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Student Life and Activities Committee

The Student Life and Activities Committee (SLAC), newly created by the Faculty Council in January 2010, met three times during the 2010-11 academic year. Alexandra Wettlaufer was elected chair of the committee and Richard Reddick was vice chair in 2010-11 and chair elect for 2011-12.

At the first SLAC meeting, the group considered how to best focus its attentions in the course of the year. Given the broad spectrum of responsibilities for this newly constituted committee, which includes “to look at issues concerning student life and activities from an academic perspective,” “to gauge whether student activities are beneficial to students’ education,” and “to review and report to the Faculty Council annually about the status of the intercollegiate athletics programs,” the consensus was that the majority of the committee members did not have the expertise or background to review the status of the intercollegiate sports programs and come to any kind of meaningful evaluation. Moreover, many felt that the student athletes already received a disproportionate amount of attention and that the rest of the student body could benefit from the committee’s consideration of ways to improve campus life and activities. The student SLAC members also felt that it would be good to have a committee focused on the various aspects of student life at UT beyond athletics. (It is worth noting that an ad hoc Committee on Athletics was constituted, chaired by Alba Ortiz, to address the area not covered by SLAC this year. Alexandra Wettlaufer and Lyn Wiltshire were members of this second committee as well as SLAC.)

Ultimately, after extensive discussion, we decided that undergraduate student life at UT could be improved by the implementation of a variety of activities that would build a stronger sense of academic/intellectual community, both among the students themselves and between students and faculty. The size of UT’s student body (more than 50,000 students), with the vast majority living off campus, combined with our relatively high undergraduate student/faculty ratio (34:1), makes it difficult for many students to get to know their professors outside of the classroom in more casual settings. This issue was brought up by many students we spoke with in preparation for our report who generally felt quite distant from the faculty. It was also concluded that sophomores and juniors would benefit most from more attention in these areas.

SLAC came up with the following recommendations to increase student/faculty interactions outside of the classroom and to build a better sense of academic and intellectual community at The University of Texas at Austin:

  • Introduce a summer reading program where everyone on campus reads a single book—students, faculty, administration, and staff. In the fall, a variety of activities could be organized for group discussions in different formats and venues that would allow students and faculty to interact in a low-key way, while discussing ideas and responses to literature.
  • Borrowing Plan II’s “Voltaire’s Coffee” concept, faculty members could select a book or film (that may or may not be related to their own field of research) and host a discussion for 20-30 students either at their homes or in a casual space such as the Student Activity Center (SAC). Students would sign up to attend; coffee and dessert could be served. These could take place throughout the year.
  • A variation on this idea is a “Faculty Fireside,” where students sign up to come to a professor’s house for dessert and conversation on a contemporary issue.
  • Reinstate Faculty Fellows in all of the dorms and eating halls. Here, a faculty member is a mentor for a hallway or section of a dorm and dines on a regular basis (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly) with the students. These casual lunches and dinners would allow informal conversation and discussion between students and professors to take place over the course of the academic year and relationships to develop outside of the classroom setting.
  • Establish/reserve community tables in Jester, Dobie, and the SAC, where students and faculty could meet on a regular basis to discuss certain topics over lunch. For example, each Tuesday a certain table in Jester Commons could be designated for current events (or economics, problems in engineering, contemporary film, etc.) and students and faculty could meet for a casual exchange of ideas.

This list is by no means exhaustive and simply represents some of the general ideas we would advocate to improve undergraduate student life at The University of Texas at Austin.

At our final meeting, we had hoped to have a member of the Student Government confer with us on what students considered important ways in which student life at UT could be improved. Although none of the officers were ultimately able to attend the meeting, they did send us a list of concerns, most of which were economic, including financial aid cuts, budget cuts and their effect on academic programs, and textbook costs. While the first two concerns are outside of our committee’s purview, we do recommend that the faculty consider moving toward e-books in their courses, whenever possible, to keep student expenses down and relieve some of the increasing economic pressure on students at this point in time. We further recommend that next year’s SLAC meet with elected officials from the Student Government to receive further input.

Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, chair