At a tense meeting of the University of Texas System Board of Regents on Aug. 25, 2011, after several months in which the board was at the center of a tug-of-war between groups with differing approaches to higher-education reform, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa unveiled his “Framework for Advancing Excellence.”
The policy called for strategies to improve graduation rates, lower the costs of a degree and increase the use of technology in the classroom, among other things.
Almost a year to the day after laying out his proposal, Cigarroa, during an interview in his Austin office, said, “As soon as the board gave unanimous approval, I started feeling the clock start ticking.”
The laughter of Gene Powell, the chairman of the board of regents, blasted through the speakerphone at Cigarroa’s side. “I’m laughing because I was the one winding the clock,” Powell said. “We had to execute. This could not be another study or project that goes on the shelf.”
As the two leaders reflected on the framework’s inaugural year, they agreed that the plan has produced tangible results and burnished the reputation of the system. The system has revamped its major teaching awards, launched a service providing online courses, and created a $10 million startup venture fund.
Not only did it enjoy approval from differing sides of the reform debate, Cigarroa has been invited to discuss the document at the White House — twice.
But some of the shine may have come off the framework. Groups are rethinking their support, in some cases because of issues that are not addressed, and in others because they are uneasy with specific points.
“I think the framework needs to be reframed,” said Thomas Lindsay, the director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, a conservative research organization that initially lauded the framework.
Although Lindsay still supports the framework, he says it does not adequately address a crucial question: “How much are students increasing in their knowledge from their freshman to their senior year?”
Cigarroa said the framework’s strategies would inevitably lead to improvements in student learning and success.
But questions over what constitutes success — particularly in determining how to set up an incentive pay plan for university presidents that was called for in the framework and approved last month — have revived old concerns.
Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, which was created in 2011 by a group who were concerned about the direction Powell intended to lead the board, said the framework could be a powerful tool. “But, if it’s going to be top-down and prescriptive, or used as a vehicle to funnel pet projects of the regents,” she said, “it’s not going to be effective, and it’s not going to improve quality for Texas students.”
Both Cigarroa and Powell rebutted the notion that the application of the framework has opened the door to micromanagement. Although Powell said he appreciates the engagement and support of the foundation and the coalition, he added: “I really don’t know nor do I pay any attention to those people. I’m paying attention to what’s happening on campuses.”
In the last year, the University of Texas-Permian Basin and the University of Texas at Arlington have unveiled $10,000 degree programs, as called for by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. Playing off a plank in his proposal regarding the expansion of health opportunities in South Texas, Cigarroa recently announced plans to graduate a class from a new medical school in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 2018.
On the University of Texas-Pan American campus in Edinburg, President Robert Nelsen said the framework’s effect was somewhat difficult to gauge. “It has allowed us to focus in some ways, but we were going to do these things anyway,” he said.
Powell said he did not believe significant changes would have otherwise happened in a timely fashion. “Would all of this have happened without the framework?” he said. “The short answer to that is ‘No.’”
Cigarroa agreed, saying the document provided clarity of purpose and encouraged taking risks.
“I did not sacrifice my career in pediatric surgery to be here for my tenure and not accomplish things that can transform higher ed and improve student success,” he said.