“The dean of deans” is what University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers called Gordon Gee on Monday as he introduced the Ohio State University president to an invitation-only gathering on the UT-Austin campus.
A giant among higher education leaders, Gee has made a career of running universities. He assumed his first presidential post in 1981, when he took the reins of West Virginia University. He has also led the University of Colorado, Brown University and Vanderbilt University. Gee's current stint in Ohio is his second at that institution, which he also ran during most of the 1990s.
Gee is currently on a tour of the country engaging his fellow presidents in a discussion about a report issued in January by the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group assembled in 2011 that he has chaired.
The report took the form of an open letter to college and university leaders with a blunt message: “College Completion Must Be Our Priority.”
In his remarks at UT-Austin, Gee said that if “truth serum” were administered to university leaders around the country, they might confess that institutions have emphasized faculty research over helping students complete their degrees.
The letter offers broad strategies for shifting that focus. These include creating a student-centered campus experience for undergraduates, easing the process for transfer credit and competency-based advancement, and using student performance data to drive institutional decision-making.
Gee praised the leadership of UT-Austin, which he called "a vast enterprise that influence higher education every day." Currently, UT-Austin is in the midst of a push to boost its four-year graduation rate to 70 percent — a jump of nearly 20 percentage points — by 2016.
When the commission's report came out, Powers issued a statement saying, "These national recommendations offer a blueprint for community colleges, public research universities and every other pocket of the higher ed ecosystem. They have the potential to change our state and the country for the better."
Gee talked with The Texas Tribune about why he’s heading this national push for a completion-focused agenda, what role Texas has to play in it, and what happens if it is not successful.
The following is an edited transcript.
TT: Is this completion agenda directed primarily at public universities?
Gee: I’ve been president of Brown and chancellor of Vanderbilt, where they have very high completion rates. But that’s a very small sector of higher education.
Eighty percent of students in this country are in public higher education. And vast numbers are in community colleges.
This is really focused on the larger sense of purpose — as I call it, “the leaking pipeline.” I think everyone needs to focus on the quality of the undergraduate experience.
TT: Are you concerned that the public will find the title of this report somewhat obvious? Have universities not been focused on completion?
Gee: I think this is a bit of an issue we have to face. That is, why haven’t we been doing this all along? Well, we have been. But we haven’t done it in a way in which we’ve had a unified approach and a focus on it nationally, which is the purpose of the commission.
We’ve had as many approaches to this as there are colleges and universities. This is not about developing a prescription. It’s about getting people focused on this as a primary issue for them to now manage.
TT: Is there a uniform solution for every institution?
Gee: No. Absolutely not. The strength of the American higher education system is that it is a multifaceted, multi-layered system, and that is what makes us very strong.
If we had a federal system in which we were all in a cookie-cutter set of institutions, those are not generally successful. We’ve seen that in Europe and other places.
But what is successful is making certain that we all at least understand what the issues are in this country and trying to focus on them in some unified way.
TT: Why did you come to UT-Austin? What does Texas have to contribute to this discussion?
Gee: This is not just being nice to Bill Powers. I think Bill and the University of Texas, which is one of the leading public institutions in this country, really has focused on the quality of the undergraduate experience and how one moves their graduation rates up. We wanted to be at a place where we could celebrate that and get a conversation going in this part of the world.
We’ve had a series of these conversations, starting in New York and then Los Angeles. Now we’re in Austin, and I think we’ll have several more.
TT: What is the immediacy of this push? What happens if it this agenda is not heeded?
Gee: I think if we don’t take this agenda seriously, we will become a regulated industry. Not that we are not already, but we will become a more regulated industry.
There’s a $16 trillion budget deficit in the country. There’s a trillion-dollar overhang in terms of student debt. We have significant issues that are going to follow us around unless we reach out and start developing a clear agenda that’s in the best interest of the public and not just the universities and colleges themselves.