Course Correction: It’s Time for UT-Austin’s President to Step Down

Publius Audax

Editor’s note: A faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin has requested that we post his statement calling on the president of the university to step down. We have agreed and, under the circumstances, accede to his wish to publish under a pseudonym.

The National Association of Scholars does not take an official position on whether President Powers should step down. We are, however, very much concerned with the questions of what educational and ideological commitments are appropriate for the leaders of today’s colleges and universities. Recently the NAS called on liberal arts colleges to emphasize intellectual diversity in their presidential searches.

Publius Audax’s essay provides a good occasion not just to further the debate at UT Austin, but to weigh these broader considerations.


I call on University of Texas at Austin president Bill Powers to step down. He has served the university for over eight years, and while successful in some areas, including fundraising, his leadership has failed in ten critical ways.

UT is less affordable than ever; graduation rates are low and stagnant; core requirements are frivolous; controversial views are stigmatized; the university is over-invested in physical plant; it is underinvested in emerging technologies; administrative costs have skyrocketed; the balance of tenure-track and adjunct faculty is out of whack; the curriculum is fragmented; intellectual diversity on campus has withered; academic standards are mediocre; transparency has been forfeited; and the appearance of integrity has been compromised.

1. Affordability

Over the last twenty years, the cost of higher education has grown at an accelerating rate. As a result of the great recession and the oversupply of college graduates, students simply cannot earn enough to sustain the debt they are accumulating. According to a recent Pew study, 31% of 2009 graduates moved back to live with their parents, 57% of prospective college students do not believe that the value of college is worth its cots, and 75% see college as simply unaffordable.

University of Michigan's Mark Perry has documented that tuition in the U.S. rose between 1997 and 2011at an annual rate of 7.45%, far above inflation rate, even higher than health care costs (5.8%). At UT-Austin, tuition went up 22% in the first five years of Powers' presidency (from 2006 to 2011). Average net cost to UT students (taking into account financial aid) went up 33% from 2005 to 2009 (when the UT System stopped reporting this figure).

At the University of Texas, state aid per student has remained fairly constant over the last ten years, lagging slightly behind tuition. State aid as a percentage of total spending has declined, but only because real spending has been growing exponentially. Other public universities have done much better. At the University of Maryland, tuition increased only 0.9% in the last five years, and there have been very modest increases in tuition at Florida State and University of Florida, despite sharp drops (over 50%) in state aid, thanks to increased efficiency.

Administrative efficiency has not been a hallmark of the Powers administration. In the first five years of the Powers era, spending on administrative salaries at UT went up 86% at the university level, 55% in the College of Liberal Arts, and 45% in the College of Business, to take two typical colleges. Powers created an entirely new vice presidential position (in 'diversity and community engagement'), and administrative salaries soared into the mid-six-figures, even for many associate deans. Spending on faculty salaries went up 21% in the same period (15% above inflation), with no increase in student learning, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (in which UT ranks in the 23rd percentile for its peer group).

2. Graduation rates

With the cost of undergraduate education rising and returns falling, the speed with which students can complete their studies gains new urgency. UT’s four-year graduation rate has remained, dismally, below 50%, and even the six-year rate has never topped 80%. Instead of addressing this problem, Powers chose to spend the early years of his presidency “reforming” the core curriculum through the creation of the Commission of 125, which resulted in adding a new, complex, and cumbersome set of requirements (six “flags”) on top of the state-mandated 42-hour core requirements. These flags were used, not to expedite completion, but to reward political constituencies, including flags in “multiculturalism” and “global [i.e., non-Western] cultures.” The two writing flags have become meaningless diversions, requiring no more than 16 pages of writing per semester.

The cornerstone of the new Powers curriculum is the freshman “signature course,” a classic case of a requirement in search of a rationale. The courses, whose only common denominator is that they are “multidisciplinary,” merely adds another random note to the potpourri of miscellaneous offerings that constitute the modern “core” of the bachelor’s degree. The fall 2013 signature courses included: “Conspiracy Theories,” “Visualizing Cuba,” “Intimate Relationships,” “Culture of Amazonia,” “The Art of the Uncanny,” and “Pulp Fictions.” They are heavily tilted topics with ideological and activist leanings, like race and gender identity and sustainability. (You can check this out for yourself: go to the UT syllabus site and search for “UGS” courses, the label for the Undergraduate Studies college that houses signature courses.) They are expensive to administer and difficult for students to obtain, with most students unable to enroll in their freshman course until their junior or senior years. The one good suggestion on the core coming out of the Commission of 125, the creation of coordinated “strands” of courses that build progressively on their predecessors, has completely failed to materialize, thanks to professorial and administrative indifference.

The next president will be forced to go back to the drawing board for yet another reform, this time streamlining requirements to those courses truly indispensable for a liberal education.

3. Tolerance for controversial viewpoints

When UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus published a peer-reviewed article challenging the conventional wisdom on the impact of same-sex marriage on children, UT's administration responded to a groundless charge of 'scientific misconduct' by a blogger in New York by launching a full-scale inquisition of Regnerus's research. In the end, to the credit of Provost Stephen Leslie, Regnerus was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. (In fact, a recent study of Canadian census data in the Review of the Economics of Households by Douglas W. Allen supports Regnerus's tentative conclusions). There can be no doubt that if Regnerus had reached the politically correct conclusion of 'no difference' between biological and gay parenting, he would never have been subjected in the absence of any prima facie of error to such an exacting investigation. (For more details, read this open letter by a group of sociologists critical of UT's treatment of Regnerus.) Despite the Leslie report's vindication of Regnerus, UT's College of Liberal Arts has posted an unprecedented 'disclaimer' about Regnerus on its web site, clearly signaling to the world that dissident voices are not welcome at UT. 

More evidence of the UT administration's bias against conservative viewpoints can be seen in the ongoing persecution of the only conservative student organization on campus, the Young Conservatives of Texas. In September of 2013, the Young Conservatives of Texas held an "affirmative action bake sale," in which identical cupcakes were sold at a variety of prices, lower prices being offered only to minority students. This was an effective and clear statement of conservative principles: it's wrong to treat people differently on the basis of their skin color or ethnicity. However, UT's vice president for "diversity" Gregory Vincent implausibly claimed that the Young Conservatives "create an environment of exclusion and disrespect among our students, faculty and staff." Vincent charged the students with violating the honor code; if this charge had been true, it would have been grounds for expulsion. This pattern of intolerance on the part of UT was repeated in November 2013, when Vincent (once again), joined by President Powers and the Faculty Senate, warned YCT that they were breaking UT's honor code by protesting the non-enforcement of immigration laws by the Obama administration.

4. Efficient use of facilities and emerging technologies

The future of higher education will involve new ways of delivering content to students, through online lectures and video-conferenced seminars. The age of the ‘brick and mortar’ university is coming to an end. The Powers administration, however, has pursued a massive construction program, adding another 5 million square feet to the campus, a nearly 30% increase. While older building are allowed to deteriorate, the new construction places added burdens of maintenance, utilities, and repair on an already over-stressed fiscal structure. The administration has paid little attention to making more efficient and intensive use of existing facilities, through early morning, evening, and weekend classes, for example.

The University has also been slow in embracing new technologies. After having joined the EdX consortium two years ago, UT-Austin has offered only nine courses (out of EdX’s five hundred), with no new courses planned for the fall of 2014. This is in stark contrast to the visionary approach to technologies embraced by pioneers such as Arizona State.

5. Administrative efficiency 

The main business of the University is education and not athletics. At the same time, athletics can serve as a useful measure of administrative efficiency – a canary in a coal mine. In the six years before Powers became president, UT earned eleven national championships in intercollegiate athletics, while earning only four in the eight years of the Powers administration. All this was despite a 32% increase in spending on athletics. The fall-off in athletic excellence under President Powers indicates a growing arteriosclerosis, a tendency for administrators to focus more on their own interests than on those of the campus.

6. Effectively deployed and equitably paid work force

report by Richard Vedder revealed that 20% of UT tenure-track faculty teach few students (2% of total semester hours), bring in no outside grants, and publish no original research. At the same time, reliance on temporary and adjunct instructors has grown exponentially, with over 50% of the undergraduate student-semester-hours (and over 30% of graduate semester-hours) being taught by non-tenure-track faculty, who typically teach at least twice as many students for less than half the salary, with no long-term job security.

7. Coherent and cost-effective curriculum

Modern universities have a tendency to proliferate majors and programs, fragmenting the curriculum, increasing administrative overhead, and generating majors of dubious and unproven value. At UT-Austin, the number of B.A.s in majors with 10 or fewer completions in 2011-12 was 27 (out of nearly 100). The years of the Powers administration have witnessed an acceleration of this trend, with the addition of a host of hyphenated gender and ethnic studies programs: Women’s and Gender Studies, African-American Studies, Mexican-American Studies, and Asian-American Studies.

8. Intellectual diversity

The signature courses, as I mentioned above, are only one example of the increasing ideological uniformity of the faculty at UT-Austin. A recent study of American history courses at UT by the National Association of Scholars revealed that 90% of junior faculty members in the history department have a primary research focus on race and gender issues, while none concentrate on military or intellectual history.  There is a prominent and active Gender Equity task force, but no task force to address discrimination against religious believers, or political moderates and conservatives.

9. High academic standards

According to Arthur Levine and Diane Dean in the Washington Post, college student grades in the United States have been rising steadily since the 1960s. In 1969, 7% of undergraduates had grades of A- or higher in contrast to 41% now. Similarly, grades of C or less have dropped from 25% to 5%. UT’s record in this respect is typical, with the Powers administration’s having done nothing to retard or reverse it.

In a 2011 book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 36% of the students it surveyed show little or no increase in their ability for critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing after four years of college, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment test. UT-Austin, in particular, has earned embarrassingly poor results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment test, standing in the 23rd percentile among peer institutions. Average scores for UT-Austin students went from 1263 (freshmen) to 1303 (seniors), a barely measurable improvement after four years of college (as reported by the Washington Post, March 14, 2012). Falling standards have begun to affect even pre-professional programs, with the rate of passing professional exams falling in both nursing (96% to 95%) and engineering (90% to 89%) from 2004 to 2008.

The National Survey of Student Engagement revealed that 34% of college students studied less than 10 hours a week, 54% less than 15 hours. At least one-quarter of UT seniors read fewer than four course-related books all year. Unsurprisingly, the Princeton Review ranks UT as the country’s #5 party school.

10. Transparency and appearance of integrity

The news media have been ringing with reports of an apparent battle between president Powers and his Board of Regents. Regent Wallace Hall has been widely criticized for making excessive use of Freedom of Information Act requests for information from the UT-Administration, but these criticisms overlook a more fundamental question: Why was Hall required to use the FOIA in order to conduct an investigation of influence-peddling at a university over which he has been appointed a regent? It is a fundamental responsibility of every CEO to cooperate freely and willingly with his or her own board.

The Penn State scandal should serve as an adequate warning of what happens when transparency is neglected and university administrators are invested with the blind trust of regents and alumni. Powers’ influence with legislators has grown so great that it seems that the Regents are accountable to him, rather than the other way around. This is a profoundly unhealthy situation, one which can be rectified only by Powers’ stepping down.


In all fairness, president Powers has been quite successful in raising funds for the university, both gifts and government grants. Such skill is a means, rather than an end in itself. To what end has he put these resources?

Powers has had a negligible influence on UT’s prestige. According to ASU's Center for Measuring University Performance, UT went from #25 in 2002 to #24 in 2012. UT is #52 in the U.S. News and World Report ranking, and #66 according to Forbes magazine. In the Academic Rating of World Universities (Shanghai), UT went from #47 in 2003 to #36 in 2012. However, in the QS World Ranking of universities, UT went from #51 in 2007 to #71 in 2013. Moreover, UT’s greater dependence on federal grant money results in a dangerous fiscal vulnerability, since federal research funding is certain to decline dramatically as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt absorb nearly 100% of federal revenues.

President Powers' career has, unfortunately, moved the University of Texas at Austin in exactly the wrong direction in relation to the needs of the hour: increasing the burdens, both financial and academic, on undergraduate students, building a top-heavy and inequitable pay structure, permitting the grip of political correctness to tighten, and permitting the drift into grade inflation, flabby standards, and a party-school environment. Moving UT in the right direction will require a 180-degree reversal of the signal accomplishments of the Powers administration, something that it would be unreasonable to expect Bill Powers to do. We need a fresh pair of eyes and a new perspective in the president's suite, and we need it sooner rather than later.


Image: "UT Tower - Main Building" by Thane // CC BY-SA

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