University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers delivered a speech Monday — two days before the University of Texas System Board of Regents gathers in Austin for a highly anticipated meeting — outlining the university's budget concerns and plans for innovation.
To a crowd made up largely of alumni and faculty, as well as a handful of students and outside observers, Powers explained that the administration has prepared for a 15 percent budget reduction for the next biennium, which is roughly on target with the 16.1 percent cut in the Texas Senate's version of the budget. However, if the legislators adopt the House version, they will still be 5.5 percent short, causing them to dip into reserves, further slash budgets and up the number of layoffs. "There is no question that this would further harm our educational mission," Powers said.
Under the House version of the budget, state support will make up 13 percent of the university's budget, down from 52 percent in 1981. Powers observed that this was just "one of many seismic shifts in society that affect higher education."
"We have to reinvent the way we do business," Powers said. "Our current approach simply is not sustainable." He took note of ongoing efforts to change the institution's status quo, including recommendations made by the Commission of 125, a coalition of citizens and university representatives, in 2004. He said that, if efficiency is measured by comparing financial inputs to degree production, then UT ranks first out of 120 of the nation's public research universities. However, in addition to these and other ongoing initiatives, such as developing three-year degrees and working with high schools to get students into college earlier and better prepared, Powers reiterated, "We need to do more."
"Our alumni ought to know what we're doing," Powers told the Tribune, explaining his rationale for giving the speech. "The public ought to know what we're doing, and the campus ought to know what we're doing. We're for reinventing things."
It's a busy time in the political life of the university. At the Capitol, legislators are grappling with a massive budget shortfall that will inevitably lead to major cuts at institutions of higher education. Meanwhile, several high-profile UT constituents remain concerned about potential changes in the scope and mission of the university system pushed by the governor, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and some recently appointed UT regents under the leadership of chairman Gene Powell.
Powers also said in his speech that a main focus should be on boosting four-year graduation rates, which are currently hovering at a mere 53 percent. Though these are the highest in the state, Powers said they should be around 70 percent, which would result in a significant savings to the state. "That should be our beacon," Powers told the Tribune after his address. "When we get there, then 73 percent. We ought to keep doing everything we can."
Justin Keener, a spokesman for Texas Business for Higher Education, a new organization that has largely supported a push for accountability and transparency, said in a statement afterward, “While our universities are making great progress, we agree with President Powers that the current model is unsustainable and further improvements are needed. Both he and the regents have called for improving quality, access and affordability, and we hope that everyone will stay focused on delivering those objectives.”
However, in his speech, Powers also cautioned, "We need to be careful about how we change. It's virtually impossible to innovate from the top down." And while some have speculated about what the recent unrest might mean for top UT administrators, Powers said he remains focused: "I will continue to defend our constitutional mandate to remain 'a university of the first class.' I will work night and day to achieve our vision for the public research university of the future."
Update: Following the speech, UT's Faculty Council unanimously approved a a vote of confidence in Powers and his administrative team. They asserted that they have "tirelessly and effectively advocated for the University while valuing academic research and excellent teaching and adhering to the highest standards of professionalism and ethical conduct."
Debbie Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Faculty Council said the vote, which has been awaiting approval since last week, was not a direct response to the address. "It is in response to the president's actions over the last several months," she said.
Here's the full speech:
Here's a video excerpt:
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.