UT administration

As a (very busy) designer of K-12 and higher education music technology curriculum programs around the country, and as an alum of UT Austin, I find [the music school’s freezing of admissions to the music recording technology and music business programs] so out of touch with the current and future music culture as to be sadly humorous (and it clearly illustrates the administration’s lack of foresight). I am personally ashamed that the UT administration is so backward-thinking. Why cut out the ONLY music program a student has a chance of making a decent living in music with and force a 300-year-old dead music microcosm on our students (who blindly trust UT to show the way for their musical financial future)? Hate to say it, but classical musicians today are not moving forward, and many can never get well-paying jobs.  Yet there are myriad opportunities in the production, recording and music business industries right inside Austin itself!

Are the heads of the UT adminstration so archaic and old that they don’t realize classical music is an elitist dead-end in terms of job prospects? Taking away the Music Recording Technology and Music Business programs at the Butler School of Music to focus on classical music is like eliminating the business programs in the McCombs School of Business to focus on telegraph production and manufacturing techniques (yeah, telegraph!). UT was making good strides during the past few years in trying to catch up with the ‘80s and was close to getting there, e.g., senior lecturer Gary Powell’s Intro to Audio Recording class. 

With the discontinuation of the recording and music business program, UT has slunk back to the myopic and misguided focus of classical music only, a la the ‘70s — days when I played the harp and organ as a UT student because there wasn’t an electric or electronic instrument anywhere in sight (and forget recording back then — just like next semester. I guess that’s progress, folks, back to the ‘70s!). Maybe in the ‘20s UT can once again try to catch up with the ‘80s or even the ‘90s.

Even in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the music industry and recording industry are minimal at best, we have a thriving music technology program at the University of St. Francis that houses about 130 recording and music business students and another music technology/recording program at Indiana University - Purdue University Fort Wayne, with about 80 students (also soon to unveil a master’s in music technology).  They mostly all get placed into decent jobs, with benefits!  That’s on the strength of the music tech and recording industries now, growing ever more present every day. Can you say iTunes? 

Does the UT administration not know what most people (read: their kids!) spend their time doing? Answer: listening to music or trying to listen to music (and very little of it is classical music)! All that music has to be written, recorded, mixed, mastered, duplicated (posted), distributed, marketed, sold and attached rights to, and somebody gets paid to do each step (not to mention the same job-inducing processes for all the hundreds of hours of new music daily on cable and web shows!). Since the UT administration has abolished the only truly forward-looking music degree program, UT Austin students will not be able to participate in the new music economy until UT administrators gets their heads out of the 18th century. So ironically sad, especially since it’s due to ambiguous “budget cuts” from one of the richest universities on the planet in the middle of one of the foremost music economy cities on the planet.

—  UT alumus Kenny Bergle, in response to Eleanor Dearman’s Monday article titled “Butler School of Music removes programs in response to budget cuts.”

Editor's note: This column is part of a point/counterpoint on proposed undergraduate tuition increases. You can find its companion column, arguing against the proposed increases, here.

Recently, I was invited to join a Facebook event titled “Against UT tuition increases.” The group’s goal was to galvanize students against possible tuition hikes that may be suggested by student leaders in a proposal to be sent to the UT System Board of Regents on March 26. 

The Facebook group creator, computer science junior and former Daily Texan columnist Mukund Rathi, asked students to attend town hall forums held by legislative student organizations to discuss the possible tuition hikes and make their objections heard.

I attended one of these forums, but not to voice objections to the proposed tuition rates. Yes, I would prefer not to have to pay more for tuition, but, with the constant decline in state funding, as well as UT’s striving to be a leading research university, the necessity for tuition increases is inevitable. And let’s get one thing straight: Student leaders are not being asked to consider tuition increases just for the hell of it. 

During the fiscal year 1984-85, the University received 47 percent of its funding from the Texas legislature. This year, state funds have dwindled to only 13 percent of the school’s budget. 

In the past, substantial aid from the Legislature kept tuition rates artificially low. During the SG public forum held last Tuesday, Rathi said, “Students shouldn’t have to get a part-time job. Students should not have to deal with tuition increases.” Unfortunately, the reality is that we don’t live in a utopia where the cost of everything, including a college education, is equal to everyone’s financial capabilities, and any measure taken by the UT administration is not going to solve income inequality overnight. Also within this reality is a harsh truth: Money rules everything.

A key factor in student opposition to the tuition hike is the lack of information students have on the matter. The sentiment that I gathered from attending the forum was that the burden of the bulk of UT’s budget was being placed on students. 

That’s simply not true, and it wouldn’t be even if tuition were to increase. During the 2012-13 fiscal year, after tuition revenues, there was more than $1 billion left in operating expenses. Even if the University increased in-state tuition rates by 2.6 percent as proposed, the increase would only mean, on average, about $254 more per year per Texas resident student for the University, which would add only approximately $9 million to the school’s budget. About $2 million would be added from out-of-state tuition revenues. With operating expenses of more than $2.4 billion last fiscal year, and tuition covering only about $500 million, the increase in tuition would be a drop in the bucket for the University’s budget.

During the public forum, Plan II honors senior Scott Wahl proposed an active protest outside of the Board of Regents office. Although I cannot be sure as to what the Regents will decide, tuition increases for Texas residents are improbable. Last year, when President William Powers, Jr. submitted a recommendation to the Regents for a student-approved tuition increase, the request was denied. The Texas Tribune reported that the Regents Chairman Gene Powell was in favor of freezing in-state tuition in order to reduce the burden on students and their families. 

Last tuition-setting year, in order to resolve the budget problem and offset tuition increases, the Regents allocated money to the University from the Available University Fund. That money makes up the Permanent University Fund, a public endowment to support certain Texas public higher education institutions. The University cannot depend on this fund as a solution to its financial problems, though. Despite the PUF’s assets totalling nearly $16 billion, only 4.25 to 5 percent of the funds can be used for the Available University Fund. That percentage of money is not just up for taking by the University, as it is shared with the A&M system, as well as between all 15 UT system institutions. 

And, if students fear that increasing tuition now would set a precedent for future tuition increases, they shouldn’t: the Legislature has mandated a fixed tuition plan for the incoming class of Fall 2014. This plan would allow students to opt into paying the same tuition for a period of twelve consecutive semesters. 

But the main problem with arguments against tuition increases is the egocentrism of students. We think about the now and how it affects us in this moment. The ire surrounding the tuition debate only came about once the proposal included a 2.6 percent in-state undergraduate tuition increase. The original proposal submitted in December 2013 only called for increases in undergraduate tuition for out-of-state students. I didn’t hear many UT students protesting that increase. 

Students who are against the increases are simply not considering the situation from the administration’s point of view. The University has to plan for its financial position years from now, even after current students are gone, and the University cannot continue its success without adequate funding. Tuition increases are a necessary evil, and, while student leaders should represent the voice of their constituents, the voices of informed students should carry more weight in the tuition discussion. 

Davis is an international relations and French junior from Houston.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article identifed the average tuition increase as $127 per student, per year. The article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the average increase would be $127 per student, per semester.

On April 25, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Menand visited campus and delivered a lecture titled “The Condition of the Humanities.” An English and American literature and language professor at Harvard University, Menand previously taught at the City University of New York and is a writer for The New Yorker. In his most recent book, “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University,” he poses questions about “the large social investment” Americans make in institutions “whose purpose is simply the production and dissemination of knowledge — that is research and teaching.”

Menand talked to the Texan about his ideas about higher education in the context of battles the UT System Board of Regents and the UT administration continue to wage over the future of our University. That conversation, during which Menand spoke frankly about the online world’s pressure on traditional universities, can be found below, edited and condensed. 

Daily Texan: Are you familiar with UT and the conflict between the UT System Board of Regents and the University’s president?
Louis Menand: I know there’s a conflict. I don’t know all the details.

DT: The UT administration, faculty, governing regents and state lawmakers are wrestling with big questions about higher education institutions and how they should function and for what purpose. Given your arguments in your 2010 book that 21st century professors are essentially trying to to function in a 19th century system, what do you advise as the path forward for a large public university subject to the influence of a large, conservative southern state legislature and a very empowered governor?

Menand: (Laughing) That’s a loaded question. I wasn’t referring in that phrase about it being a 19th century institution to the issues that are confronting people at UT ... 

[T]here’s always sort of the same tug of war, handoff regarding whatever the state governing agency, regents or whatever they might be, the governor or the legislature. In [the case of the City University of New York it is] the mayor and the faculty administration of the institution. And it’s always the case that the public officials want to see enrollments, graduation rates, job placements in pretty concrete empirical terms in judging how much they’re going to invest in the institution, because CUNY was 95 percent public money, and the university and the faculty are pushing back and resisting that, because they know perfectly well that not every education can be quantified in those terms and if you try to do that, you’re going to ruin what makes universities places that can produce in all kinds of unpredictable ways people that are very creative and productive members of society.

DT: So who’s right and who will win? In the big picture, because you’re saying it’s not just at CUNY, it’s not just at UT.
Menand: It’s a large public university question ... and it’s usually the flagship that gets a lot of flak. At CUNY I taught in the graduate center, one of 20 campuses. In bad financial times [the graduate center] got an enormous amount of criticism because we didn’t teach that much, we were paid more, we admitted students from out of New York City, all the accusations of being elitist and expendable. But it wasn’t ... First of all, it was a way of providing an excellent education for a number of students, and secondly, it was a way of giving the system a high profile, which was important. UT is thought by everybody in the United States to be one of the great universities in the country, so I don’t know why you’d want to mess with it, really.  

DT: Why is it one of the best universities in the country? What makes that the case?
Menand: The quality of the faculty.

DT: And, so, is there something incorrect about the argument that it’s not necessarily to the benefit of public university students in the best way possible?
Menand: It’s a legitimate question to ask: Is your public university system educating people who will become productive workers in Texas (ideally), or wherever they may go? Or is this a very expensive post-high school something? The university system has to be accountable to the taxpayers through the officials.

DT: So what is an example of it working? And why is it a question that’s being raised so angrily right now, at UT, but also at Illinois and Virginia?
Menand: So, I think that the period since 2008 has been a period for states of a lot of financial constraints and pressures that cause them to look at the various things that they fund and to try and see if they can reduce costs or increase the effectiveness of what they’re doing. So that’s one piece of it. The second piece of it is the MOOC [Massive Open Online Courses] phenomenon. So the MOOC phenomenon gives people the idea that you could actually educate people a whole lot cheaper by having everything streamed through a computer and you wouldn’t have to pay faculty who are less efficient and can teach much smaller numbers of students ... Unfortunately, that’s become the leverage of this argument — that the MOOCs are going to solve the problem for us, basically automating the teaching process.

DT: What do you think about that?
Menand: I think it’s a bad idea if that happens. But I think it’s going to happen.

DT: When?
Menand: Look, I don’t like to predict things, so it’s hard to say. I think that one thing that could happen — not in Austin but at other schools in the UT System — is that they will stop hiring faculty because they’ll be able to for nothing get online instruction from people at Stanford, Harvard and UT-Austin, who will create these MOOCs. And that’s a very low-cost way of getting high prestige faculty to teach your students for you even if they don’t go to that university. Insofar as governors and legislators think that this is a good solution, it’s definitely in the wings.

DT: And why do you think it’s a bad idea?
Menand: Because, for one thing, it’s going to really disrupt the professional ecology of the academic business because our graduate students, the people we’re training to continue to teach what we teach won’t be able to get jobs. Those are the schools where people get jobs. And if those jobs are starting to disappear because those faculty are being turned into basically teaching assistants or they’re being phased out, then our graduate students won’t be able to get work done and the profession will start to wither because we need something like a robust economy. The second reason why, I think, is that for many fields, obviously there’s some courses in some areas where MOOCs are probably an adequate form of pedagogy, but for many fields, certainly the stuff that I teach, you can’t do it that way, you need to have interaction in a classroom with human beings.

DT: What forces exist today that you think will contend with the force that is the argument in favor of MOOCs? What optimism do you have that it won’t become totally automated?
Menand: I think that the reason I would worry about it is that there’s always been distance learning, and for most of the time, the elite institutions have always just looked down their noses at distance learning. Now, suddenly, who are the people who are the big movers in the MOOC world? Stanford, Harvard, [UT-]Austin, Wesleyan — the big name schools are trying to get involved. And they have the capital to make it happen. [Harvard] plunked down $30 million to be part of edX, which is our MOOC, [and UT’s], so we can get in where smaller schools and less wealthy schools can’t get into the game, we can get our brand product out there. So when you’re taking a course on Henry James and you want to MOOC it, you’ll get the Harvard Henry James.

DT: This digital revolution in the context of higher education is one area, but is there any other historical precedent, not for the digital revolution, but for these kinds of changes?
Menand: Well, one parallel is in the 19th century when the research university became the model institution and replaced the old college. And the research university was, as the name implies, founded on the assumption that the chief business of the academic mission was to produce research and scholarship, and so teaching was always part of that but the main thing was to produce knowledge. And the norms for knowledge production at that time were heavily scientific. ... There was a real struggle in that period to try to establish a place for the arts and humanities and the non-hard sciences in the university system, which is really set up ideally to produce science and scientific knowledge. And it was partially successful. But basically, the research model won. That’s the model that we have.

Yesterday, The Texas Tribune published a revealing story about UT System Regent Wallace Hall Jr. 

These days, Hall is best known on campus and at the Capitol for his apparent mission to unseat UT President William Powers Jr. Specifically, Hall proposed and received approval from the other regents on March 20 to fund an investigation of forgivable loans given from a private foundation to law school faculty, even though the Texas attorney general signed off on a previous investigation, the results of which placed no blame on Powers — who served as dean of the law school before becoming UT president — for “lack of transparency” related to the loans.

According to the Tribune story, Hall shares his own lack-of-transparency moment: When he was being vetted after the governor nominated him as a regent, he omitted mention of several lawsuits to which he had been a party, despite a requirement he do so.  

“The lawsuits themselves may or may not prove embarrassing to Hall, but the failure to disclose them provides fodder to critics who think the UT regents are on a ‘witch hunt’ to hurt its flagship university and take out its leader,” the Tribune reports.

Among those “critics” the Tribune article cites are state senators.

In December, when covering the development that Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, failed to disclose his connection to a company the board had selected to build a new children’s hospital — at the time the company the board selected had a pending business deal with a company Powell co-founded with his son — this editorial board said, “for a public official, the appearance of a conflict of interest often drains public trust as irrevocably as a verified one.” The same observation applies to Hall’s omissions from his regent application. Powell didn’t view his connection to the hospital as relevant information. 

Yesterday, in response to the Tribune’s questions, Hall called his omissions unintentional. “I do not recall the specifics,” Hall wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I have been asked by the governor’s office to supplement my disclosure and will do so shortly.” The brevity of Hall’s explanation starkly contrasts with his aggressive pursuit of Powers’ possible vulnerabilities due to the law school loans. We are disappointed and disillusioned by Hall’s apparent failure to disclose information, but we also aren’t surprised.

The missing Hall lawsuits is the latest development in the power struggle between the Board of Regents, the Texas Senate and the UT administration, yet not a decisive one. This development suggests two things we already suspected: First, the regents consider themselves policy-setting, appointed judges. In their view, their sole responsibility is to scrutinize administrators they are charged with overseeing. Second, they do not view themselves as public officials who should be subject to the same scrutiny as others. But that scrutiny is what the Legislature is applying, evident in one state senator’s sharp comments in reaction to the disclosures about Hall’s omissions. 

“Clearly this was withheld. It would seem to indicate Mr. Hall felt like it was disqualifying for his nomination,” Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told the Tribune. “Withholding that, I think, is a very, very serious thing.”

The regents, the administration and the legislators in this fight are digging for dirt on one another. In our online age when the splashiest “gotcha” moment has the potential to derail a career, each side attempts to catch the other lest they be caught themselves.

After all that has happened, distrust, and possible loathing, must thrive among the politicians, the regents and the administration. As this brawl gets uglier, we expect Gov. Rick Perry and certain members of the Legislature to emerge from behind the curtain and openly enter the arena.     

We don’t know who will win and who will lose. But we know this fight is no longer about the long-term goals of this University, but rather about the short-term employment and power grabs of those who govern it.

Yesterday, UT announced four new financial aid pilot programs, worth $5 million total, notable because the resulting handouts will be tethered to a student’s ability to graduate in four years. In the past year, the UT administration spent much energy encouraging students not to overstay their welcome in an effort to raise UT’s 2011 four-year graduation rate from 51 percent to 70 percent by 2016. This financial aid pilot program is the latest enthusiastic effort from the Tower to advance the four-year graduation rate cause.

We acknowledge that it is less costly to graduate in four years than five, but we remain unconvinced that four is a magic number or that raising four-year graduation rates is truly in the interest of individual students’ educations and deserving of so much of the Tower’s time and promotional efforts.

One of the new pilot programs offers a $1,000 one-time scholarship if students complete at least 30 hours of course work, maintain a certain grade point average and complete leadership training in their freshman year.

“Anytime you can use something like financial aid to prompt students to stop and think differently about how they respond in college, you have no choice but to do so,” said David Laude, a chemistry professor and UT’s vice provost for enrollment graduation management (aka the “four-year graduation rates czar”). Using financial aid as a carrot, UT administration hopes to encourage students to graduate more quickly. There’s not much more to it than that.

We long for the days when Laude’s intellectual energies were devoted to doling out unsolicited life lessons, not raising grad rates.  One former student remembers when one day, mid-equation, Laude turned to the class and announced, “If you have a friend who’s fragile, abandon them. They’ll figure it out on their own.”

Zachary Foust wants to teach high school history after he graduates from UT. From his outer-aisle seat in Hogg Auditorium, Zachary looked wide-eyed at the name-tagged, incoming-freshman masses all waiting for President William Powers Jr. to deliver a welcoming speech. Zachary was among the 1,200 who attended an orientation session last week, the first of six such events scheduled this summer for one of the largest incoming freshman classes in recent memory. The class of 2016 — to which Zachary belongs — could be as large as 8,500 students, roughly 1,000 students more than the university administrators initially predicted.

An unexpectedly high number of acceptances reversed historical trends and led to a bump in the size of this class. UT officials say the increase reflects a broadened recruiting effort, which proved more successful than they had expected. Although the tuition debate between the current UT administration and the Governor’s office remains heated, the price of a UT education is still a good deal for most families.

The uptick in class size will strain university resources and make increasing four-year graduation rates an uphill battle as more students struggle to find spots in the classes they need to graduate on time. This is problematic since one of Powers’ top priorities is to increase four-year graduation rates for Zachary’s cohorts to 70 percent, when current four-year graduation rates only hover around 50.

Calculating acceptance rates requires lots of guesswork by an admissions office already hamstrung by the top ten-percent rule, so the oversized class, while unexpected, does not constitute an “oops” by the administration. Nor, by all accounts, do the extra 1,000 freshman, betray a Board of Regents’ secret agenda to increase matriculation in order to gain more financial support from a state funding model that demands an increase in admissions in order to get more funds.

But, if the administration wants to improve four-year graduation rates while refuting the reputation that UT, with its packed introductory classes, is the sort of place where 18-year-olds come to get lost, it must either get serious about reducing class size, or accept greater responsibility in helping students navigate their journey through the university.

Fourth in his class of 250 students at Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, Zachary would seem to be exactly the sort of incoming student UT administrators targeted with increased recruitment efforts. He’s only been to Austin twice before, once on a school field trip to see the State Capitol and veterans’ graveyard, and then, more recently, on Longhorn Saturday when he made the decision to attend UT. Originally, he planned to go to Southwestern University, but a UT representative who visited his high school told him about UTeach, a program that gives students the opportunity to student-teach and acquire teaching certification.

In his remarks to Zachary and the others, Powers dropped not-so-subtle hints about the urgency that they graduate in 2016, not after. He told the students a story about a law school application essay he read 35 years ago as dean of UT Law School. The applicant had grown up in the city but spent a summer as a shepherd in Montana. “When she came home, her parents asked her what the most important thing she accomplished was,” Powers said. Her answer: “Not losing any of the sheep.”

“I hope you’ll take the attitude,” Powers instructed “that it is a job planning out your academic career ... and while we do everything we can to keep that cost [of higher education] as low as we can, there is no greater way to save than making an expeditious well-thought out way through the university.”

However, in his speech, Powers did not place the responsibility for four-year graduation entirely on the shoulders of UT’s 8,500, wide-eyed incoming freshman. He said the University is improving advising opportunities and expanding course offerings to help incoming students meet its four-year graduation rate objective.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Powers addressed the bump in class size and the administration’s intention to increase four-year graduation rates. He answered an inquiry about his own five children’s success at graduating in four years (three did, one took five years, and one’s still in college — so “about 70 percent,” Powers calculated).

“We fully recognize that there are things that happen during four years. People change their minds, they want to pursue something else. It is not our philosophy that there is only one way through this university. But for most students, [the four-year route] is a cost savings for taxpayers and families.”

Facing pressure from students and politicians to make UT more affordable, university administrators must walk a fine line between making UT accessible to more students and not compromising the quality of education it provides. Adding a thousand additional students to campus when current students already struggle to find space in required classes threatens UT’s academic reputation and makes the recent emphasis on four-year graduation appear half-hearted, especially when it has not been made entirely clear how increasing four-year graduation rates or class size is in the best interest of the students.

Zachary and his classmates did not choose to be part of an oversized class. Nor did they decide to enter college at a time of strained resources, when the priorities of both the legislature and the university seem to undermine the university’s previously-stated mission of becoming one of the world’s top public research universities.

We recognize the university administrators did not single-handedly create our overcrowded and underfunded campus. But as Powers and other administrators negotiate the maze of more students, less money and a legislature and governor fixated on bottom-line results, they will need to try hard to do as they instruct the students and “not lose the sheep.”

— The Daily Texan Editorial Board