Hands off UT

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An internal memorandum obtained by the Austin American-Statesman reveals that Gene Powell, the newly elected chairman of the Board of Regents, put forth some surprising ideas that seem at odds with what have been the stated goals of the University for the last several years.


In the April 7 memo titled “Draft Notes and Ideas for Discussion,” Powell proposes a set of new goals for both UT and the eight other universities in the UT System. The goals include decreasing tuition by 50 percent and increasing enrollment by 10 percent each year for four years, starting in 2013.


Wait, what?     


Powell’s proposals fly in the face of some of the most prominent goals the University has been striving toward over the past decade. Most notably, Powell’s suggestion to increase enrollment by almost 35 percent is in direct conflict with the University’s stated goal of trying to reduce class sizes. In 2004, the University commissioned a panel to analyze its long-term goals as an institution. The “Commission of 125” actually recommended that the University reduce its student body because in 2003, “the present size of The University [was] an impediment to delivering an educational experience of the highest quality.”


If enacted, Powell’s proposal would certainly result in larger classes, since, as he put it in his memo, the goal is to “Increase Undergraduate Enrollment without Appreciably Increasing Costs.”


Powell is not satisfied with simply not increasing costs; he goes on to assert that tuition should be reduced by 50 percent. While it’s refreshing to see the Board of Regents suddenly concerned with the rising cost of higher education across the country (concerns that seemed to elude them when dishing out six-figure salaries to advisers and bureaucrats), we wonder how on Earth they plan to maintain the quality of education offered by Texas universities while simultaneously increasing their workload and reducing their funding. Where will the money come from? It certainly isn’t coming from regental overlord, Gov. Rick Perry, who is overseeing a drastic reduction in state funding for Texas colleges and universities.


Meanwhile, the point that makes Powell’s memo almost laughable, were it not for Powell’s position of authority, is his suggestion that these changes will be made while establishing a timeline for UT to become the top public university in the nation. If the regents pursue a course of action similar to the one laid out by Powell, then a timeline for that designation will be easy to forecast: never.


When Powell’s memo went public on Monday night, the Board of Regents immediately attempted to backtrack from its outlandish positions. “It is an internal, draft working document with suggested goals that Chairman Powell raised,” explained UT System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn. “The full Board is not scheduled to take action with regard to these suggestions.”


Even so, it does not change the fact that the regents think such changes are plausible enough to warrant discussion. And, as history has shown, when the Board of Regents quietly contemplates something in private, there is a tendency for said idea to be quietly enacted before the public can understand what has just taken place.


If enacted to the letter, Powell’s proposal would take UT’s total enrollment to 69,026 by 2017. For reference, that would make the University the second-largest research institution in the country. There are currently no universities in the Top 50 of the US News & World Report’s annual rankings with more than 50,000 students.


And which university is the largest? Arizona State University, which has a higher education model with which many of the current regents seem to have become so enthralled.


In a letter to the Board of Regents last month following a trip to ASU, Student Government President Natalie Butler entreated the board not to let UT become a Texas version of the Arizona school. “ASU wanted to be an institution defined by its high degree of inclusiveness and ability to manufacture a significant number of degrees at a low cost,” Butler wrote. “UT-Austin, rather, is defined by its academic rigor, excellence, and support for the intellectually curious.”


There are already dozens of online colleges and dime-store diploma mills scattered across this country and this state. But there is only one University of Texas at Austin, and once stripped down, its esteem and respectability may never be restored.
So please, regents, if you’re going to play political games and fight ideological wars against the boogey-men of Ivory Tower academia, take it to some other part of the state. Don’t mess with Texas; not with our education and not with our futures.


— Dave Player for the editorial board