Looking to lift the University of Texas System out of a roiling debate over higher education reform in the summer of 2011, its chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, locked himself in his official residence with a small group of advisers for nearly two days to shape a plan to move the system forward.
From his Austin office this week, Cigarroa recalled feeling a need to take control. “If there’s so much anxiety, at the end of the day, the chancellor needs to manage the process,” he said.
The group produced what became known as the system’s Framework for Advancing Excellence, a sweeping nine-point plan that called for, among many other things, raising graduation rates, bolstering online education and increasing the system’s investment in South Texas. Though Cigarroa notes that "it made everybody feel a little uncomfortable," the framework was widely praised upon its release, and it eased anxieties for a time. The chancellor was invited to the White House twice to discuss it.
Now, amid renewed tensions, public attention has drifted from the framework as legislators have accused the UT System Board of Regents of trying to micromanage the University of Texas at Austin, the system’s flagship institution.
Still, despite the latest conflict, Cigarroa said he did not believe another dramatic stroke was needed to reclaim the system’s reins.
“I’ve got my hands full,” he said. “I don’t need a Framework 2.0. That might give me a coronary.”
Cigarroa said the system had not lost its focus on the original plan.
“The chancellor has not gotten off track. My pledge to the regents is that I’m going to get the framework accomplished,” he said. “That’s what I’m focused on every day.”
Cigarroa said that the turbulence of 2011, from which the framework sprang, was largely generated by differing philosophies about the role of a public university. The recent points of contention, he said, were “different.”
At a meeting in March, Steve Hicks, a regent, accused his colleagues of “spending 90 to 95 percent of their time as a regent drilling down on UT-Austin,” to the detriment of the system’s 14 other institutions. Lawmakers, some of whom have accused certain regents of being on a “witch hunt” for UT-Austin’s president, have talked about stripping them of their power and financing.
One regent, Robert Stillwell, said that the chancellor and his framework might have been the system’s salvation in a period marked by division and disagreement. “Without the chancellor, we might well have not been able to make any progress,” Stillwell said. “And there’s still work to be done.”
Cigarroa said the fact that public attention has strayed from the strategic plan has not impeded its installation. He said that in less than two years the system had accomplished a large majority of the goals set forth in the plan, including the start of massive open online courses through UT-Austin. Plans for two medical schools — one in Austin and another in the Rio Grande Valley — that were signaled in the framework are also advancing.
The chancellor also said he planned to see the framework through to the end. “Even with all this stuff, it’s still an amazing job,” he said.
Noting that he has good relationships with both the Legislature and the regents, Cigarroa said he was optimistic that the current rift would subside, particularly after a recent vote in which the regents unanimously reversed course on plans lawmakers had objected to, including an effort to avoid turning over requested records to elected officials.
“I think the Legislature needs to get the confidence that the governing boards — not just of the UT System, but of all university systems in higher education — allow the chancellor and the presidents to get their work done,” he said. "I think we’re going to get there."