The University of Texas system's Board of Regents unanimously approved a sweeping plan on Thursday that responds to calls for more transparency about the performance of its campuses and spends $243.6-million to raise four-year graduation rates, expand the use of technology, and improve efficiency throughout the system.
Perhaps as important, the plan presented by the system's chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa, seems to have at least momentarily quelled the bitter disputes that have been raging across Texas over the proper balance of teaching and research and the need to control costs.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat who is chair of the State Senate's Higher Education Committee, said she was pleased that the chancellor had involved the presidents of all 15 campuses. She said the plan should serve "as a unifying force that looks beyond yesterday's controversies."
The plan unveiled on Thursday designates money to create a "dashboard"—an interactive, online database—to give students, parents, and legislators access to detailed measures of departments' and colleges' productivity and efficiency. Data on individual professors will probably also be included, although Dr. Cigarroa stressed that each campus would be able to develop its own system of metrics and the details have not yet been worked out.
The overall plan will help ensure that taxpayers are getting their money's worth from the system's nine academic campuses and six health institutions, he said.
Such an approach is needed, the chancellor said, at a time of declining state and federal revenue, increasing student debt, and greater calls for efficiency.
The plan, called "A Framework for Advancing Excellence Throughout the University of Texas System," contains nine focus areas for improvement. It allocates $10-million for a "Productivity and Excellence Framework" that includes the online database, which will track productivity over time.
Among other things, the system will report such factors as research expenditures, publications, teaching evaluations, and external support.
Two advocacy groups that have been on opposite sides of the debate over faculty productivity both released statements on Thursday praising the plan.
The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a high-powered group of Texas alumni, former university presidents and regents, business leaders, and politicians, said the plan was in "direct contrast to the simplistic, ill-conceived, and untested so-called 'solutions' being promoted by outside interest groups." That was a swipe at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank supported by Gov. Rick Perry that has advocated a controversial blueprint known as the "Seven Solutions" to higher education.
The Texas Excellence group said that the chancellor's plan "was collaboratively developed, is evidence-based, and [is] consistent with forward-thinking educational policy."
The Texas Public Policy Foundation also released a statement praising Dr. Cigarroa's plan, calling it "an important and welcome recognition that Texas students and parents can no longer afford business as usual from our state's higher-education institutions." The group lauded, in particular, the focus on improving four-year graduation rates and requiring evidence of productivity.
The plan outlined by the chancellor calls for strengthening annual evaluations of faculty members and administrators and improving post-tenure reviews. It also calls for a review system in which outside experts analyze the performance of individual colleges within the system's universities.
It allocates $30-million for educational programs in South Texas that focus on science, mathematics, and engineering. The money will go toward faculty recruiting, training for math and science teachers, and a simulated teaching hospital for the region.
In addition, it calls for taking steps to improve graduation rates, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and expanding the use of courses that are fully or partly online. Greater use of interactive teaching materials and other instructional technology could help students learn more in large introductory lecture classes, the report notes.
The plan incorporates the suggestions of two committees appointed by Gene Powell, chairman of the Board of Regents. One focused on productivity and excellence, and the other on blended and online learning.
The work of those panels drew scrutiny after Rick O'Donnell, a former research fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said he had been fired as a special adviser to the regents after he complained that university and system officials were suppressing productivity data that he was trying to collect.
University officials, who recently reached a $70,000 settlementwith him after he threatened to sue, have denied those accusations.
Mr. Powell said in a written statement that the plan adopted on Thursday "charts a clear path toward providing UT institutions the most cost-efficient means for producing graduates, while at the same time, increasing the quality of education for our students across the UT system."
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Powell said the database would allow students, parents, legislators, and others to easily examine detailed data about how different campuses and departments performed.
"Some wise man said, 'If you can measure it, you can value it,'" Mr. Powell said.
Other universities nationwide face questions about cost, accountability, post-tenure review, and graduation rates, said Mr. Powell. "What's unique about us," he said, "is that we're saying we're not going to take this one bite at a time."
The debate over faculty productivity in Texas has reached a feverish pitch over the past year, with groups of alumni, students, business leaders, and politicians sparring over the best way to ensure that universities are both effective and efficient.
Over the last year, both the Texas A&M University and University of Texas systems released vast data files of information on productivity that caused an outcry from faculty members.
"Texas finds itself at the epicenter of the national debate on the future of higher education," Dr. Cigarroa said, adding that the plan outlined on Thursday could serve as a model for others to follow.
Florida's governor, Rick Scott, recently expressed support for Governor Perry's push for a more business-oriented model of higher education that would require more emphasis on faculty productivity.
While individual campuses will have flexiblity to develop their own strategies, Dr. Cigarroa said in an interview, "we will hold our campuses accountable for making progress" on the goals.