Victor Boschini's perspective on higher education is informed by the winding path he took through a variety of public and private institutions before becoming the 10th chancellor of Texas Christian University in 2003.
He held a variety of administrative posts at Indiana University, served as associate provost at Butler University, then was vice president for student affairs at Illinois State University, which he presided over as president for four years before moving to Fort Worth. In addition to his duties as chancellor at the roughly 9,000-student private university, Boschini also serves as a professor of education, teaching one class each semester.
The independent, religiously affiliated approach to higher education suits him. "We can openly discuss a lot of those moral questions, ethical questions, spiritual questions, that if I had done from my office at my last school, I wouldn’t have had a job," he said. "We don’t tell any student what they have to believe, we just want them to believe something."
As if his plate weren't full enough, TCU has been drawn into the state's college athletic conference musical chairs with widespread speculation that it could be a replacement for Texas A&M University in the Big 12 Conference. TCU has been planning a move to the troubled Big East Conference in July 2012.
Boschini talked with the Tribune late last week about the concerns of independent institutions in Texas, why it's worth paying a high price for higher education, and — to a very limited extent — the turmoil convulsing the college athletic conferences.
The following is an edited transcript.
TT: Are you headed to the Big 12?
Boschini: I can probably say nothing on conference realignment. The only reason is because nobody really knows. It changes by the minute. As soon as I know something concrete, I’d be happy to talk to you or anybody.
TT: Well, what have been thinking as you’ve been watching the unrest in the Big 12?
Boschini: Everything changes so quickly, and it’s hard to depend on anything. And that’s why it’s hard to make a comment on it.
TT: But why do these things matter so much?
Boschini: I’m not prepared to comment on any of it. I don’t really know. I’m not that smart.
TT: Public institutions have been dealing with questions about their mission and academic research. What set of issues are independent colleges worried about?
Boschini: I think a lot of the issues are the same. I’ve been the president of a large state school and the president of TCU, and I think a lot of the issues are the same, they’re just approached differently.
One of the bigger issues for us in the private sector is assessment. I can’t say if the public sector isn’t doing that as much because I’m not in it anymore. I just know in our sector, it’s very important.
In other words, we would like to — and we can — have proof to show parents, “Okay, it does cost more money to go to this private school, but here’s what you’re getting for that.” That’s what we’re focusing on. And we’re finding parents are very responsive to that. We had more applications to this year at TCU than in the history of the school.
TT: Why is that?
Boschini: I think, if you can show parents what they’re getting, if you can prove the value added, of going to a school of 9,000 versus a school of 50,000, I think there is a market out there of parents who are very supportive of that.
TT: Does increasing enrollment bring with it its own set of problems?
Boschini: Absolutely, and at most independent schools I think the biggest issue is bed space, classroom space, very practical things. In other words, I have 9,000 students. If I added 1,000 students tomorrow — which I’m not going to do, but if we did — that would have huge ramifications on our residence halls, on our food service, on our classrooms, where at my last school, when I had 25,000 students, if I added 1,000, nobody would even know.
TT: What would you say, then, is the biggest challenge independent schools have to deal with?
Boschini: I think it’s a going forward challenge. And the challenge is proving and reproving to our parents and our constituents that it’s worth the extra money, and I think so far we’ve been able to do that. We’ll know when we’re not doing that anymore when we don’t have 20,000 applications for our 1,600 freshman slots.
TT: Do you worry about costs getting too high? We’re hearing more and more about student debt these days.
Boschini: Yes. But I worry about everything. I worry that the flowers aren’t looking good enough on campus. I’m just a worrier. So, yes, all of that keeps me up at night.
And I think that’s the same issue for the public schools, too, though. Because, of course, they have a different crowd going there. And to that group, $10,000 to spend on tuition might be a lot of money.
So, I don’t think you could ever overlook that.
TT: You’re also hearing more people questioning the value of higher education in general. Why do you think that is?
Boschini: I think that’s a bunch of baloney, to be honest with you. I can show you study after study that shows people who graduate from college not only earn a better living, but I think they have a better life. In that, I think they question things. They’re more open to new ideas. They’re just more active participants in the whole process. They join city councils, they’re on school boards. They volunteer and give time back.
But I want to make it really clear, I don’t think you are a better person if you go to college. I just expect more of you.
So, yeah, I think it’s definitely worth it. But, I can’t be objective — I’m the president of a university.
TT: What other issues keep you up at night?
Boschini: Cost is a big one. I think environment on your campus is another big one that everybody always worries about.
Nowadays, parents, especially at these private schools, they expect a much higher level of service than they ever did.
Of course, I’m 100 years old. When I went to school, we basically just took what we got. We didn’t question very much. Now they question everything. So, you’ve got to be on your game in the health center, in the counseling center, with the police department, with the food service, with the psychology department, with the physics department, with English.
When you have a small, private school, you have a city. You have hotels, you have a police force, you have a maintenance crew, you have a street crew, and they’re all called Texas Christian University.
There’s a lot of moving parts. But that’s also what makes it fun.
TT: What is the relationship of the independent college to the state?
Boschini: I think it’s a very symbiotic relationship. Even though we don’t get our funding from the state Legislature, I think it’s really important to have good relations with the state. I’m a big believer that what’s good for Texas is good for TCU.
And so, I think there’s a lot of different ties there. I think one of the most visible ties is the TEG – the Tuition Equalization Grant [a state-funded, need-based grant of up to $3,518 per school year for Texas students attending private schools]. We need to be really clear that that money goes to taxpayers’ kids. Not to schools. But then those kids take that money to schools, and I think that’s important.
TT: And there were concerns about diminishing funds to that.
Boschini: Yes. And it got cut again this year. There are several things about TEGs I can prove to you. One, TEG participants graduate at a much higher rate than the rest of the kids in the state. So, right there I think it’s a good investment.
No. 2, every time they unload one of those students off the state system into a private school, we’re actually saving the state money.
I think the whole thing is a win-win. Not everyone agrees with that, and of course I can’t be objective. The data proves they graduate at higher rates, and that alone to me says it’s worth doing it. We’re always talking in Texas about having a higher number of college graduates in our state population pool. This is one way to help do that.
Also, the people it graduates are middle and lower class economically. It doesn’t go to rich kids or rich parents.
TT: How do you improve graduation rates?
Boschini: The big rate I think at private schools we look at is from freshman to sophomore year. Studies show that if you can get them to the sophomore year, you’ll get them. They’ll graduate. But that’s a big hurdle.
TT: What did the loss of the old Southwest Conference do to the school?
Boschini: I’ve only been here nine years, so I wasn’t here. Of course, I hear about it because it’s all some people talk about. I would say in general what all this shows is the power of sports on your brand, whatever your brand is. That’s the one thing I’ve been really amazed at. It’s a great front porch for people, sports are.
They get people on the porch and once they come in, they find all these wonderful things out about our math department, and how student life here is so good. All this talk about the conferences is another indicator of the importance of sports in our culture.