Monday, May 02, 2011

Regents' chairman suggests boosting UT enrollment, halving tuition

Monday, May 2, 2011

The chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents has suggested increasing undergraduate enrollment by 10 percent a year for four years at UT-Austin and reducing tuition across the system in the range of 50 percent, according to a draft copy of his goals obtained by the American-Statesman.

The goals outlined by Gene Powell in an April 7 memorandum titled "Draft Notes and Ideas for Discussion" also include boosting enrollment by an unspecified percentage at the system's eight other academic universities, adding a "high quality, low cost degree" to the system's current offerings and coming up with a timeline for making the Austin flagship the nation's No. 1 public university.

Anthony de Bruyn, a spokesman for the UT System, confirmed the authenticity of the memo.

"It is an internal, draft working document (as indicated on the memorandum) with suggested goals that Chairman Powell raised, and it was shared with only the vice chairmen of the Board and a few UTS executive staff for discussion only," de Bruyn said Monday in a statement.

"The full Board is not scheduled to take action with regard to these suggestions. As such, it is inappropriate to offer public comment, unless there were to be a request that the draft goals be the subject of discussion with the Board," de Bruyn said.

The memo nevertheless gives additional insight into the policies that Powell, who was elected chairman by his fellow regents in February, wants to pursue.

He has already drawn criticism from lawmakers, alumni and donors for some of his actions, such as the hiring of an adviser who had written critically of much academic research. The adviser has since been dismissed.

Powell has also come under fire for instructing system officials to "remain positive" when testifying before the Legislature concerning budget cuts and for embracing Gov. Rick Perry's suggestion that schools develop bachelor's degree programs costing no more than $10,000 for all four years, including textbooks.

His memo suggests increasing UT-Austin's undergraduate enrollment by 10 percent annually starting in 2013. If current undergraduate enrollment of 38,420 held steady until 2013, four years of 10 percent increases would take it to 56,251.

And if graduate enrollment held steady through the period, total enrollment would reach 69,026. The university's fall 2010 enrollment stood at 51,195.

Don Hale, a spokesman for UT-Austin, declined to comment on Powell's memo.

Bill McCausland, interim executive director of the Ex-Students' Association, which is not part of the university, reacted with dismay.

"If you strive to make the University of Texas the No. 1 public school in the country, I don't think a dramatic increase in enrollment or reducing tuition are the steps necessary to get us to that," McCausland said. "They seem to counter it."

McCausland said halving tuition — at a time when the Legislature is poised to impose sharp cuts in higher education appropriations — would require reductions in teachers, classes, programs and services offered to students outside the classroom.

And a sizable increase in enrollment would outstrip the university's capacity to teach, feed and house students — or require a significant component of online classes that would dramatically alter the college experience, McCausland said.

A blue-ribbon panel that spent two years and more than $500,000 studying the Austin flagship issued a report in 2004 that, among other things, recommended reducing the size of the student body to improve the educational experience.

The panel, known as the Commission of 125, said enrollment, 51,426 at the time, should be trimmed to about 48,000.

School officials have since said that they haven't been able to achieve the goal because of the budget implications of reducing enrollment: Revenue from tuition would also go down during a period of tight finances.

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