Faced with shrinking state appropriations and increasing concerns about college costs, University of Texas President Bill Powers is reaching out to the business community.
Last year, the Legislature cut the university's funding for the current biennium by approximately $92 million. Now, Powers has assembled a 13-member committee made up of corporate executives from across the country to recommend ways for UT to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Stephen Rohleder, a chief executive at Accenture in Austin, will serve as the chairman.
“A lot of what we do is like a business, and a lot of things we do are not like a business,” Powers said, noting that the committee would only focus on matters such as food services, payroll management and commercialization. “There has been a lot of commentary about how people aren’t working hard enough. This has nothing to do with that. We have a fabulous faculty and staff. But if you organize things in a different way, it’s always possible that you could find savings.”
Powers told the Tribune that he does not expect the committee to make the sorts of recommendations offered last year in the controversial “seven breakthrough solutions,” a set of proposed higher-education reforms largely aimed at improving faculty productivity that was promoted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin think tank.
Those proposed reforms, which at the time were touted by supporters as advancing a more business-like approach to higher education, sparked a heated statewide debate in 2011. Some criticized proponents of the reforms of devaluing academic pursuits that the university considers central to its mission. While some of the issues remain, the specific solutions are rarely discussed anymore.
Kevin Hegarty, the university’s chief financial officer, said the new committee would be primarily focused on the back-end business decisions that the public usually doesn’t see, but where there is “a strong expectation” that they “ought to be as well-run as the best-in-class companies.” He expected some of the biggest savings opportunities to come from sharing more services across campus, and possibly some outsourcing of services.
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp faced some backlash from staff at Texas A&M University earlier this year when he announced that they were looking into turning over food service and maintenance operations to private companies.
But such a change would not be new at UT. “We’re doing many of these things already,” said Hegarty. “This is a recognition that we should always strive to be better, and part of that is to bring fresh ideas to the table.”
The committee held its first meeting in late March. Gary Kusin, a committee member and senior adviser at TPG Capital in Dallas, said that everything — whether it’s how the university runs its parking lots to how it licenses Bevo, its trademark mascot — will be on the table. He came away from the first meeting with a sense that his fellow members brought a beneficial perspective for the university.
“I think higher education is certainly in no different boat than the rest of the business world in regards to uncertain revenue futures, more competitive environments, being faced with trying to deliver the high quality services they have historically,” he said.
Fellow committee member Charles Tate, chairman of Capital Royalty in Houston, agreed and noted that the endeavor would be mutually beneficial. “The underpinnings of the economic future of our country lie in having a well-educated workforce. So, as a businessman, we ought to be really interested in what’s going on in education,” he said.
Tate is one of the executive members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a large group of well-heeled higher-ed boosters that was created in 2011 in opposition to the promotion of the “breakthrough solutions” and similar reform efforts.
Thomas Lindsay, who became director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s center for higher education following last year’s spat over their recommendations, praised the task force’s creation.
“Universities, by their nature, always have a struggle between mission and margin,” he said. “It’s a natural tension and, to a certain extent, a healthy tension as long as both sides are heard.”
The committee is expected to form their recommendations in roughly eight months. Tate said he was entering into the process with an open mind.
Referring to his previous service on the Commission of 125, a group that conducted a two-year examination of UT in the mid-2000s, he said, “No one anticipated at the beginning of the process the two major recommendations made by that committee. It’s very important to go into something like this without a predetermined point of view.”