The Gene Powell Interview: Part Two

The University of Texas Board of Regents chairman on the fog of war, the battles over higher education, and the future of learning.
Fri May 17, 2013 9:00 am

This is part two of a two-part interview. Part one was published on texasmonthly.com yesterday. A condensed version of the entire interview will be published in the June issue of Texas Monthly. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: So let’s talk about the Framework [for Advancing Excellence]. It’s a document, written by the chancellor, that outlines a series of specific goals, from increasing the number of degrees conferred to lowering financial impact, and even touches on some smaller things like space utilization and computational power. But what are the larger goals of the project? What is the framework trying to do for the system?

GENE POWELL: There are problems in higher education across America: cost, accessibility, tuition, fees, teaching loads, utilization of space. So I appointed two task forces the first day I became chairman, one on online learning, chaired by Regent Hall, and one on excellence and productivity, chaired by Regent Pejovich. Now, these two task forces had presidents, regents, other people in the system on them, and the chancellor was on them too. Over the spring of 2011, they talked about everything in the world, and they brought in all kinds of experts. They had about twenty meetings, and they put in about two thousand man-hours. In late May the chancellor came to me and he said, “Chairman, I have had an epiphany. I think I can see an action plan, and I think I can use almost everything that the two task forces have generated. Your plan was for each task force to write a report to the board and the board would hand it to me and I would go work on it. I don’t think we can wait for that. I now know enough that I can go right to writing the action plan.” So we gave him permission, and he gathered together his staff, they went on a retreat, and they wrote the first draft of the framework. They then brought it to me, and he and I spent a day going over it. He then took it to the regents. They reviewed it, gave him input, he then took it to the presidents, they all reviewed it, gave their input, and all signed off on it. Then he presented it on August 25, 2011. The room was packed, with both supporters and naysayers. We had all the presidents there. The chancellor did an almost one-hour presentation. I then asked a couple of the presidents to stand up and tell us what they thought about the framework. The one I remember the best is John Mendelsohn, who was president of MD Anderson [Cancer Center] at the time. He stood up and said, “I am so impressed with this piece of work, this is not just a framework for Texas, this is a framework for higher education and medical education across America.”

This framework is not simply a report. It’s a roadmap to action that has been embraced by the National Higher Education Association, by the UT presidents, by Chambers of Commerce and business groups, by the U.S. secretary of education, by the vice president and president of the United States. Did you know the chancellor has been invited to the White House twice? Once he visited with President Obama and [Education] Secretary Arne Duncan, and once with Vice President Biden. The president wanted to know, “How are you guys in Texas accomplishing all that you’re accomplishing? We want to know how you’re doing it.” So the chancellor went up and told them. And then they invited him back. And they’ve called him a number of other times. He told me that he and Arne Duncan spoke at the National Hispanic Chamber here a month or so ago, and Duncan came up and said, “You guys are my heroes. We consider you the trendsetter across America.” He said, “Don’t let those people in Austin get you down.” You know, it’s very interesting that a board of nine regents that are all Republicans would be castigated at home and applauded in the Democratic White House.

JS: You said you consider the past two years at UT to be the most productive 24-month cycle ever in higher education in American history. That’s a bold claim. So make your case.

GP: We’ve never seen this big of a productivity period, and we’ve never seen this big of a paradigm shift ever.

JS: When you say paradigm shift, you mean at the UT System or in American higher education?

GP: I mean at the UT System.

JS: Well, explain that, that’s interesting.

GP: Okay, so we’ve had two things come out of the framework. First, we’ve had these capital investments, huge capital investments and commitments that the board has made. I don’t think we’ve ever seen this level of capital commitments. Then we’ve got organizational changes in higher education, and I’m going to give you—this’ll take a few minutes, but I’m going to give you my little top list of the two groups. So first, let’s talk about those capital improvements. We’ve got a new medical school in Austin. The regents committed $250 million over ten years. The citizens of Austin voted to tax themselves. There’s not been a new medical school created at an AAU [Association of American Universities] institution in 37 years. There’s a university in South Texas that will begin next year with 28,000 students. It’ll open its doors as the second-largest Hispanic-serving institution in America. When was the last time you heard of anybody forming a brand-new university in one of poorest regions of the state? Then we add a medical school to it, and we’ve committed $100 million over the next ten years to that medical school. That’s two medical schools being formed in one year when the last one at an AAU school was 37 years ago. Then the board passed the Strength in Numbers Initiative. We believe that as revenues from the state go down, philanthropy

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