Research Enhances Teaching

by Bill Powers, President

April 6, 2011

In his March 31 op-ed "Texas students should not take back seat to research" (Page B9), Texas Public Policy Foundation fellow Ronald Trowbridge makes a number of generalizations about modern universities. Although the shortcomings he cites are not attributed to UT-Austin, I want to share some relevant information about teaching and research on our campus.

Our faculty is committed to teaching - both undergraduates and graduate students.

In the past seven years, we have devoted a great deal of thought, energy and funding to improving the undergraduate learning experience. A curriculum reform task force that I chaired before I became president recommended the creation of Signature Courses for all first-year students - courses taught by senior faculty that provide a rigorous intellectual experience, emphasize writing and share the treasures of the university's collections and libraries. Many of these courses, including the one that I teach, are small freshman seminars with close interaction between faculty and students. We have also been working to redesign undergraduate courses in ways that develop our students' proficiency in writing, speaking, quantitative reasoning and independent inquiry.

We give our freshmen a chance to get involved in research. More than 500 first-year students participate in the Freshman Research Initiative in laboratories exploring chemistry, biochemistry, nanotechnology, molecular biology, physics, astronomy and computer sciences with faculty mentors. This experience improves their overall success, as participants go on to earn higher grades and more scholarships and have higher retention and graduation rates.

We believe it's important to expose our freshmen and sophomores to great teaching, the tools of scholarship and problem solving.

Research enhances teaching - and it's good for Texas.

Universities enable research that the private sector may be unwilling to support but that has incalculable benefit to society.

For example, during the 1960s and early 1970s, UT Professor John B. Goodenough spent a decade studying the relationship between chemistry and the physical properties of solids. Years later this work was instrumental in the creation of the lithium-ion battery, which led to the development of the cell phone and the wireless revolution that brought us laptop computers and other hand-held devices. While these developments eventually had enormous economic impact, Professor Goodenough was employed by research universities during this period, not the private sector.

Furthermore, private-sector researchers are educated in universities, often by experienced tenured faculty actively engaged in research, and they benefit from the published research findings of our faculty. Private-sector research is often proprietary; university researchers make their work available to all through publication.

All of this is good for our state economy. UT-Austin received about $318 million in state support in 2010-11. It leveraged the state's investment into $642 million (2009-10) in external research grants secured by faculty - and a total budget of $2.2 billion in 2010-11. Revenue sources other than state appropriations include tuition, research, self-supporting operations such as housing and parking, gifts and endowments. The university generated more than $5.8 billion in economic activity in Texas during 2009-10, according to the Bureau of Business Research.

We grant more undergraduate and graduate degrees than any Texas university. We have the highest four-year graduation rate of any public university in the state. I'm proud of UT-Austin's stature as a national and global university. But like any institution, we can improve, and we will.

As we explore ways to adapt public higher education for the 21st century, we must make sure that we preserve those attributes that have brought us this far in our quest to be the best public university in America.