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UT Regents Bless Cigarroa Plan

At this morning's meeting of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa won unanimous approval for a plan addressing hot-button higher ed issues of the moment like productivity, efficiency and accountability.

Chancellor Dr. Fransisco Cigarroa at the University of Texas Board of Regents meeting in Austin on May 11, 2011.

At this morning's meeting of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa won unanimous approval for a plan addressing hot-button higher ed issues of the moment like productivity, efficiency and accountability. The regents also committed to $243.6 million in investments that support Cigarroa’s vision.

As expected, turnout for the meeting was unusually high. In addition to a number of students and higher ed boosters, a handful of state officials were also in attendance, including Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin; state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin; and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Chairman Fred Heldenfels.           

Speaking of the need for “continual improvement,” Cigarroa laid out a nine-plank framework focusing on undergraduate access and success, faculty and administrative excellence, research, productivity and efficiency, strategic investments in the system’s information technology infrastructure, enhancing philanthropic success, boosting Ph.D. programs, advancing the state’s medical education and services and expanding educational opportunities in South Texas.

“Texas finds itself at the epicenter of the national debate on the future of higher education,” Cigarroa said. “I also firmly believe no university system is better poised than the University of Texas System to lead the debate and offer solutions to benefit our students, faculty and staff.”

Multiple strategies and goals accompanied each of the nine planks, along with firm dates for benchmarks. One fast approaching example: All university presidents must establish and submit goals for higher rates degrees conferred by December of this year. A longer-term goal: implementing incentive-based compensation systems for faculty and administrators by fiscal year 2014.

Cigarroa, who in May warned regents against micromanaging institutions, made a point of noting that institutions could reach these goals in their own way. "One size does not fit all," he said.

In addition, the regents’ teaching awards program will be expanded, there will be promotion of research collaboration between institutions, the efforts of the System's emerging research universities will be bolstered and greater emphasis will be placed on shared services among institutions to help boost productivity. 

Starting next academic year, in the name of transparency and to encourage quicker times to degree, students will be provided disclosure statements of anticipated costs for their degree. Further strategies for reducing both student cost burdens and policies that encourage students to graduate in four years will also be due next year.

Cigarroa's plan also includes initiatives addressing issues that have not been a focus of the recent higher ed debate, such as investing money in enhancing science and technology education in South Texas or and allocating of a larger portion of institutional expenditures to philanthropy by a date certain.

The plan, which Cigarroa said has been in process since May, incorporated the recommendations of two task forces created earlier this year —one on blended and online learning and another on university productivity and excellence.  “This is a significant first step in what will be a lengthy and rewarding process,” said Regent Brenda Pejovich, who chaired the task force on excellence and productivity.

Major investments approved today include $50 million for a new Institute of Transformational Learning to develop online and blended learning programs, $30 million to bolster education and health care in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley and $10 million to establish a UT Horizon Fund — an evergreen venture fund intended to encourage research commercialization. Another $10 million will go to help implement the framework, including the development of a dashboard to track whether or not the desired productivity gains are being achieved.

Cigarroa indicated that a hint as to how some aspects of that dashboard may take shape may rest in an agreement that the board approved today with myEdu, an Austin-based web company that helps students — as well as parents and educators — peruse course and professor information and manage degree plans. Under the agreement, myEdu will dedicate staff to developing programs exclusively for each institution in the system that allows for such activities as degree auditing and evaluation, student and professor feedback, and electronic advising.

"In recent years, I have encouraged our university leaders to create dashboards of key indicators in order to keep our universities focused on increasing attainment and completion of our Closing the Gaps initiative,” state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said in a statement lauding the framework. “The UT Chancellor, presidents and regents are to be commended for this united effort to advance thoughtful improvements, prioritize key indicators of success and hold themselves accountable.”

All nine regents voted "yes" on the plan without asking any questions of Cigarroa. Tim Allen, who chairs of the University of Texas System Faculty Advisory Council, said the faculty supported the plan as well and looked forward to its implementation. Dr. John Mendelsohn, the outgoing president of University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, called it “a blueprint for the nation, not just for Texas.”

Regent James Dannenbaum noted that the plan had brought about an atmosphere of “unanimity and collegiality." Regent Steve Hicks noted that board's assent followed “an extremely challenging last six months” but acknowledged that the plan's implementation would require “diligence and hard work.” Regent Alex Cranberg, part of the last round of Gov. Rick Perry's appointees, also backed the "visionary" plan. "Some might even call it radical,” Cranberg said.

After the vote of the regents, chairman Gene Powell said, “Chancellor, I think the ball is yours.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based think tank whose proposed “breakthrough solutions” for higher education caused much of this spring's upheaval, also offered its support. “Today’s action plan from Chancellor Cigarroa is an important and welcome recognition that Texas students and parents can no longer afford business as usual from our state’s higher education institutions,” spokesman David Guenthner said in a statement. “The measures put forward today should lead to a better academic experience for students, and improved performance of the University of Texas System.”

UT-Austin President Bill Powers, who has been critical of recent efforts by outside groups to evaluate the productivity of his institution’s faculty, said he believed Cigarroa’s vision “is in full harmony” with their approach to faculty evaluation.

Melinda Hill Perrin, a Houston philanthropist who is also a member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education — a group that formed, in part, to counter the TPPF’s approach — spoke at the meeting. She said that while “preserving the status quo” does not sit well with her or her fellow UT supporters, they “will not and have not stood idly by” while outside groups attempted to influence the universities. “We have experienced unprecedented times and been deeply troubled,” she said. But today’s events, she said, had given her “hope that, just perhaps, we have an opportunity to turn a corner.”

Zaffirini said she believed that a corner had been turned and hoped other university systems were taking notice. “I hope that today is a good example of how a system can come together under the right kind of leadership that requires collaboration at all levels,” she said.

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Higher education Politics Judith Zaffirini