2015: An agenda for higher education

Photo by Tamir Kalifa

The Association of American Universities has called the University of Texas System “ground zero” in the national debate over changes to higher education. Those changes — which include new financial models, higher graduation rates and greater accessibility — are important. But they must also be balanced with raising the quality of education and funding critical research at our premier universities. That’s why governance of the UT System will be such a critical issue for Texas in 2015.

The UT System is a state and national treasure. It is made up of nine universities and six medical institutions, each with its own dedicated team of presidents and academic leaders. With 92,000 faculty and staff members and a nearly $15 billion annual budget to serve over 220,000 students, it is one of the largest employers in the nation and the second-largest in Texas after Walmart. It is also unique in Texas in that it is enshrined in the state constitution.

All of this means that the regents who are entrusted to lead the UT System have an awesome responsibility to all Texans, as well as tremendous opportunities to anticipate and meet Texans’ educational needs.

But the UT System doesn’t face these challenges alone. Virtually all public higher education institutions must confront the rising expectations of taxpayers who demand better returns on their investments, and increasing pressure from new technologies like online learning. They must also assume the constant moral obligations of improving access for all citizens, and of ensuring that students’ investments of time and money result in greater economic opportunity — including jobs. In some cases, higher education institutions face obstructionism by entrenched interests that defend the status quo against innovation and accountability.

What is unique about the UT System is the recent tensions that underlie how it is managed. It makes sense that such an important institution that is over 130 years old has many supporters — and some detractors — with strong opinions. That includes roughly 1 million alumni and their families who have deep affiliations with our campuses, and it certainly includes legislators who have certain oversight responsibilities.

The challenge we face together is to identify the proper roles for every UT stakeholder. This should start with increasing public awareness about the UT System structure. It must also include our state media better understanding the specific issues that underlie governance tensions. And it must include awareness of proven best practices in place at other institutions.

For example, some legislators pretend that the UT System Board of Regents is willing to sacrifice educational quality at our flagship university, UT-Austin, to achieve other objectives, such as lower student costs or expanded accessibility. As regents, we are guided first by the demands of the Texas Constitution, which requires that the flagship institution be maintained as a “University of the first class.” Every regent would agree that this deliberately crafted description means that no effort to encourage new approaches or to consider reforms could override the requirement that the university be perceived as among the best in the world.

By the same token, media that cover the UT System must also consider the first sentence of this part of our Constitution. It begins: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people…” That means that while quality is an imperative for the UT System, so is the diffusion of knowledge to all Texans. It also raises a key question for every regent and stakeholder: Given our responsibility as stewards of these great institutions, how can we continually expand the diffusion of knowledge in the UT System to as many Texans as possible?

While every stakeholder deserves some say in how the UT System pursues its mission, only the board of regents is empowered — and, even more importantly, obligated — to lead the mission. The National Commission on College and University Board Governance wrote last year that “to meet their responsibilities, boards must focus on their distinct fiduciary role: to oversee the assets of the institution that the board holds in trust for the public.” And that fiduciary oversight, according to the commission, “extends far beyond a simple review of finances. It encompasses a calibration of institutional effectiveness in delivering both short-term and long-term value.”

In the end, Texans must be confident that the regents who represent their interests will provide effective and unflinching leadership in the face of every pressure.

The attention on the UT System will continue into the New Year, and for good reason. Our system is and will remain a collection of world-class institutions and the pride of Texas. But the effectiveness with which it is guided can only be measured over time. With so many challenges facing the UT System and so many competing interests working to influence its direction, the most important focus for regents will be to lead an even stronger governance structure that keeps our institutions on track.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Wallace Hall Jr.

University of Texas System regent