Gretchen Ritter

Gretchen Ritter, vice provost for undergraduate education and faculty governance, is excited to spend the coming fall in Ithaca — because, for all she will miss about the University, one thing she is not sad to leave behind is Texas weather. 

Ritter, also a government professor, is leaving UT to be the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University. A Cornell alumna herself, she will be the school’s first female dean.

“It was actually a little surprising to me that I’ll be the first woman in the position,” Ritter said. “I don’t think it will feel like a big deal to anyone there.”

Ritter, who has been on UT’s faculty since 1992, was instrumental in the creation of the Course Transformation Program, an initiative designed to improve large, lower division gateway courses by promoting student and faculty engagement. Steve Leslie, outgoing executive vice president and provost, said the Course Transformation Program was one of Ritter’s greatest accomplishments. 

“UT was one of the first places in the country to launch these blended and online learning initiatives, and Gretchen built that,” Leslie said. “She had the strength and persistent focus on cutting edge ways of transforming courses to set the stage for the methods we use today.”

Ritter also mentioned the program as one of her proudest achievements. 

“I’m proud of having supported an experiment that uses educational technology in positive and thoughtful ways, and in ways that were faculty led and designed,” Ritter said.

Ritter said her decision to leave is based on a variety of factors, including her appreciation of Cornell and a desire to return to the region of the country where she grow up. But in making her decision, Ritter said she also reflected on more recent concerns she has had about the state of Texas public higher education.

“I’m going because this is a great opportunity for me,” Ritter said. “But of course, I did reflect on the fact that it sometimes feels as though there is not as strong a commitment to supporting public higher education in the state as there used to be. That worries and concerns me.” 

Last week, history professor David Oshinsky announced his resignation from UT in favor of working full-time at New York University. Though he cited family connections and personal opportunities as reasons for his departure, he told the Austin-American Statesman that recent conflicts between UT and the UT System Board of Regents made the choice easier. 

“I do leave with sort of a bittersweet taste ... I see the University under fire now,” Oshinsky told the Statesman. “It does disturb me.”

Ritter said if trends like a lack of public commitment and support for public higher education continue, the University will suffer.

“I think we will be paying the price a decade from now,” Ritter said.

Still, Ritter said, she will miss many things about the University, including her colleagues and certain things that make UT a distinctly Texan university. 

“I’ll definitely miss salsa and tortilla chips,” Ritter said. 

Texas and national lawmakers continue to address issues related to energy, water and air pollution, with particular attention to natural gas and hydraulic fracturing. However, energy bills are not the priority in either the Texas or the national legislature: Both are preoccupied by budgetary and other issues.

Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas remains a contentious issue because of potential impacts to air, land and water systems. Briefly, hydraulic fracturing is a technique whereby natural gas producers inject large volumes of water with some chemical additives underground to access difficult-to-reach natural gas. Most wells are hydraulically fractured, and the practice is decades old, but recent practice has involved much larger fluid volumes in more populated areas than has historically been true. Water and land systems can be contaminated when wells are poorly constructed or when fluids leak or are improperly disposed at the surface.

During the past two weeks, a lot of attention has also been focused on natural gas (methane) emissions that occur when large volume hydraulic fracturing jobs are completed. A Cornell study by Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea claims that shale gas might actually be more greenhouse gas intensive than coal because of methane leaks. (Shale gas accounts for about 15 percent of the United States’ natural gas supply right now, but this is expected to increase to about 45 percent by 2035.) Natural gas has lower carbon emissions than coal when it is burned, but methane (the main component of natural gas) is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so if enough natural gas leaks, the carbon advantage can disappear. Somewhat controversially, the Cornell study assumes an unusually high value for methane’s greenhouse effect by considering a 20 year (rather than the conventional 100 year) atmospheric lifetime and using a multiplier from a recent study that challenges the international literature review. The international assessment used by the United Nations suggests methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide over 100 years (72 times over 20 years), while the Cornell study assumes methane is 105 times as potent as carbon dioxide over 20 years. My calculations suggest that the Cornell study underestimates emissions from coal (coal mines emit methane too), and others have pointed out that some leakage rate assumptions are unreasonably high. However, the issue of leaking natural gas is real, should be looked at and should be mitigated where possible. Texas’ Senate Bill 104 proposes tighter regulation of natural gas releases from wells, which would partially address this problem.

On the natural gas and water front, U.S. Senators Waxman, Markey and De Gette released a report over the weekend on natural gas fracturing chemicals that calls for chemical disclosure. I wrote two weeks ago in support of Texas’ fracture fluid disclosure bills, HB 3328 and SB 1049, which would require more public information about what fluids are being used for natural gas extraction and would aid in specific analysis of potential environmental harms. While I currently believe that using natural gas is environmentally preferable to using coal for electricity in many applications, having more specific and complete information about chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing would help support that sentiment. The Waxman, Markey and De Gette report states that many of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are unknown to the drilling companies, as chemical suppliers retain proprietary information. Protecting trade secrets is important: there is little incentive to innovate without some protection. However, total secrecy is inappropriate. Chemical manufacturers claim that disclosure could remove their incentive to produce greener fracturing fluids, but there is little incentive to use green fluids when you don’t know why you should stop using brown — or shall we say, black box — fluids.

The senators’ report shows that the most harmful chemicals assessed are used more in Texas than in any other state. The report gleefully and repeatedly mentions that some producers use instant coffee for hydraulic fracturing — but it also more seriously points out that Texas uses about 6 times as much 2-Butoxyethanol as the next largest user (Oklahoma), about 2.6 times as many carcinogenic chemicals as the next largest user (Colorado) and about 8 times as many chemicals regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act as the next largest user (New Mexico). Wyoming and Arkansas already have fracturing fluid disclosure laws. Texas lawmakers recognize the importance of Texas laws and practices in this area, and a good Texas fluid disclosure law with appropriate proprietary protections could be important to natural gas development throughout the United States.