III.
COMMUNICATION WITH THE PRESIDENT.

A. Questions to the President.

From Professor Thomas Palaima (classics):

This is one topic with six specific points for comment. In the most recent world rankings of institutions of higher education by the most widely used such survey, The Times Higher Education [World University Rankings], 72 of the top 200 institutions were from the United States.

This [ranking] includes the top five (Harvard, Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford and Princeton) and 15 of the top 20. Among our main public university competitors, Berkeley ranked 8th, UCLA 11th, U Michigan 15th, U Washington 23rd, UC Santa Barbara 29th, UNC 30th, UC San Diego 32nd, U Illinois Champaign-Urbana 33rd, U Wisconsin 43rd. The University of Texas at Austin was conspicuous by its absence. Among Texas schools Rice University was 47th and Texas A&M 205th. When asked about Texas’ failure to appear, according to The Texas Tribune, Kristi Fisher, director of UT’s Office of Information Management and Analysis, said they opted out for two reasons. First, budget cuts have caused resource constraints, and projects must be chosen carefully. Also, the survey was using new methodology for the first time, and there was talk it might be suspect. “The last thing we wanted to do was spend a lot of resources to participate in a survey that might have flawed methodology behind it,” Fisher said.

  1. Why is it that our main public-university competitors can participate and excel at this survey, yet we do not participate and are embarrassingly absent from the rankings? We participated and provided data for the survey for the six years 2004-2009, so there must have been mechanisms in place to conveniently provide most of the data, even if some new information was required in 2010.
  2. Can you give a ballpark estimate of how much money was saved by not participating in this important international survey? The trend over the 6 years 2004-2009 was for the University of Texas at Austin to fall in the rankings every year. In 2004 when we were ranked 15th, our publicity engines touted this accomplishment. Yet later rankings were as follows:

    UT Austin
    2004 15th, 2005 26th, 2006 32nd, 2007 51st, 2008 70th, 2009 76th, 2010 did not participate.

    Stanford University
    2004 5th, 2005 7th, 2006 6th, 2007 19th, 2008 17th, 2009 16th, 2010 4th.

    UC Berkeley
    2004 2nd, 2005 6th, 2006 8th, 2007 22nd, 2008 36th, 2009 39th, 2010 8th.

    Wisconsin
    2004 66th, 2005 73rd, 2006 79th, 2007 55th, 2008 55th, 2009 61st, 2010 43rd.

    Michigan
    2004 31st, 2005 36th, 29th, 2007 38th, 2008 18th, 2009 19th, 2010 15th.

  3. What is conspicuous is that every institution I studied that participated in the 2010 survey rose in the rankings conducted with the new criteria over their rankings in 2009. Would you or Ms. Fisher please discuss what aspects of the new survey methods you viewed as problematical and why other institutions came out better?
  4. In announcing the deal that was closed to establish the Longhorns Network in collaboration with ESPN, you were quoted, “We want to define what it means to be 'the' public university.” Would you please explain what you mean by “the public university.” What criteria do you use? In what pool of institutions do you want us to be the university?
  5. By what measure are we as a whole institution even close enough to our main public competitors to dream about being the university?
  6. What impact do you think $5 million per year from the Longhorns Network, which will mainly focus on sports, will have on counter-balancing cuts in state funding, capping of tuition and of out-of-state student enrollment numbers, the rumored take-away by UT Athletics of revenues the University Coop has used to support academic programs and awards, and the general entertainment culture that big-time athletics and the Longhorns Network promote?

President Powers said he thought Professor Palaima’s six questions fell into two general categories with the first focusing on the Times of London survey and the second pertaining to the ESPN network. With regard to the first, he said there were a large number of surveys to which UT Austin is asked to participate that involve student life and academic rankings. He said he recalled that UT Austin did extremely well in the Times of London rankings back in 2004. However, he explained that a number of universities, including UC Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard, and some other very good institutions, had fallen dramatically in the Times of London rankings during the last several years, and there had been a great deal of concern raised regarding the methodology used in that particular evaluation system. He said staff members at UT Austin and at a number of prominent peer institutions interacted by email and telephone about the methodological concerns and decided more-or-less as a group not to continue participating in the survey.

President Powers said there is a cost to participating in such a survey in terms of the time required to gather and report the requested information. When the concerns about participation surfaced among the peer institutions, he said staff members at the Times of London called personnel at some of the peer institutions and persuaded their staffs to continue participating in the survey. He said he thought some changes in the methodology resulted from these interactions because the rankings at some of the peer institutions that he felt were widely perceived as being of high quality substantially increased in this year’s rankings. He said he was not specifically aware of the methodological issues because he thought the attention of personnel at the Times of London had been directed toward staffs at Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT, Michigan, for example, and this process had not included UT Austin. President Powers said it was likely that UT Austin might participate in the survey next year assuming methodological questions had been resolved. He mentioned there are a number of surveys, such as the one done by US News& World Report where financial and other data are divided by the total number of students. After saying he accepted that UT Austin would not fare so well when measures of this type were used for comparing institutions, he said it was important to carefully scrutinize the value of surveys in which the methodologies tend to penalize very large state research institutions. With regard to the expense associated with participating in the Times of London survey, President Powers said there had not been an effort to quantify the cost of the time involved in participating in the survey, but he thought it was “considerable.” He said the main issue was that participating consumed the “bandwidth of quite a few people in our office” to gather and assemble the required data.

To Professor Palaima’s questions regarding the methodological features that were perceived as initially problematic and the resulting improvement in rankings achieved by peer institutions that agreed later to participate, President Powers responded that UT Austin personnel had not had the opportunity to carefully scrutinize the new methodology after the initial decision had been made to forego participation in the Times of London survey. He reiterated that it was very possible that UT Austin might decide to participate in the survey in the future.

President Powers said Professor Palaima’s other questions dealt with the development of the new UT Austin network in conjunction with ESPN. He said he had expressed the viewpoint on many occasions that UT Austin needed “to aspire and work toward being the leading public university in the country.” With the difficult financial situation and concerns about the value of higher education now so pervasive throughout the United States, President Powers said he believed it was critical for UT Austin to creatively engage in entrepreneurial pursuits that would benefit the institution. He summed up his viewpoint by saying, “I think part of being the public university going forward will be looking at ways that we can start to get income strength from some of our assets—whether it’s the commercializable research we do, things we do in licensing, things we do with athletics, things we do on the cultural and academic side of the network.” He added it was important to be mindful that not all entrepreneurial activities were appropriate for University involvement, but efforts to create income strength deserved institutional attention. He said becoming the leading public university academically depended largely on departmental efforts to develop top-ranking programs of research and teaching.

With regard to instruction, he said the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ review focused primarily on our new undergraduate curriculum and concluded that “every university in the country ought to be looking at the approach” that UT Austin has taken in developing reforms. He reminded Council members of how the faculty governance body and faculty in general had been heavily involved in the curricular reform process and said he thought that was a good example of UT Austin’s academic leadership. He said he wanted our institution to be widely perceived as a place that managed to redesign courses, even during budgetary crises, which relied on cognitive science and technology with improved positive outcomes for our graduates. However, he said his main criterion for evaluating the success of UT Austin was whether people would be advising young Ph.D. graduates entering the job market and undergraduates looking for further academic opportunities to “Go to Texas” for its outstanding academic programs in areas such as history, biomedical engineering, music, etc. He wants UT Austin to be well situated on a very short list of highly recommended institutions, including places such as UC Berkeley, Michigan, Princeton, MIT, etc. He summed up his viewpoint by saying, “I think that’s what we all ought to aspire to, to be the, THE great public university in the United States.”

In further response to Professor Palaima’s queries about UT Austin aspirations to be “the” public university, President Powers mentioned that the University ranked second just behind MIT in federal peer-reviewed research among institutions without medical schools. He reported that UT Austin was $75 million ahead of UC Berkeley, which is ranked third. However, he went on to say that the University needed to continue to improve with additional departments being ranked nationally within the top-ten of their respective disciplines. He said he thought UT Austin’s biggest enemy was the perception that “We’re okay—B+ is good enough.” However, he said he thought this kind of perception was less prevalent than it had been when he arrived here in 1977. He added that that he believed the beacon for improvement resided in each department in its plan for hiring, tenuring, allocating resources, designing curriculum, and essentially aspiring to “be as the very, very top.” He said to the extent that we do not have such a goal and operationalize it through good decision-making, then “We’re assigning ourselves to B+, and that is not what The University of Texas is or what it ought to aspire to be.” President Powers said he thought the “war on mediocrity” waged in the early 1980s by then President Peter Flawn, was exactly the correct strategy because the University must have a goal “to self-define what it is—what we aspire to—and then say, we’re going be the very best.” Although he said approaches and plans to operationalize this goal could be different across the various disciplines, he said his belief in this goal was the strongest of any other he held for UT Austin’s success.

In answer to Professor Palaima’s last question regarding the impact of the annual $5 million flow of funds from the Longhorn Network, President Powers said he had commented on many occasions about the role of athletics at a major university and felt it was not necessary to reiterate his viewpoints on that matter in his current comments. However, he said, “I do think the academics, obviously, is number one” and further added that whatever was done on the athletics side had to be compatible with and support the academic side. He emphasized the importance of assuring our athletic programs operate with integrity and provide positive academic experiences for student athletes. He said he thought “athletics is a window and a connection to alumni” and gave a number of examples of donors who had continued giving even more generously to the University’s academic programs after initially connecting through athletics.

Of the annual $10 million that UT Austin expects to net from the Longhorn Network, President Powers said half would go toward academics during the first five years and “some arrangement like that will continue.” He said this infusion of funds would provide great support for academic efforts. As to how the funds would impact the budget and its current shortfalls, he said the actual influence could not be determined until after the final budget emerges. He said he perceives that using the new funds to pay the light bills as a wasted opportunity and would prefer using the funds on recruiting and retaining the best faculty for UT Austin. He added that he hoped to use the new resources for chairs or chair-like endowments to support the work of faculty, but he could not guarantee this would occur given the budgetary challenges facing the University and the need to pay lecturers and teaching assistants as well as meet other operational expenses. He said the administration had five-year plans from the colleges and schools, but there was a good deal of pain built into those plans. With an increasingly sophisticated financial planning process underway in the provost’s office and assistance from the deans and chairs, President Powers said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the $5 million could be protected for use in faculty development improvements over a period of time.

When Professor Molly Cummings (integrative biology) asked if a question on another topic could be asked, President Powers responded by saying yes. Professor Cummings asked about the pending handgun legislation as follows:

I am curious what kind of resources are allocated currently, or you are considering allocating, to polling UT faculty, students, and staff, regarding the handgun bill legislation. Certainly, other universities who are facing the same dilemma have polled their faculty with impressive results. At the University of Arizona, for example, 95 percent of faculty members are against handgun bills. Clearly, it would not be effective in tomorrow’s fight in the Senate. However, if this bill does get passed, there is talk of amendments regarding local control. And I think if UT, the premier university in this state, showed significant numbers regarding opposition to this bill, we might actually have some affect in whether that amendment passes.

President Powers agreed with Professor Cummings, saying he was very concerned about the bill and had made his views know at the legislative session. He said he had talked with individual legislators and had been quoted in the newspapers. At the joint meeting of the UT Faculty Council and the Texas A&M Faculty Senate, he said he thought a resolution about the issue had been passed. When he asked if the UT Faculty Council had passed a resolution, Chair Elect Friedman (English) said a resolution would be acted upon later at the current Council meeting. President Powers said UT Austin students had spoken up about the issue, and he said there was no doubt that legislators knew what the UT Austin position was. When asked if having poll numbers would be of tactical help, Professor Cummings said she thought numbers counted. She said at the legislative hearing last week, there were mixed viewpoints expressed by the students. President Powers said he realized positions varied among the students, but he believed there was overwhelming support against liberalizing the concealed carry proposal. When Professor Cummings said there were no actual numbers to support this view, the president said he agreed. She went on to report that she was the only UT Austin faculty member present at the hearing, and she said she believed increased opposition would have an impact. She said she was grateful that the president and chancellor had publically spoken out about the negative impact on campus safety, but she thought faculty members from UT Austin needed to actively participate. President Powers agreed, saying he thought numbers and data would be helpful. He again emphasized that the UT viewpoint was well understood by legislators and said he thought the UT Austin police chief had been effective in his leadership regarding the potential negative impact on campus safety. President Powers thanked Professor Cummings for her comments.


Return to main minutes