THE DREAM OF A GREAT UNIVERSITY rising out of the prairie north of the Colorado River is almost as old as Texas itself. The Battle of San Jacinto was only three years distant when the Congress of the Republic provided for a college to be located in Austin, the soon-to-be seat of government, with an endowment of almost a quarter of a million acres of land. In 1876 the state constitution called for the establishment of “a university of the first class.” The University of Texas opened its doors in 1883, but here we are, 120 years later, the promise still unfulfilled. In the latest annual rankings by U.S. News and World Report, UT lost its spot among the nation’s top fifty research universities, dropping from forty-ninth to fifty-third. Among the best public universities, it slipped from thirteenth to seventeenth.
The story of UT’s inability to achieve greatness in many ways mirrors the state’s own quest for respect. The obstacles over the years have been the same: lack of money, lack of pizzazz, a surfeit of complacency and self-satisfaction, and a lot of political meddling. Perhaps it is unfair to the meddlers to characterize their concerns so cavalierly. The notion of a university that is at once elite and public carries with it an inherent contradiction. In the political world, it means that the tax dollars of the many must be used to serve the few—a tough proposition to sell, but give UT president Larry Faulkner credit for trying. “A major institution is a listening post,” he says. “It’s plugged into what is happening in the top level of every field of knowledge. Texas must have a player in that game. It is fatal not to have that in this world.” He’s right. But most parents would settle for their kids being able to get into school.
Still, in competitions of the mind, as in competitions of the body, rankings and occasional fumbles do not tell the whole story. The game goes on, and as every football fan knows, the scoreboard is not the only indicator of the eventual outcome. There is also momentum, and for the first time in at least two decades, UT has it. The reason is that earlier this year, the Texas Legislature, facing a $10 billion shortfall and unwilling to raise taxes, grudgingly agreed to allow state universities to set their own tuition rates according to what the market can bear. At the same time, it reduced their funding, necessitating budget cuts at individual campuses. In the short term, UT faces a couple of very lean years, but in the long run, its financial worries are over, assuming that lawmakers don’t change their minds. As a bonus, the Legislature discontinued the practice of grabbing a portion of the money from research grants, a policy reversal that is worth $22 million a year to UT. One other favorable development was the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding affirmative action in university admissions, which dissolved the Hopwood decision prohibiting special treatment of minorities by Texas universities only. At this moment in its history, UT enjoys more freedom from political regulation—and more control over its own destiny—than it has ever had.
The question now is, Where does UT go from here? In some ways, it is already on the right track. The entering freshman class is the best in its history, at least by the standards that are used to measure such things: average score on the SAT I (1240) and average class rank (ninety-first percentile). Other universities have entering classes with higher average scores, but none has so many students who score so well, leading some UT officials to describe their campus as “the largest concentration of really smart kids in the world.” But the size of the student body is also one of the two significant impediments—money being the other—standing between those really smart kids and the education they deserve.
What follows is the story of a university that has always wanted to be great but until now never had both the will and the resources to get there. It is also a story about what it means to be “great” in academia today and why UT falls short and what it has to do to get to the next level—and how hard that will be. I am not a wholly neutral observer in these matters. I have a lot of connections to UT. I graduated from its law school; I teach on campus from time to time; I have friends in the administration and on the faculty; and I am tired of watching the football team lose to Oklahoma. I believe that if UT is not among the best public universities in the country twenty years from now, this state will be in big trouble. But this is an arm’s-length exercise. It’s not just a story about a university with momentum. It’s a story about a university that has no more excuses.
TWENTY YEARS AGO, WHEN UT was celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary, then-president Peter Flawn appointed a committee of university types and citizen boosters to chart its future. Robert King, the dean of liberal arts at the time, remembers addressing the group, which naturally wanted UT to be number one in the nation academically. King was then and is now a crusty, rather blunt fellow, and he told the committee, “We can’t be Harvard.” He went on to explain that in long-established fields like English, history, political science, and philosophy, the top schools—Harvard and others of its ilk—have a lock on the top ten. “My number one priority,” he said, “is to hold on to the top rankings we have in areas like Spanish, German, and linguistics.” The next day, he got a call from an assistant to Flawn. “They don’t want to hear that,” the assistant said. “Go back and tell them we can be number one in everything.” A chastened King did just that. “With some extra effort,” he recalls saying, “we can have it all.”
It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. The first tier of American universities is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. The undisputed members are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and Berkeley, but you could make a case for at least a dozen more schools. Private institutions have a huge advantage over state universities because of their freedom from political pressure. They are better funded (alumni and tuition-paying parents are a more reliable source of funding than state legislators) and less regulated. No public institution could crack the top-twenty list in U.S. News‘ most recent rankings; as great as Berkeley is, the criteria for the rankings—for example, class size and the percentage of alumni who donate money—are so stacked against big-enrollment public universities that it was the highest ranked at twenty-first.
The U.S. News rankings are the Associated Press poll of academia. They are widely read, widely argued about, and widely criticized, especially by presidents of colleges that don’t fare well. Every now and then some school makes news by refusing to provide the magazine with requested data, but the rankings, like those in athletics, have become too prominent to ignore. At least in the case of UT, the rankings that appeared in August seem to have accurately zeroed in on the university’s strengths and weaknesses. The largest component in the rankings is Peer Assessment, which reflects how academics at other institutions regard the quality of a university’s faculty and research. UT scored 4.1 out of 5, good enough to tie for twenty-fifth place with the highly regarded University of Illinois. Among public institutions, it is tied for seventh in Peer Assessment, and the schools ahead of it are the roll call of the elite: Berkeley, Virginia, Michigan, UCLA, North Carolina, Wisconsin. The UT hierarchy would light the Tower orange for a year if it ranked seventh overall among the publics.
The main reason it doesn’t is lack of money. The state’s contribution to the UT budget, which used to be as high as 49 percent in the mid-eighties, has slipped to 20 percent (the rest comes from tuition, fees, research grants, and donations), and the effect shows up in the rankings. In the category of Financial Resources—how much the university spends per student—UT ties for 127th place with such luminaries as the state universities of New Hampshire and Nebraska, and it is hardly better in Faculty Resources (salaries, benefits, student-faculty ratio, and class size) at 115th. Both UT and Texas A&M get clobbered in Class Size. UT ranks seventh from the bottom in the percent of non-lab classes with more than fifty students (24 percent), and A&M is dead last (33 percent). The competition? Virginia is at 15 percent, Michigan at 16, Berkeley at 17. The trouble with large classes—and at UT, they can be very large in introductory courses, with as many as five hundred students—is that they are typically taught in a lecture format with machine-graded exams. They test students’ ability to memorize, not their ability to think or write, the way essay tests and research papers do. Let’s not be innocents about this: A lot of students are all too happy with minimal demands. But the U.S. News rankings correctly penalize schools that limit opportunities for students to learn how to think.
The other major ranking of universities is virtually unknown by the public. Called Research Doctorate Programs in the U.S., it is compiled once a decade by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies, whose members are the top researchers in science, engineering, and medicine. The main difference between the two rankings, aside from frequency of appearance, is that U.S. News is primarily concerned with undergraduate education and the overall reputation of a university, while the National Research Council is mainly concerned with graduate-level research and the reputation of a university in 41 individual fields of learning. Because the graduate level is where reputations count the most in winning federal grants and wooing top graduate students and faculty, the National Research Council rankings are the bible of academia. The rankings are heavily dependent upon surveys and questionnaires and thus are largely subjective. High rankings beget an elite reputation, which perpetuates itself in more high rankings. This is the cycle that UT is trying to break—and it isn’t succeeding. In the 1995 ratings, the only one of its programs to make the top ten was classics (eighth). Linguistics and Spanish, two of the areas Robert King had wanted to emphasize so that UT could build on its strengths, had slipped to eleventh and twelfth, respectively. History and English were twenty-first.
The problem for UT, as King had tried to explain to the centennial committee, is that the schools ahead of it aren’t going away. It’s not like football, in which the quarterback can get hurt or the coach can retire or Notre Dame can lose a couple of close ones and fall out of the top ten. In academia, Harvard and Stanford and Princeton never get upset.
At least the UT leadership is now willing to say publicly that UT can’t be Harvard and shouldn’t try. “There’s a reason only one third of the top fifty schools in the U.S. News rankings are public,” says Mark Yudof, the chancellor of the UT System, which includes nine academic institutions and six medical schools. “We can never do what the privates do. We can’t admit only those with 1400 SAT scores and teach everybody with real professors. We can’t emulate the atmosphere of the privates either, where most of the students live on campus. We’ll never have the academic profile of a Harvard or a Princeton. But we can get to the same level as a Michigan, a Virginia, or a North Carolina.” Unfortunately, the rankings show that UT is going in the wrong direction.
IN LATE JUNE I WENT back to school. Don Graham, a writer-at-large for this magazine, is a faculty member in the English department at UT, and when he heard that I was working on this story, he invited me to his class. This summer he was teaching English 316K, Masterworks of Literature, a sophomore course required of all UT students. Graham covers American literature; other options are British and world lit. For non-English majors, this course is likely to be their first and only exposure to great books and the ideas in them—unless, of course, they took a standardized test and earned credit for the course without ever interacting with a professor. I am old-fashioned enough to think that this is a terrible state of affairs, that a standardized test is no substitute for reading a great book and hearing a professor talk about it, but that’s the way of the world in higher education these days. The hour and fifteen minutes I would spend in Graham’s class would reinforce my opinion. This isn’t UT’s fault alone. Great books by DWMs (dead white males) are out of favor in the academy these days, and so are required courses; the trend is toward specialization in one’s major, particularly in career-track areas like business, science, and engineering.
The DWM of the day was Walt Whitman, a mid-nineteenth century poet who brought back memories of why I don’t read poetry: Somebody has to tell me why it is good before I can understand it. Graham told us. Before going through Whitman’s masterpiece, a lengthy poem called Song of Myself, he put Whitman in context: a New Yorker, growing up free of the Puritan legacy, at the time when New York was displacing Boston as the nation’s leading commercial and cultural center. Suddenly lines from the poem made sense; Whitman was flinging challenges in the face of Puritanism:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them.
But Song of Myself is not anti-religion. It is anti-elitist. It represents, Graham told the class, Whitman’s mystical experience—a sudden influx of knowledge, an insight into the ultimate nature of reality. The hegemony of New York over Boston was not just a defeat of Puritanism but part of a much larger event, the triumph of the individual. “Whitman today is regarded as the American poet around the world,” Graham said. He is the voice of democracy and egalitarianism:
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.
The class of 37 students listened and took notes, but they didn’t ask many questions. “Whitman is a hard sell,” Graham told me after class. But he had been a good salesman. After noting that Whitman was the first poet to break free of rhyming, he had cited Robert Frost’s dictum that writing in blank verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” And in our jaded, take-things-for-granted world, he helped the students—and me—feel the power of the idea of democracy, and all that it meant, in a totally fresh way.
Classes like Graham’s are what a college education is all about. Unfortunately, his summer class is not the norm for Masterworks of Literature; instead of 37 students in an intimate classroom, the typical class is 250 students in a large lecture hall. John Trimble, who has been teaching the course since he arrived at UT 33 years ago, recalls that the typical class size was 30 students until 5 or 6 years ago—small enough for daily discussions led by a professor. Now, once a week, the big classes break up into smaller discussion groups led by graduate students. Trimble, who is a member of UT’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, loved teaching the course in the old days. “Students came into the class anticipating it would be boring and tough,” he says. “They had had bad experiences with English in high school. They thought they wouldn’t enjoy the reading, and they didn’t like subjective grading. If the university didn’t require it, ninety-five percent wouldn’t take it. My challenge was to convert them to the idea that reading literature can be enormously fun and challenging in a good way.”
Trimble taught a large section of Masterworks of Literature once and says it was the toughest experience of his career at UT, physically and emotionally draining. “My temperament wasn’t right for that kind of venue,” he says. “You need a professor who has a bit of ham in him. It favors people who are oratorical, witty, and who like to talk for an hour and a half. Small-classroom teachers are more interested in moderating a discussion. They don’t see themselves as performers.”
Nor could he design the course the way he wanted to—as a writing course. In small classes, he can assign three papers, critique them, and return them without a grade for students to rewrite. In big classes, the number of bodies in the classroom makes that approach impossible. Most professors don’t even try to include writing in big sections of Masterworks, but Trimble did require that students keep a journal of two or more pages on every major selection they read: lists of new words, three great sentences, a page or two of commentary. Because of the class size, however, he could not grade the journals himself; that chore fell to seven teaching assistants, who also led the weekly discussion sections. “I had minimal quality control,” Trimble laments. “I was relying on people who were strangers to me and to each other until the course started.”
The reason for the large classes is that the student-teacher ratio at UT has ballooned over the years. In 1966 and 1967 UT had around 27,000 students and a faculty of 1,800: a ratio of 15 to 1. If this were still the ratio today, UT would be even with Michigan and ahead of Berkeley and Virginia (16 to 1). But UT has gained 25,000 students in the ensuing years, while adding fewer than 1,000 faculty positions, with the result that it is 110th in the U.S. News rankings, with a ratio of 19 to 1. Big universities—and smaller ones too—are going to have big classes. Many introductory courses are suitable for a lecture format—but not the only literature course most students will ever take.
THE ISSUE OF SIZE IS INSEPARABLE from the issue of money. Some readers (and legislators) will likely resist the notion that UT is financially strapped. There are those who believe that state funds are siphoned off into athletics, which is not true—”In fact, we pay a two-percent fee to the university for using their business office for our transactions,” says men’s athletics director DeLoss Dodds—and there are others who believe that UT is rolling in oil money from its West Texas lands, which used to be true but no longer is. Today the income from the Permanent University Fund must be shared with twelve other institutions in the UT System.
What is true is that political support for funding higher education has shrunk. In 1985 the Legislature appropriated $235.2 million in general-revenue funds for the Austin campus’ academic budget. In the fiscal year that started on September 1, state spending for the academic budget will be $291.9 million. This represents a piddling increase of about 25 percent. During that time, total state general revenue spending grew by more than 600 percent. For years UT officials and lobbyists attributed their lack of support to the Texas political climate: Legislators were more interested in helping their hometown colleges than UT, or the key budget writer happened to be from Texas Tech. But it is clear now that the dwindling support for UT was part of a nationwide reorganization of state priorities, in which K-12 schools and health care for the poor bested higher ed in the competition for tax dollars.
The decision by state leaders to eliminate the recent budget deficit without raising taxes forced UT, like all state agencies, to find ways to reduce its spending. Inevitably, the consequences are showing up in the classroom. One course that was seriously diminished was the basic government class, Introduction to American and Texas Politics, that state law requires all students in public universities to take. Government 310L, as it is designated, has long been taught in large lecture sections numbering well into the hundreds, but once a week, students have been able to break up into small groups of 25 to 30 for discussions moderated by teaching assistants. Facing a mandate for cuts, the government department decided to reduce the number of TAs in the course, knowing that the number of remaining assistants would not be sufficient to divide the class into reasonably sized discussion groups. Consequently, the groups were eliminated. A faculty member named David Prindle, in an e-mail message to his colleagues in the department, took exception to the decision.
“The purpose of these introductory courses is partly to provide non-government majors with basic facts about their country and their state,” Prindle wrote. “Partly, however, it is to help them become better citizens, a task that goes beyond the inculcation of facts.” To this end, he pointed out, he had required his students to write an essay comparing the reality of the American political system with the democratic ideal and evaluating the extent to which the United States government approaches the ideal. “Although students can acquire a beginning education about how to fulfill this essay requirement from lecture, . . . they must have smaller discussion sections, ” he went on to say. “They must be able to ask questions, have questions posed to them, be given hypothetical situations to analyze, and argue among themselves and with the teaching assistant who runs the section.” Without the discussion groups, he could no longer ask students to write the essay. “From now on,” he wrote, “the students in my introductory course will be evaluated entirely on their test-taking proficiency.”
Some people in the government department say that the decision to reduce the number of teaching assistants made sense. In a time of shrinking resources, the argument goes, the first priority of the department should be to serve its own majors. These number around two thousand, making government the most popular major in the College of Liberal Arts, and most TAs have been redirected to upper-level courses. To decide this argument, one would have to know what the alternatives were, and even Prindle conceded in his missive that every one of them was disagreeable. One thing about the elimination of discussion sections ought to be beyond argument: Legislative indifference to funding higher ed is seriously damaging UT’s ability to teach its students how to think, which is what a great university is supposed to do. Come to think of it, this would make a great subject for a Government 310L discussion section—if there were any.
THERE IS NO CATEGORY IN THE rankings for buzz, but the awareness that a university seems to be “hot” is bound to give a boost to how it is viewed by the rest of the academic world. For all its problems of the moment, UT is a highly visible national university right now. If it seems that UT, having been unable to achieve the recognition for quality that it covets, is taking comfort in just plain recognition, well, that is a familiar story in a state that has always felt somewhat isolated from the mainstream.
And so it was reckoned a triumph when the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times took overdue notice this year of UT’s Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, a library for scholars with one of the great collections of manuscripts, books, and photographs in the world. The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, which moves into its permanent home in 2005, made a splash with the acquisition of the Suida-Manning Collection—a trove of Old Masters works—and the gift of the Leo Steinberg Collection of more than three thousand prints. Burnt Orange Productions, a for-profit film production company established by a new UT foundation, will produce and distribute low-budget feature films, and the nascent UT Film Institute, which will allow film students to work alongside professionals on those projects, could very well revolutionize the concept of film school. What everyone knows best about UT, of course, is its athletic program. UT teams compiled a record in 2002 and 2003 that assistant athletic director Bill Little characterizes as the best ever compiled by any university. For the first time, an NCAA school reached the Final Four in men’s and women’s basketball, the College World Series in baseball and softball, and finished in the top ten in football and won its bowl game.
But buzz can take UT only so far. The uncomfortable truth is that UT is best known for its non-academic assets. In addition to the HRC and the Blanton, the far-flung UT empire includes the McDonald Observatory, the LBJ presidential library, the Sam Rayburn library (in Rayburn’s hometown of Bonham), the Winedale Historical Center and an accompanying summer Shakespeare program, and the Paisano Ranch of the late Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie. The University of Texas is a great treasure, even if it is not yet a great university.
A BLUEPRINT FOR GREATNESS EXISTS, and everybody at UT knows what it is. “State institutions have only one way to be great,” says King, the former dean of liberal arts. In his view, there are three tiers: research universities at the top, with doctoral programs and the extra funding they require and controlled undergraduate enrollment; then good undergraduate institutions that may offer some advanced-degree programs; and then community colleges. If this sounds familiar, it’s what California did in the fifties. It’s how Berkeley got to be Berkeley and why six University of California institutions rank ahead of UT in the U.S. News rankings. Other states—New York, Virginia, Wisconsin—have tried to duplicate the three-tier system with far less success. Texas might have pulled it off in the sixties, with a popular governor (John Connally), a powerful UT regents chairman (Frank Erwin), and a visionary academic at the helm of UT (Harry Ransom), but then the sixties counterculture overran the UT campus and Erwin became absorbed with power struggles with administrators and faculty. The moment passed, never to return.
Today UT’s goal of greatness is out of step with the political climate. It’s an expensive, elitist idea in an anti-tax, anti-elitist age. The buzzword in K-12 education is accountability, which can be achieved through standardized testing. Now the UT System is trying to figure out how to measure the effectiveness of higher education. This is no easy task. What outputs are you supposed to measure? “Higher ed is becoming like medicine,” says Charles Miller, the chairman of the board of regents. “It’s highly regulated, highly subsidized, and the people who get the services aren’t the people who pay for them. The cost keeps going up, but it is not clear to the public that there is value added by the additional cost.”
Politicians are not going to pour money into such a system; that’s why giving universities control over their own pricing is so important. Tuition deregulation is the new blueprint. It’s in step with the climate of the times, which puts great faith in the operation of markets. Instead of trying to convince the Legislature of a university’s value, let the market measure it. The better the university, the more it should be able to charge. Educational value will not be the only factor in setting the price, of course. Some students will choose Texas A&M because they want to be in the Corps; some will choose UT because they want to be in a sorority. But if the market works like it is supposed to, it will create the tier system that the political process would not.
Just because an idea makes sense, however, doesn’t mean that it is going to win the approval of the Legislature. As long as the Democrats were in control, deregulation was going nowhere. Hispanic and black lawmakers feared that tuition increases would freeze their constituents out of the best colleges; despite UT’s pledge of ample scholarships. Rural Republicans felt the same way. But when the Republicans took over, the combination of the large shortfall plus an ideology that was comfortable with letting markets do their work provided the opportunity that deregulation proponents like Governor Rick Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick were looking for. Most legislators opposed it, either because of the effect on their constituents or because they would lose their leverage over UT and A&M. But when budget talks between the House and the Senate deadlocked, Craddick insisted that deregulation be part of the final deal, and he made it stick.
UT isn’t home free yet. A lot of resistance to deregulation remains, and what the Legislature gives, it can always take away, especially if UT hikes the tuition rate by a percentage that lawmakers deem too large. After another two or three legislative sessions, though, the new will become the norm, and UT will be able to chart its own course at last.
AND WHERE WILL THAT COURSE LEAD? Faulkner’s answer is twofold: “Hire the best talent, and more of it, and lower the student-faculty ratio.” He has put the university on a ten-year plan to expand the faculty by 300 members, which he says will lower the student-faculty ratio by 15 percent. (At Texas A&M, where the student-faculty ratio of 21 to 1 is the second-worst in the country among research universities, President Robert Gates has announced plans to hire 450 new faculty members.)
But Faulkner is also concerned that UT not get to be too elite: “The question is not how we can be like Berkeley. It’s how we achieve the greatest combined benefit of leadership and scholarship for the people of Texas. We need to be more like Berkeley in some ways. We need a better faculty, one that raises respect for the university. But central to the mission of the University of Texas is the development of leadership. Are we going to be forced to be stratospherically selective in admissions? Berkeley is the greatest academic achievement in a public university ever, but the leadership of California does not come out of Berkeley to the same extent as here.”
As the chancellor of a system that includes academic institutions and medical schools, Yudof has his own idea of where UT needs to go: science and more science. “The twenty-first century is the century of biology,” he says. “Our major challenge is building up molecular and cellular biology. UT-Austin will have to collaborate with health care institutions to reach its research potential. Many want to establish a medical school here. Nanotechnology—there may be a thousand fields. We have to pick the right niches. A critical mass is very important in higher ed. We have to have more warm bodies for research. California has a thousand members of the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering. Texas has two hundred, and a third of them are here. Some state leader needs to say, ‘We need to recruit to Texas five hundred professors on the cutting edge of research.'”
But UT science (as opposed to engineering) has all too seldom been on that cutting edge in the past. “Our shortfall is not lack of money but lack of inspiration,” says Austin Gleeson, the acting chairman of the department of physics. “Somehow, we always seem to be late here. We were late on nanotechnology. We’re always jumping from the dock to the boat.
“Scientists have to make bets about where to put their money. Awhile back, biology bet on ecology. It turned out the winner was molecular. We couldn’t even jump from the dock to the boat. Bets are very important. Good scientists are productive for ten to fifteen years, then stay around. When you bet bad, you bet bad for forty years.”
THE DIFFERENT WISH LISTS OF FAULKNER and Yudof reveal the split personality of a major public research university. On the one hand, there’s the university for undergraduates, a place where the ideal is to provide a user-friendly environment for the nourishing of minds. The way to achieve this—and higher rankings too—is through small classes, a low student-faculty ratio, and interaction among students and faculty. On the other hand, there’s the university for the society as a whole, a center for cutting-edge scientific research that can attract companies, generate jobs, and transform a community or a state. Class size and student- faculty ratios are irrelevant to this university. Its job is to create knowledge, not to teach it. Most taxpayers and most parents really don’t care what goes on in this university; they just want their kids to have a great experience in college, call home, and come away with useful skills. But the reward system in universities is not designed for those who dedicate themselves to teaching. (The winner of UT’s major undergraduate teaching award last spring did not receive tenure and had to leave the university; controversy continues to swirl over the rejection.) The dollars and the prestige go to scholarship and research.
UT officialdom has instituted long-overdue changes to make the place more user-friendly, especially for freshmen. (A low first-year retention rate has hurt UT’s rankings in the past.) In a previous incarnation as UT provost, Yudof instituted freshman seminars, so that any first-year student could have the experience of a small class that was taught by discussion rather than lecture. Another innovation is Freshman Interest Groups: First-year students with similar interests can take several classes together so they can get to know one another. (FIGs are voluntary and the groups are put together by the university.) UT has also expanded the number of honors programs, so that around seven hundred freshmen (10 percent of the class) have access to smaller classes. Tuition deregulation will certainly alter the culture of UT as well. As tuition rises, students and parents are going to be demanding value-added too—smaller classes and faster graduation rates.
Business is the most sought-after major on campus, and value-added has a lot to do with it: First, a student can acquire a skill that might actually lead to a job, and second, it’s just an exciting place to be. “Professors will drop by at two in the morning to check with people who are working on a project,” said senior Sean Paul, the president of the Undergraduate Business Council—an organization that advises the deans on issues affecting students. On the day I talked to him, Paul was ecstatic about U.S. News rankings that put the undergraduate business school in the top five programs in the country, up from seventh. “Our goal is to work with Wharton [Pennsylvania], Haas [Berkeley], Sloan [MIT], and NYU.” He paused, and said in an emphatic way, “We know who our competition is.”
Paul is pursuing a major in business while minoring in biology, and he intends to go to medical school. Why study business? “Because it has the most interesting work and the most enthusiastic students,” he said. “We work on real projects that companies have worked on. In accounting, we reviewed a problem Nordstrom had. Their sales went up but their profits went down. We had to find what went wrong.”
When he was at St. Joseph High School in Victoria, he was seriously considering attending NYU instead of UT. He didn’t want to stay in Texas. He had no particular loyalties; his parents had moved from India to Chicago to Texas. He had the kind of résumé a business school would find irresistible: He started a business when he was fourteen, offering his services as a deejay at proms, parties, and senior citizens’ centers, and earned more than $10,000 while in high school. He also won a state championship in tennis, ran cross-country, co-captained the basketball team, served as sophomore class president, and finished fourth in his graduating class. He waited until the last possible day before making up his mind to attend UT. Now he travels around the state recruiting for the business honors program.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s great,” he said. “Everybody wants to be a Longhorn right now.”