The University of Texas at Austin
  • UT Austin among nation's most productive universities

    By William Powers Jr.
    Published: June 8, 2011

    William Powers Jr. is president of The University of Texas at Austin. In this piece recently published by the Austin American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News, Powers discusses the university’s productivity. Read more on his Tower Talk blog.

    With more than 52,000 students and many nationally ranked academic programs, The University of Texas at Austin is one of the most productive universities in the United States. But you wouldn’t know it by reading the Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s (CCAP) recently published report, which suggests that if the 80 percent of our faculty that have the lowest teaching load taught half as much as the top 20 percent, tuition could be reduced by half.

    The most obvious flaw in this analysis is that the measure of faculty productivity is limited solely to semester credit hours. There is no attempt to measure the quality, and therefore the true productivity, of the learning experience.

    At UT, we could easily increase the appearance of efficiency by doing all our teaching in classes of 300 students. According to the CCAP metric, our university would then be far more productive. But what is the goal of a university? At UT, our goal is to provide the most effective learning experience for our undergraduates and graduate students. In addition, we expect our faculty to conduct research to expand knowledge and benefit society.

    Let me give one example. As a part of our curriculum reform at UT, we now require all freshmen to complete what we call a First-year Signature Course. In these courses, taught by senior faculty, students concentrate on writing and speaking, critical thinking, and research. These courses are often taught in small seminars, such as the one that I teach. The CCAP analysis would penalize a faculty member for teaching any small class. Yet exposing our freshmen to a rich learning experience with our best faculty is central to our mission and increases our overall educational productivity.

    By the CCAP’s measure a faculty member teaching a class of 300 is 16 times more “productive” than one teaching an 18-student seminar. Our small freshman seminars are labor intensive, but we value the student-faculty interaction, and students tell us they value it, too. The same point could be made regarding upper-division and graduate seminars, which are small and relatively expensive. But we believe that providing high-quality graduate education is important for training the next generation of researchers, scholars, and leaders.

    At UT we offer a few classes that are large, some with more than 500 students. But we offer many more small classes: 34 percent have fewer than 20 students, and another 41 percent have between 20 and 49 students. Universities need a healthy balance of class sizes to be efficient while maintaining the quality of our teaching. Therefore it comes as no surprise that a minority of UT instructors teaches a majority of semester credit hours, and there is nothing problematic about this.

    Furthermore, our faculty devote large amounts of time to student advising, research, scholarly publications, administrative responsibilities, participation and leadership in national and international organizations, and public service. None of this is measured in the CCAP analysis. Overall productivity is important; the mix of individual contributions to productivity is a tactic to achieve it.

    At UT, we are very serious about increasing productivity in teaching, research, business operations, and commercialization of intellectual property. Indeed, among the nation’s 120 leading research universities, we are the 10th most efficient when measuring the amount of tuition and state money we spend to achieve our six-year graduation rate. And we spend less state money and tuition per faculty member than all but one other research university in America.

    We welcome all productivity analysis that measures quality — because outstanding teaching and research are our goals. With our state’s largest enrollment, highest ranked programs, and highest four-year graduation rate, we are very productive. And we do this with tuition of less than $10,000 per year while receiving only 14 percent of our budget from state appropriations. However, we’re still not satisfied, and we are implementing multiple initiatives to further improve our efficiency.

    For the citizens of Texas, we are a very good investment. Last year, our faculty attracted $648 million in research grants, more than double our current state appropriation of $318 million. When combined with other revenue from tuition, philanthropy, and auxiliary enterprises, taxpayers received the benefit of $5.8 billion in economic activity. All of this comes at an annual cost of about $13 per Texas resident.

    It’s curious that advocates for productivity should take aim at one of the most productive universities in the nation. In any event, at The University of Texas at Austin, we welcome productivity analysis that includes measures of academic quality, and we will continue to strive for even greater efficiency and effectiveness.

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    • Quote 2
      Michael E said on June 15, 2011 at 9:29 a.m.
      As a UT parent, I'm gratified to see President Powers push back against the very vocal but small group of ideologues who want to hijack higher education in Texas. Given the value of UT and its graduates to Texas's competitiveness in the marketplace, UT is our state's best investment in the future.
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      Mitch Smidt said on June 11, 2011 at 3:28 p.m.
      Great article! I'm extremely happy that the president of our university has the insight to understand how much more effective small classes are than large classes. Students are far more engaged, and therefore gain more knowledge.
    • Quote 2
      Bill W said on June 10, 2011 at 6:33 p.m.
      If the Texas State Legislature doesn't like the job UT is doing, then I say "cut 'em free" from State appropriations. The Legislature only gives 14% of the total budget anyway, hardly enough to pay the electric bills! Of course the Legislators enjoy the perks of getting free football, basketball, etc tickets, free gym privileges, and the right to brag on how much they are doing for education in Texas, so they'll never let UT go it on its own, although UT could do a lot better without their so-called "support." I vote to free UT from the Legislature.
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      Jonathan said on June 10, 2011 at 7:52 a.m.
      As a student who will be starting soon at the UT, I was happy to read this response by Mr. Powers. It does a great job of explaining the weaknesses of the report. Beyond the mentioned levels of efficiency in the classroom I would like to add my own personal experience. I received great personal responses to my inquiries. As a result, I will be moving to Austin for graduate school from out of state.
    • Quote 2
      oliver said on June 9, 2011 at 1:17 p.m.
      Bill Powers provides the right leadership and focus to UT. Larger enrolment in education does not necessarily provide a better education. Quality is paramount. Two key variable for quality education: good teachers and small classes. Whoever think that UT Austin will attract talents at both the sudent and faculty level by having large student/faculty classes is making a serious miscaculations. Let us back Bill Powers 100%
    • Quote 2
      Orris "Edd" Burns said on June 9, 2011 at 11:18 a.m.
      It is ridiculous to assume that teaching more students is more productive. In my experience, I learned much more in the smaller classes because it was easier to interact with the instructor. The large classes do not really encourage students to participate in the learning experience. If 10 % of the students in class of 500 wanted to ask questions, there would be no time left to present any new material. I think that UT should continue to foster a better learning environment rather than be a degree mill that generates graduates that have no practical experience, and cannot apply what they have, in theory, “learned” while getting a degree. There is a big difference between completing a course, and understanding he material presented in a course. In my job as a software engineer, too many people have come to work for me that are adequate programmers, but have no real idea of how to engineer a solution, or to work effectively as part of a team.
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      Robert A. Spears said on June 9, 2011 at 11:15 a.m.
      The University is the State's premier center of higher learning. It's leadership in attracting and keeping the highest qualified faculty and staff is among the best in the country. I detest the efforts of the Republican controlled State House and Senate to undermine the University's goal of becoming a highly regarded institution for research and graduating some of the most talented and productive individuals in the country. I'm obviously proud of the University and of being an alumnus. I will do all that I can to make sure the current attacks by the politicians in Austin will be unsuccessful.
    • Quote 2
      Rebecca Orozco said on June 9, 2011 at 11:04 a.m.
      HOOK'EM HORNS!!!!!
    • Quote 2
      Brian Burnett said on June 9, 2011 at 10:14 a.m.
      I think it's perfectly appropriate to have an architecture pinup for the photo in this article. I graduated from UT School of Architecture, and we had a large number of small studios and seminar classes. A 5 credit hour class w/ 15 people actually required 15 hours of in class time for the professors, something the study referred to is more than likely unaware of as well. Class size is what made my education so valuable, so keep it up!
    • Quote 2
      Geraldine Conrad said on June 9, 2011 at 9:55 a.m.
      I received two advanced degrees from UT-Austin and consider the experience a blessing and gift. I read of the misdirected legislative assaults on support for academic integrity and excellence troubling from Chicago, where University of Illinois suffers, too. I applaud President Powers for his efforts and hope those in Texas who recognize the worth of UT-Austin help it thrive nonetheless. I wonder if legislators recognize that the university must have well-prepared and curious students enrolling, and a stunted earlier schooling will be detrimental. Critical thinking is not a threat!
    • Quote 2
      Charles E. Thrash said on June 9, 2011 at 9:26 a.m.
      I very much appreciate the faculty and staff of the University standing up against efforts by some very short sighted individuals to turn the University into a trade school. I hope every Texas Ex and every other Texan will resist those that either want to destroy out state's greatest center of learning out of jealousy or because they have no understanding of education's essential role in the future of our state.
    • Quote 2
      David L. Kirchner said on June 9, 2011 at 6:28 a.m.
      Bill, That's a great rebuttal to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s recently published report! Full speed ahead! (Don't even worry about damning the torpedoes, they're missing by miles)!
    • Quote 2
      Seymour Pomerantz said on June 9, 2011 at 2:12 a.m.
      Congratulations Dr Powers for an excellent response to the bogus CCAP report. I hope that it gets a great deal of exposure. Seymour Pomerantz, PhD in Chemistry, 1952
    • Quote 2
      John St.Lawrence said on June 8, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.
      The problem with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, or the Texas Public Policy Foundation, lobbing bogus studies and goofy metrics at the University of Texas is that the university, being a university, has a very deep pool of talent to draw on that can show that these two organizations are, essentially, lying. But I assume that these think tanks know all this. Perhaps their intention is to spam the debate in order to distract from one disastrous budget cut after another?
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