After Tumultuous Period, Cigarroa to Present Plan to UT Regents

For the eighth event in our TribLive series, I interviewed the tenth chancellor of the University of Texas System about the big three concerns of anyone in a leadership role in higher education these days: access, affordability and excellence.

When University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa rises to address the UT System Board of Regents today, the room won't be quite the pressure cooker it was in May. 

Three months ago, the upheaval surrounding higher education in Texas was at a peak, the controversial "seven breakthrough solutions" that had provoked such a reaction were still potentially in play, and rumors had been circulating about moves being made against key administrators. Cigarroa took to the podium in the board room and laid out a framework for his vision of the system's future — one that directly refuted some of the "breakthrough solutions."

The regents approved the framework unanimously, and the meeting ended as if they had all gathered for a nice, cathartic group hug. Things have wound down a bit since then. Alex Cranberg, a relatively new UT regent, said he hoped to "hit a reset button." Elsewhere, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative think tank that had published the so-called solutions, indicated that it was open to reconsidering some of them. The Texas A&M University System walked back some of its implementation of the measures — the chairman of its board called them "a distraction" — and A&M appointed a new chancellor, former Comptroller John Sharp, who does not appear inclined to impose such measures from the top down.

Over the summer, some studies cropped up questioning the productivity of the University of Texas at Austin, eliciting heated responses from groups such as the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education that were formed, in part, to counter just that sort of thing. Rick O'Donnell, a former UT System adviser whose employment — for a number of reasons — had also caused concern (before he was let go in April), also briefly returned to the scene and raised eyebrows with criticisms of the UT System. Still, these brief flares in the dialogue didn't quite reach the heights of the spring.

But it would be incorrect to assume that these issues were waning away. Just this week, conservative groups Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks held a press conference calling for significant changes in Texas higher education.  Peggy Venable, the state director of AFP, said institutional leaders needed to "take their heads out of the sand." Amanda Shell of FreedomWorks called for the regents to end tenure and "frivolous" research.

Even the "seven solutions" — particularly one that called for separating teaching and research budgets — are still on people's minds. On Wednesday, giving remarks to the regents after being awarded a prestigous Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award, Brent Iverson, the chairman of UT's chemistry and biochemistry department, felt compelled to caution against such a move. "Some would like to put research and teaching in conflict in higher education," he said. "I just don’t understand the premise here."

On Monday, the Join Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, a special legislative committee created in response to the higher ed controversy, officially scheduled its first hearing — a reminder to regents that their actions are being closely watched.

Today, Cigarroa will outline the action plan through which he'd like to see the sentiments expressed in the framework carried out. In an email to members of the UT System community encouraging them to watch the speech, Cigarroa wrote, "The Framework includes a new action plan that will bring a higher level of accountability and transparency to our universities and health institutions. The plan will place a concentrated emphasis on productivity at all 15 of our institutions."

He also outlined some of the challenges currently facing higher education that the plan seeks to address: "How do we make a college education more accessible and affordable? How do we improve the learning environment on our campuses? How do we adapt to our state’s rapidly changing demographics, produce more college graduates, and prepare them for productive careers?"

While not as touchy an environment as the May meeting, today's meeting is expected to be packed, with many members of outside groups in attendance. 

And all of them, regents included, will be waiting to hear what Cigarroa has to say.

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