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.
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.”
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.”
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.”