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University Leaders: Higher Ed Coming Out of Controversial Time

In 2012, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, warned that Texas was “ground zero” for a controversial push to make higher education more utilitarian. Now, his tone is more hopeful.

UT-Austin President Bill Powers, left, and Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities.

In 2012, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, warned that Texas was “ground zero” for a controversial push to make higher education more utilitarian. On Monday, during an interview in Austin, he sounded tentatively more hopeful.

Although budgetary constraints and political attitudes have recently focused significant pressure and attention on public universities — and the University of Texas at Austin, in particular — Rawlings said, “It’s been happening across the country, but I’d say we’re beginning to come out of the worst of that.” 

But while there is a sense that some political turmoil may be subsiding nationally and in Texas, difficulties remain in the form of strained research budgets, demand for more effective approaches to teaching key subjects and a wave of public doubt about the value of a degree. Despite these, Rawlings insisted that there were reasons to have faith in the American higher education system.

In Austin for a meeting of the AAU’s council on federal relations, the president of the group — the country’s most elite organization of public and private research universities — was sitting in the office its new chairman, UT-Austin President Bill Powers, who has played a central role in the debate over the future course of higher education.

Powers has found himself at odds with Gov. Rick Perry and some of his appointees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents in recent years. The tension reached such a level that the board nearly — but ultimately declined to — put Powers’ employment to a vote in December.

“Any time you put major institutions and the states they are in under budgetary stress, I think it’s not surprising that you are going to get stress,” Powers agreed. “I’m a glass-half-full guy. I think we’re coming out of it, and we’ll move forward.”

In the fall, amid tension with his board, Powers assumed the prestigious one-year gig of AAU chairman. He will work closely with Rawlings, who is a former president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell University, to advocate and set the tone for the country's most prominent research-focused institutions.

As an example of challenges they are tackling, Rawlings said the AAU is currently engaged in a large effort to rethink how science is taught in universities. “Over the years, frankly, we haven’t done a great job. I think we have to confess that we just haven’t focused well enough on good pedagogy,” he said.

Both men emphasized the forward-moving nature of the AAU’s member institutions. In areas such as online learning, Rawlings noted that the country’s top universities are leading the way in the creation of new approaches, such as massive open online courses, which are courses that are made available — often for free — to an essentially unlimited global population.

“We are, frankly, change agents,” Rawlings said of the universities in the organization. “We’re not sitting around defending the status quo.”

Before it became a hot political topic, Powers said UT-Austin and fellow AAU institutions had been working for years to develop new ways to deliver course material to students using blended and online learning — “some of which," he said, "can be very valuable, some of which is probably being oversold.”

Among “the most critical judgments” university leaders make, Powers said, is which aspects of an institution to change and which to preserve.

Criticism of higher education, and particularly public higher education, has increased in recent years, as have questions about students' return on investment in a university degree. Rawlings defended liberal arts education, noting that students of today will likely have multiple jobs over their lifetimes. They will need education that can support such movement. 

“We’ve gone through a period of heavy critique, and that’s fine,” he said. “At the same time, the world is dying to get into these universities.” Calling the influx of undergraduate students from China “totally amazing,” Rawlings said the global community was “voting with its feet” in favor of American-style higher education.

While markets aren’t everything, Powers said, they are "powerful indicators of value.” Increased applications and international interest at many major research universities, he said, are a measure of validation that indicates that the core of what universities are currently doing needs to be preserved.

There also appears to be high demand in Texas for more institutions such as those in the AAU. Lawmakers have spent the last four years investing in programs to encourage the development of more “tier one” research universities, the most widely agreed upon hallmark of which is membership in the AAU.

Currently in Texas, only UT-Austin, Texas A&M University and Rice University, a private institution, are part of the invitation-only group.

Rawlings said it was possible that universities not currently in the club could gain entry at some point, though he declined to specify which schools or when that might happen. The University of Houston and Texas Tech University have, so far, had the most success in state’s competition to be the next tier-one university. Neither is in the AAU.

“We try to make very balanced, careful decisions on which universities fit our profile,” Rawlings said. “If you’re not a member of AAU, it doesn’t mean you’re a second-rate university. It just means you don’t fit the profile we have established for membership.”

That profile is largely based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of a university’s research. But because of the government shutdown and federal sequestration, for universities engaged in such research, Rawlings said, “the last few months have been very tough.”

Federal funding for research is increasingly hard to come by. Addressing that issue, Rawlings said, is among the AAU’s top priorities. He noted that as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, another Texan — U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio — is a key player in those discussions.

Powers expressed concern about the effect state and federal budget pressures could place on a generation of would-be academics, who might sense more security and opportunity in the private sector. When asked if academia was on the verge of a significant brain drain, he said, “We’re not there yet, but we need to be worried about that.”

“Economic incentives have driven this country,” he said. “Every traunch of young people coming up are making decisions, and we need to encourage them to be involved in this enterprise, not to shy away.”

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