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Prepping for National Role, Powers Talks Higher Ed Future

At his annual "State of the University" address on Wednesday, UT-Austin President Bill Powers talked about the future of higher education as he prepares to lead one of the most elite national higher education organizations.

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers spoke on June 24, 2013, about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Fisher v. UT-Austin.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

As University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers prepares to begin his year-long term as chairman of the elite Association of American Universities in a matter of weeks, he used his annual "State of the University" address on Wednesday to outline his thoughts about the direction of higher education heading into the future. 

The AAU is a selective organization made of the nation's top research universities. Currently, there are 62 members, including three from Texas: Rice University, Texas A&M University and UT-Austin. They were admitted in 1985, 2001 and 1929, respectively. The chairman of the organization has a prominent perch from which to influence the national conversation about higher education policy.

Among his predictions for the future of the sector, Powers said there will likely be a change in the makeup of university faculty. "Even on our own campus, we do not need every teacher to be a researcher, or every researcher to be a teacher," he said, noting that UT-Austin has worked to develop a robust team of lecturers who he said will play an increasingly important role in the university.

Gov. Rick Perry and supporters of his higher education reform initiatives have previously suggested separating research and teaching budgets at universities. The proposal prompted backlash from the academic community, and Powers did not endorse it in his remarks.

In addition to allowing faculty members to emphasize their strengths, be it in teaching or in research, Powers said that a diversity of educational institutions is critical. "Homogenization always retreats to the mean," he said.

In Texas, there has been a concerted effort — including a significant financial investment — to increase the number of nationally recognized "tier one" institutions.

With regard to the correct balance of teachers, researchers and the appropriate variety of institutions, Powers said, "I do not know exactly how this will unfold over the next 10 years, but I do believe we need to be purposeful and strategic about it."

Though, there are some things in higher education he said he believes should not change. "Reports of the death of major residential research universities are greatly exaggerated," he said.

At UT-Austin specifically, Powers said that he would like to improve faculty and staff compensation, because it has become increasingly difficult to attract and retain top employees. "Let me put it bluntly," he said. "We need raises, even if we have to stop doing some other important things to get them."

In his speech, Powers said that UT-Austin has the lowest per-student, per-year support from tuition, general revenue and the Available University Fund — a major source of funding distributed by the University of Texas System — combined of its 14-institution peer group. Tying for 13th would require an additional $26 million annually, he said, and joining the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the number one spot would take $572 million.

He also observed that as public spending on universities has decreased, the institutions are increasingly dependent on philanthropy.

"We are witnessing a massive, historic public disinvestment in higher education," Powers said, noting that state support for institutions around the country has not kept up with enrollment growth. "In spite of that, higher education is still doing amazing things."

The most important thing universities can do to make college affordable for students, he said, is to encourage them to graduate on time, adding that UT-Austin is attempting to increase its four-year graduation rate to 70 percent in four years a nearly 20 percentage point jump.

He also encouraged people not to become mired in a debate over whether technology-enhanced courses or traditional courses are better and to instead focus on what each model does well. Powers recently proposed guiding principles for technology-enhanced education, including that faculty should be supported and rewarded for innovation, and that such efforts must be financially sustainable.

After his speech, when asked by reporters why he had not addressed — as he has in past speeches — the university's ongoing tension with the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Powers said, "There is a lot going on at this university. I really do, and the faculty really does, get up in the morning and attend to our jobs. I think that's the best way to move the university forward."

Amidst that tension, one regent — via his lawyer — has accused UT-Austin of "secret favoritism" in the admissions process of politically connected applicants. Powers disputed the idea. "We don't have favoritism in our admissions process," he told reporters.

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