UT Dean Rejects "Seven Solutions" in New Report

Update, 5:30 p.m.: Not surprisingly, Diehl's report has met with criticism from proponents of the "seven breakthrough solutions." Even Gov. Rick Perry's team has weighed in.

"University faculty and their allies should join the reform efforts and recommend ways to innovate, improve graduation rates, and enhance accountability and efficiency at Texas colleges and universities," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. "We all have an obligation to meet the needs of Texas students, employers, taxpayers and our fast-growing economy. Resisting reform and accountability is an unsustainable recipe for mediocrity and stagnation."

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education — also not surprisingly — saw the report another way. "This analysis should settle this issue once and for all," they said in a statement, "ending any flirtation with implementing these misguided suggestions and we call on university regents and state leaders to repudiate these flawed ideas in the best interests of quality education and economic development in our state."

Perry ally Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative blogger and president of advocacy organization Empower Texans (which counts among its board members Jeff Sandefer), wrote in an email,  "The report and attending website raises some interesting questions I suspect no one in the press will bother to ask: 'How much did the analysis cost? What staff time was involved? Was it done 'on the clock' or in off-hours? How many UT resources were used to pay for it? Who foot the bill for the staff time, the research, website design and hosting?'"

Gary Susswein, a spokesman for the College of Liberal Arts, said the total financial cost of the project was $12, which paid for the domain name of the website. He said faculty and staff worked on the report in addition to their regular duties. "Looking at ideas like this and reviewing serious proposals about higher ed reform is an important part of our job," he said. "It's what we do. It's how we make UT better."

Sullivan also said that, while the report clearly indicates disagreement with the "seven" proposals, "They actually don't suggest any substantive ways to improve transparency, affordability and accessibility."

As an example of concrete reform efforts mentioned in the report, Susswlein pointed to passages in the discussion of the fourth "solution," which requires evidence of teaching skill for tenure (something administrators have repeatedly said they already do). In that section, the report touches on the development of "sophisticated online teaching strategies and interactive pedagogies." It says, "These include multimedia a tools that help students better understand the works of John Milton and Walt Whitman and interactive foreign language modules that are being developed."

Earlier Story:

Randy Diehl, the dean of the University at Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts, is looking for ways to boost undergraduate graduation rates. Earlier this week, UT President Bill Powers told Diehl he’d be leading a task force on just that issue.

One set of proposals Diehl is unlikely to look to is the so-called “seven breakthrough solutions” — a set of changes for higher education in Texas written by Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer and promoted by Gov. Rick Perry. Today, Diehl responded to the proposals by releasing an analysis of each one. His conclusion: “Put simply, this is the wrong approach.”

Deihl’s report comes at a time when the state’s higher education debate has been stirred anew, though players on both sides say they are open to reaching common ground.

The latest turbulence was instigated by the re-emergence of Rick O’Donnell, a former adviser to the University of Texas System whose hiring was one of the sparks that ignited the initial controversy. After 49 days on the job, O’Donnell was abruptly ousted in April after alleging that top administrators at UT and the UT System were suppressing information and thwarting needed reforms. While O’Donnell and the system reached a settlement after he threatened a lawsuit over his termination, O’Donnell recently has told reporters that he stands by his allegations.

Gene Powell, the chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, who had written O’Donnell a glowing letter of as part of the settlement, called O’Donnell’s recent comments “unfortunate.” In a statement he said that UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa did not oppose or hinder regents as O’Donnell charged.

“The Board of Regents has an excellent relationship with Chancellor Cigarroa and fully supports his vision and commitment to advance excellence in education, research, patient care and service across the great University of Texas System,” Powell said.

The Texas Exes, the university’s large alumni organization, also issued a press release reaffirming its support for Powers “due to recent public attacks of him and his character.”

Diehl says his response to the “breakthrough solutions,” which took approximately two months to compile and can be accessed on online on a new website, is motivated by a similar sentiment. “I really wanted to stand with the president and the chancellor, and I thought this was one way we could contribute.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative think tank that promotes the “solutions,” also has a new website, improvehighered.com. It makes no mention of the seven solutions. TPPF spokesman David Guenthner told the Tribune last month that the group remains open to other proposals.

“Everyone seems to be portraying the seven breakthrough solutions as tablets we carried down from Mount Sinai,” he said. “They are ideas on paper. We think they are very good ideas, but if other people have better ways to accomplish those objectives, we are open to having a conversation.”

Diehl pointed to the university’s implementation of recommendations of the Commission of 125, which conducted a massive review of the university. Examples include the creation of small freshman “signature courses” and UT's ongoing course redesign efforts.

He rejected the allegation that the university is inefficient, pointing out that widely distributed reports failed to take into account metrics such as graduation rates.  He also cautioned that increasing tuition needed to be understood in the context of diminishing state contributions.

Though, Diehl says he welcomes proposals on how to improve higher education like the “seven breakthrough solutions,” which he says he sought to address in a “respectful but effective manner.”

Of the proponents of the “solutions,” he says, “I believe fundamentally they care about the quality and accessibility of higher education. I share that. I think there are many shared values as we go forward here.”

Alex Cranberg, a UT regent whose requests for data have caused some discomfort on the system’s campuses, has also indicated a desire to find common ground. He has begun making inquiries about joining the recently formed Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a large group of prominent Texans who have joined together in response to the debate over the “seven breakthrough solutions.” In an email to the Tribune, Cranberg said he wishes to do his part to “inform their efforts and support their aims.”

The coalition announced 24 new founding members to the organization last week, including Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly and Michael Levy, the founder of Texas Monthly. Cranberg’s name was not on the list. A spokeswoman said he had signed up through website but had not made the financial contributions of the founding members.

“The Coalition will do its best work if it is well informed about what sorts of ideas are actually under consideration as opposed to those which are not,” wrote Cranberg, who has also expressed an interest to being a member of the group's leadership committees. “It’s not a good use of time to fight over things we agree over.”

In the meantime, here is Diehl's report:

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