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Guest Column: The UT Story Not Being Told

When the drama surrounding recent decisions by the University of Texas System regents dominates the conversation about higher education, the truly critical issues facing our students and their families are left unexamined.

By Alex Cranberg
University of Texas System Regent Alex Cranberg

The University of Texas Board of Regents has been getting more than its fair share of press lately, but often for the wrong reasons.

We find ourselves embroiled in political controversies about constitutional separation of powers, the meaning of certain laws in the face of differing interpretations and, especially, how to keep legislators well-informed at a time of record levels of distortion and misinformation about regents' actions and agendas. Charges of inappropriate micromanagement or interference and character assassination can best be laid to rest by more disclosure and responsible inquiry, not less. I am in favor of disclosure to the extent required by law and, beyond that, to the extent reasonably possible.

I understand that this is an important news story to cover, but I fear the drama that has surrounded recent board decisions — and the reaction those decisions have elicited from legislators — is dominating the conversation about higher education in this state. What’s left unexamined are the truly critical issues facing our students and their families.

I believe the University of Texas at Austin can be both a university of the first class and one that students from across Texas can afford. Issues of affordability and accessibility must take center stage in the higher-education debate or we are failing our students and future generations.

Let’s work together to reduce the price of a college education and at the same time enhance excellence. Over the past eight years, tuition at UT-Austin has grown by more than 80 percent. The cost of higher education today forces students to choose between graduating with heavy debt or taking extra years to graduate because of the need to work part time. UT must continue to be a great engine of educational opportunity for Texans of all income classes while advancing the frontiers of knowledge in the many disciplines in which its world-class faculty excels. These important goals are not mutually exclusive. We can both lower the burden on students and Texas taxpayers and achieve new levels of excellence. 

In May 2012, the regents made two historic votes, inspired by Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s Framework for Excellence. One vote approved $25 million in new annual funding to support the creation of a medical school for UT-Austin, a critical initiative that will not only enhance health care in Austin but also propel UT to be among the top public research universities in the nation.  

The Framework also calls for student affordability and increased efficiency in operations. Accordingly, the regents’ second vote provided $12 million in extra funding from the UT System over the next two years to replace UT-Austin’s request for a $6-million-per-year tuition increase.  It was unfortunate that President Bill Powers’ criticism directed toward the regents implied that we had simply turned down UT-Austin’s request when, in fact, the regents acted swiftly to support UT-Austin without placing any financial burden on students. When the regents approved this $12 million in funding, they also directed Powers to look for cost savings in other areas over the next two years to keep tuition increases down.    

Powers put together a committee of distinguished private-sector business leaders. By January 2013, the Committee on Business Productivity had identified $490 million in efficiency savings to be earned over a 10-year period. According to its report, the committee looked only at 25 percent of the university’s total administrative functions when it arrived at this significant amount. Moreover, there was no threat to academic quality identified from invoking these savings. It is only right to pass along some of these savings to students through lower tuition.

Additionally, UT-Austin is blessed with diverse revenue sources. Non-tax revenues available for instruction over the past eight years (from tuition, the Available University Fund and investment income) at UT-Austin have increased $5,300 per student each year, while support from the Texas Legislature has dropped only $1,300 after inflation. It is unfair and inaccurate to focus blame on the Legislature for past tuition increases. (Although additional legislative support would allow UT to make even greater advancements in excellence and affordability.) 

As UT-Austin considers the impact of the projected savings, I hope (speaking as only one regent) to see a balance between affordability and rewards for excellence incorporated in the budgets presented to the board. A material cut in tuition would be a historic move. Frankly, if we don’t cut tuition, competing forces might do it for us. UT-Austin currently earns more than $120 million per year from classes greater than 150 students, but those classes are the ones most exposed to possible future competition from online offerings from the likes of Harvard, MIT and even UT itself. I also hope that a substantial portion of the savings is budgeted for special recognition to outstanding faculty who add the most each year to fulfilling the research and instructional missions of the university. Of course, the ultimate budget allocations should be determined by the shared governance collaborative process on campus, but it will be the job of the regents to express its collective view of the big picture — not to provide an after-the-fact “rubber stamp.”

I am very pleased that the Framework, regents’ pressure, initiative by Powers and dedicated work by our alumni and friends have all combined to produce an important first step in reversing escalating costs in higher education. It is not easy or popular either in Washington or Austin to ask tough questions or to call for a lower rate of spending growth, even while enhancing excellence. But our students, faculty and taxpayers deserve nothing less.

We can discuss issues of governance and the proper roles and responsibilities of boards, but let’s not lose focus on what really matters. We must create a system of higher education that creates pathways of opportunities for students of all economic backgrounds and keeps our state on the path to prosperity. As a UT System regent, my focus is on the students and the future of Texas. And that is where it will remain.

Alex Cranberg was appointed to the University of Texas System Board of Regents by Gov. Rick Perry in February 2011.

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