SAN ANTONIO — University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers addressed the future — and turbulent present — of the University of Texas System at the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors convention on Saturday.
In remarks that followed a tense week in the ongoing conflict between Powers, the university system's board of regents and members of the Legislature, the UT president compared the challenges faced by higher education institutions to the challenges faced by print media.
“People say we’re not businesses – well, we are businesses,” he said. “But we’re a business with a certain kind of social purpose.”
While stressing his desire to use technology to improve the affordability and accessibility of a UT degree, he argued that effective reforms couldn’t be imposed from above. Powers' recent relationship with the board has been marked by tension over tuition concerns and education reforms raised by Gov. Rick Perry, who appoints all of the regents.
“Affordability is critically important,” Powers said. “But change comes from the bottom up. We needed a new form of music as we moved into the 20th century. I don’t think the U.S. Department of Jazz would have come up with the solution.”
Powers added that tuition was a result of the university’s cost structure – and that limits couldn’t be arbitrarily set.
“If you go to the pump and say, I want to buy gas for $1.50 a gallon,” he said, “they’re going to send you away.”
Afterward, Powers took questions from reporters on contemporary issues affecting the university – but largely declined to direct address the board of regents or recent developments in the Legislature. He expressed appreciation, however, for the Legislature’s support – especially its recent resolutions praising him for his years of service.
“It’s gratifying – the recognition on the Senate floor. It means a great deal to me that many people in the Legislature care very deeply about education,” he said. “I think that’s reflected in the budget. But the particular amendments that were on the floor – I’ll leave that to the legislators.”
When asked if that support from the Legislature made his relationship with the regents more difficult, Powers again deferred.
“There’s a lot of business that the system and the board on the campus are working on that is unrelated to this,” he said. “And we’re all moving forward on that.”
Powers said that UT students seem to be “very supportive of the type of direction that the university is going in, and I’m gratified by that.”
He said that the university was actively working toward the goal of more low-cost degrees, adding that UT-Austin's participation in massive open online course programs could play a role in the future.
But he emphasized that not all degrees could be brought down to similar cost levels – and that online courses weren’t a panacea for the high cost of tuition.
“We want to keep pushing down costs and working through these innovations,” he said. “The marginal costs of making [online courses] available around the world is very low, but one of the challenges of using technology like this is you can’t just fund things on marginal cost. You have to fund things on having an overall cost structure so you can develop the courses in the first place.”
“It’s a challenge to the business model,” he added. “But no more so than the introduction of radio and TV to the media ecosystem.”
In response to rumors that the board of regents could force his ouster by as early as the summer, Powers said his focus was on the here and now.
“I’m going to go back on Monday and make the university a better place,” he said. “It’s a big university, and it’s critical that we continue to make progress.”
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