives, alumni and philanthropists, issued 16 recommendations in 2004 for how the University could best serve Texas in the long term. Former UT President Larry Faulkner initiated the commission and asked its members for proposals to restructure University operations and revise the undergraduate core curriculum.   

Since Powers succeeded Faulkner as president in 2006, many of his initiatives have revolved around the commission, including revisions of the undergraduate core curriculum, reorganization of administrative services and projects including the School of Undergraduate Studies and the Student Activity Center.

“All of the stuff we’ve been doing on the undergraduate experience has been informed and inspired by what started with the Commission of 125,” Powers said in an interview with The Daily Texan. “It sort of spurred a whole set of initiatives on and it’s been very important for the University in that way.”

One former commission member, Melinda Perrin, said she was surprised how the three regents spoke of Powers in February. Perrin said Powers is “like a sheriff” who has improved the University through his initiatives for undergraduates. Perrin also said state funding, tuition rates and other factors beyond Powers’ control have limited UT’s flexibility.

“You don’t have total alignment between governance and administration priorities,” Perrin said. She is former chairwoman of the University Development Board and is now active in the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.

Charles Tate, a commission member and board member of Capital Royalty LP, said the University has made significant progress improving its administration structure, and that cherry-picking a few of the recommendations is not fair to those working to improve UT.

However, proposals for additional on-campus housing for students, raising graduation rates and reducing the undergraduate student-faculty ratio have not met the benchmarks set by the commission.

Student-faculty ratio

The Commission of 125 recommended UT improve the student-faculty ratio to 16-to-1 by 2014 from 21-to-1 in 2004, but the undergraduate student-faculty ratio has only improved to 19-to-1. 

Kenny Jastrow, chair of the Commission of 125 and former CEO of Temple-Inland Inc., an Austin-based paper, building products and financial services company, said changes in classroom technology since 2004 may require the University to retool its application of the Commission’s recommendations.

“The absolute ratio [between faculty and students] needs to be studied in light of the advances since 2004,” Jastrow said. “A fluid approach would continue to examine the right role of technology in that process.”

The University now has several initiatives for professors to make their classrooms more interactive through the Center for Teaching and Learning. The UT System partnered with edX last semester to create services that automate routine classroom functions such as grading and daily assignments. 

In an interview with The Daily Texan, Powers said years of budget cuts from the state Legislature altered the goals of the University for the student-faculty ratio.

“When the budget crunch hit in 2009, you had to question what’s a high priority, and there were other priorites for the quality of education,” Powers said. “We were losing ground.”

Graduation rates

The Commission of 125 recommended the University increase its four-year graduation rates. Last year, the Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates proposed that UT raise four-year graduation rates to 70 percent by 2016. Four-year graduation rates have risen from 41.7 percent to 51 percent in the past nine years. 

Many traditionally underrepresented groups, including first-generation students, have been admitted to UT through the Top 10 Percent Law, which automatically admits the top 10 percent of graduating seniors to Texas public universities. 

Nearly 26 percent of all students admitted under Top 10 did not have parents with a college degree, while 10 percent of non-Top 10 admits did not have parents with a college degree.

Also increasing are Hispanic enrollments. From 2004 to 2012, Hispanics increased their representation at UT from 15.1 percent to 20.9 percent. According to research published last year by the department of African and African Diaspora Studies, Hispanic students from largely Hispanic high schools are more likely to be admitted under Top 10 because they are admitted based on class rankings rather than other factors that may have not qualified these students for admission.

For the class of 2008, the University-wide four-year graduation rate was 52 percent, compared to 39 percent for first-generation college students and 41 percent for Hispanic students, according to the Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates. 

As the University strives to meet the recommendations of the commission, its obligations to students admitted under Top 10 may pose a dilemma for the limited resources available to the Forty Acres, said Perrin. Among many factors that affect four-year graduation rates is providing remediation to students who are not college-ready upon admission, Perrin said.

“Remediation does interfere with streamlined graduation tracking, because if you’re not coming to campus college-ready then the University is going to have to play catch-up,” Perrin said.

Tate, a former commission member, said he believes the obligations placed on the University by Top 10 harm its ability to build a diverse student body because Top 10 only uses grades as a factor.

“I think the whole impetus for Top 10 … is misguided,” Tate said. “No one did the simple math to understand in the future, that a number of people who were admitted to the University wouldn’t have the capacity to handle it.”

One new UT initiative is to end remediation for incoming UT students by offering dual-credit classes aligned with UT-Austin benchmarks for college level reading and mathematics.

The pilot program will begin this fall with some Texas students taking pre-calculus, said Harrison Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research.

“When people traditionally come to UT Austin, people find expectations in high schools don’t align with UT,” Keller said. “We can break down institutional barriers in partnership that align directly with what students do next. We want to be able to end remediation as we know it.”

Housing

One unmet goal set by the Commission of 125 was to increase the available housing on campus from 6,396 to 9,000 beds. By 2014, 8,657 beds will have been added in West Campus by private developers since 2005, according to the West Campus neighborhood association. Only 560 beds have been added on campus since 2005, bringing the total number of beds on campus to 6,956. The commission found that living close to campus increases graduation rates.

Developer interests and changes to zoning meant the cost of new West Campus housing quickly rose beyond what many students can afford. 

The median cost of contract rent in West Campus rose from $610 in 2000 to $958 in 2010, a 57 percent increase, census records show. The citywide cost of contract rent rose from $633 to $748 in the same time period, an 18 percent increase.

“We decided it was a better idea to give other people the [job of] building,” Powers said. “The housing in West Campus tends to be economical but on the higher end price-wise, so we may need to work with private developers or build housing on our own ticket to create moderately priced housing. That’s part of our master plan going forward.”

In an interview last September with The Daily Texan, West Campus developer Michael McHone said the University was involved in discussions that created today’s West Campus. McHone said UT benefited from the new housing by allowing students to develop closer ties to the University and become more likely to donate UT after they graduate.

Randall Porter, director of residential facilities, said the University decided to wait to construct new housing on campus because of direct competition with West Campus housing.

However, Porter said the University is now conducting a Residence Hall Needs Assessment, to be finished May 1, to determine the University’s need and ability to create more on-campus housing.

“With the recent campus four-year graduation initiative and the emphasis on student life to help facilitate student success, we decided to test the market to see if it is time to construct more on-campus housing,” Porter said. 

In a statement last Fall, UT spokesman Gary Susswein said the University did not have the financial resources to build its own housing dormitories on campus because of budget cuts from the state Legislature.

“For those students living on campus, we strive to create an affordable, diverse and inclusive community,” Susswein said. “But given tight budgets over the past few years, the University has concentrated our limited resources on the academic core and is compelled to do so in the foreseeable future.”