Ashley Purgason

In her visit to the Senate of College Councils last Thursday, Student Regent Ashley Purgason was quick to say that online courses “are here to stay.” More grim than enthusiastic, she assured students that online courses represented the way of the future and that faculty and students are being actively consulted about the courses’ development. The students, for the most part, seemed nonplussed by this announcement.

Why is online learning the way of the future? When I asked other students if they like online courses, their responses universally lukewarm included the following: The courses are easy to game. They’re what you make of them. They’re easier. One student responded by saying he had never taken an online class, only to remember that he had, and the experience had been so unremarkable that he had completely forgotten about it.

They had all taken online courses. Why? Because they were accessible, and these students needed the course credits the online courses provided to complete their real-life degrees. 

The accessibility of online courses makes ignoring their rise impossible (or at least foolish). And the UT System has already made a move to develop online courses. Last October, UT invested $10 million in the nonprofit online course platform edX, joining Harvard, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley in developing massive, open online courses that could be taken for free — although not for credit — by anyone in the world. The move, as The Texas Tribune reported, was praised by Gov. Rick Perry, who said that the partnership was “great news for Texas” and “exactly the type of effort [he hopes] more schools will consider.” 

The editorial board of this paper, however, took a more skeptical view, saying that “fully online courses, like those that will be offered through edX, are as yet unproven substitutes for in-person learning.” The UT System would be wise, suggested the editorial, to provide a vision for what online learning might look like before they pony up the money for a new delivery system. 

In the five months since the partnership, eight more universities have jumped on the edX bandwagon, including Australian National University, Wellesley College, and Rice University. UT is planning to launch four courses through the edX platform in the fall. Given the enduring appeal of online courses and the suggestion last Thursday by Purgason that they are the future, what should a brick-and-mortar university like UT do to prepare for the rise of online education? 

When asked about how UT-Austin can better prepare for the rise of online courses, Harisson Keller, vice provost for higher education policy and research, suggested that UT do three things: Engage faculty and students in course development, establish new partnerships with other educational institutions, and invest in technological infrastructure on campus. I suggest we do a fourth: Define the values of a UT education we want to persevere in this rapidly changing educational climate. 

What do I mean by values? I mean, how much do you value sitting in a Welch lecture hall and listening to your professor speak? How much do you value retrieving a book from the PCL stacks or studying in the Hogwarts-esque Battle Hall reading room? How much do you value living in an on-campus dorm like Jester?

All these are linked to the idea of college as a campus-centric experience in which you interact face-to-face with other students and your professors. And while I could never claim that online courses present an immediate threat to this experience (edX courses aren’t even offered for credit, after all), every day a student completes their coursework online, from home, is a day they don’t come to campus and walk past the Tower, past the South Mall, past 60,000 other students who have come from somewhere else to learn here, in a classroom on the 40 Acres, instead of through a website that just happens to bear the school’s name. 

Wright is a Plan II and biology junior from San Antonio.

University governing boards commonly include student representatives, but most student regents, including the UT System’s student regent, are forced to advocate for students without a vote.

State senators discussed the possibility of a voting student regent during last week’s Texas Tribune Festival, an annual series of panels and speakers. Current UT System student regent Ashley Purgason said the UT System Board of Regents takes her representation of the student perspective into consideration without the weight of a vote.

UT regents, the governing body of the UT System, are appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry for six-year terms. Perry also appoints the UT System student regent based on recommendations from System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. The state Legislature authorized student regents in 2005. Since then, UT System student regents have served one-year terms in a non-voting capacity.

“I can say without a doubt, my colleagues on the Board of Regents appreciate my voice and carefully consider my perspective and contributions,” Purgason said. “The student regent’s presence as a liaison for students is valued and respected as much as any other member of the board.”

Purgason, a UT Medical Branch at Galveston graduate student, said the student regent position is still in its infancy, but she is confident the board maintains students as the central focus of the decisions it makes.

UT System spokesperson Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the regents do not have the authority to designate a student regent as a voting member and a change would have to come through legislative action.

During a Texas Tribune Festival panel focused on higher and public education previewing the 83rd Legislative session, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said there is support for a voting UT System student regent but not enough traction in the state Legislature to pass it.

“The issue of student regents voting is more complex,” Zaffirini said.

She said qualifications for a student regent would need to be considered because they would lack the years of experience appointed voting regents have.

Most of the regents have a background in education, including appointments to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and positions on advisory boards at other universities. Others have experience in business.

Student regents at Arizona State University and in the University of California System serve in the position for two years and are able to vote during their second year.

The University of California System student regent is selected by the regents after being interviewed by the system’s student association rather than being appointed by the state governor.

Jonathan Stein, UC System student regent, said this allows for a representative whom students can count on to confront other regents while still working cooperatively to represent students in a unified way.

“The vote has enormous power,” Stein said. “The student regent serves as an activist who moves between working with the regents and the student community while serving both.”

The student regent at the University of Washington also has voting rights except with personnel matters including hiring, discipline and tenure. Other universities or university systems with voting student regents include Washington State University and the University of Alaska.

During the Texas Tribune Festival panel, Texas state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said adding a student vote to the Board of Regents could force the board into a deadlock when voting on issues.

“I know a lot of private institutions have student regents with a vote, but it’s a little different,” Branch said. “Many times private institutions have a much larger board of regents, but over the years we’ve narrowed our boards down to nine.”

A student vote would bring the number of voting members on the Board of Regents to 10.
—Additional reporting by Bobby Blanchard.

Printed on Thursday, September 27, 2012 as: Student regent power may expand with vote

The newly appointed UT System Student Regent hopes to improve communication for students between campuses and the UT System Board of Regents. During her college career, she has spent a total of nine years at two different UT System institutions.

Governor Rick Perry appointed Ashley Purgason, UT Medical Branch at Galveston doctoral student, as Student Regent on Tuesday, and her term will begin June 1. The Student Regent is the only formal role in which students are actively represented among the UT System Regents, the big wigs who call the shots for the 15 UT System institutions. The Student Regent has the same responsibilities as the Regents, but does not have a vote in their decisions.

Purgason is currently a doctoral student of population health sciences at UTMB. She earned her undergraduate and masters degree of biology from UT Arlington and is the outgoing president of UTMB’s student government association. Purgason talked with The Daily Texan about her new role and how she plans to carry out her duties.

The Daily Texan: Why do you think Perry appointed you as Student Regent?
Ashley Purgason: I think I should start by saying that I don’t know who else applied, but I know that it’s an honor. Now that I’ve attended two different UT System institutions I think I can offer insight. I told them that I aspire to bring an element of positivity to the role. I think it makes a difference in how you form relationships, especially with the student bodies.

DT: How will you serve differently than the current Student Regent, John Rutkauskas?
Purgason: I definitely have much to learn from him because he has been very effective in his role. I can’t say what I’ll bring differently to the table because I need to learn about the day-to-day. I can say that in being a successor it’s always important that you do bring your own dynamic, but I think it will be important to honor the past student regents.

DT: How do you plan to represent the students across the 15 UT System institutions?
Purgason: My plan is that I will be visiting each campus at least one time and meet with Student Government. I think a way to expand that is to speak about other organizations on campus because everybody’s opinions are broad and diverse. I think one thing that’s going to be important is to put students in touch with other students from campuses and to improve how students are operating on a day-to-day basis.

DT: The role of research in higher education has been harshly criticized, and faculty members face pressure to spend more time teaching. What do you think is the role of research versus teaching?
Purgason: I can’t tell you how much I love that you asked that question. It directly affects me as a PhD student and I’d like to have a role in teaching one day. Academic professionals need to have competency in both research and teaching. Conducting research means talking with colleagues and that is a form of teaching, which is the same for training students. That can be difficult for students when the professors spend too much time researching. They do need to be available, but I think that’s a personal choice between being available for students or not. I’m not saying the problem doesn’t exist.

DT: Have you spoken to the Regents? Which do you relate to the most?
Purgason: I have met [Regent Brenda] Pejovich and she’s currently the only female Regent. It’s always great to have diversity so I’m looking forward to learning more with her. Diversity always helps the institutions become better. I’m looking forward to meeting all the Regents. 

Printed on Friday, April 27, 2012 as: New student Regent offers insight into future role