February 2, 2011
Voters made it part of the Texas Constitution in 1876: The Legislature shall establish and maintain the University of Texas as “a university of the first class.”
The constitution doesn’t define “first class,” but UT would appear to qualify.
It has been a member of the Association of American Universities, a group of leading research universities in the United States and Canada, since 1929. Numerous programs — including accounting, Latin American history, and chemical, petroleum and civil engineering — are standouts. Its research expenditures exceed $500 million a year, an economic boon for the region and state. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT 13th among public universities .
But UT has struggled in its years-long quest to plant itself among the very best public institutions of higher learning, which include the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina. Now, with a 5 percent budget cut imposed by state officials and double-digit reductions proposed on top of that, the question arises:
Is UT’s “first class” status in jeopardy?
“The answer is yes. It is being threatened,” UT President William Powers Jr. said in an interview. “Even in good times, even just at the margins, the opportunities to really soar are limited by a lack of funding.”
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who oversees the Austin flagship and 14 other academic and health campuses, put it this way: “It is an institution of the first class, but you can’t take it for granted.”
The budget proposal offered by the Texas House for the two-year period beginning in September would cut 13.6 percent, or $108 million, from the $792.7 million in state and federal money allotted to UT two years ago by the Legislature, a UT analysis found. The Senate’s version would trim 11.1 percent, or $87.9 million.
Anticipating flat or reduced state funding, UT officials have been in cost-cutting mode for a couple of years. And with more than three-fourths of the budget going to personnel, that translates into layoffs: 294 staff members in administrative and academic units in the budget year that ended in August, 93 this year. UT has about 16,500 employees.
Furthermore, year-to-year contracts were not renewed in the fall for about 30 lecturers, and part-time teaching slots for about 220 graduate students were eliminated. Thirty-one tenured faculty members in the colleges of Liberal Arts, Fine Arts and Communication have accepted buyouts.
Liberal Arts, the university’s largest academic unit, plans to scale back a number of programs, including ethnic, gender, population and Middle Eastern studies. Chelsea Adler, a senior government major and president of the Senate of College Councils, the official voice of UT students on academic affairs, said such programs are part of what makes for a university of the first class. Students marched in protest of the planned cuts in December and held a forum Tuesday .
Additional budget cuts along the lines of what the House and Senate have proposed would be much more painful.
Powers said last year that a 10 percent cut would eliminate 600 faculty and staff jobs. It also would impair UT’s ability to hire and retain faculty, recruit top graduate students, maintain its prominence in research and sustain its student-faculty ratio, now at 18-to-1.
If the House or Senate budget proposal were to become law, UT might have to scale back or close some academic programs deemed not essential to its research and teaching missions, said Steven Leslie, executive vice president and provost. “We’d lose faculty every year we can’t replace,” he said, “and those figures would add up in ways that would be very injurious to the campus.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin , said it all adds up to an uncertain future for an engine of intellectual and economic development for the state.
“I am greatly concerned that the Legislature is poised to breach a commitment that we’ve made to our children and our grandchildren to be able to provide the sort of education that we’ve come to expect at the University of Texas at Austin,” Watson said.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio , cautioned against overreaction. “The budgets that have been laid out are not the budgets that are going to pass,” he said. “They will be adjusted both up and down on a whole range of agencies.”
The notion that UT’s first-class status is threatened “may be a little bit strong,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas , who is expected to be reappointed as chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “There’s going to be pain across the board, and higher ed has to do its part,” he said.
Legislative appropriations of state and federal revenue make up less than a fifth of UT’s $2.1 billion annual budget, with the balance coming from federal research grants, endowments, tuition and other sources.
But the appropriated money is especially important because it covers about 30 percent of faculty salaries, student advising and other core academic functions, said Mary Knight, UT’s associate vice president and budget director. By contrast, appropriations covered about 45 percent of the overall budget in the mid-1980s.
“It’s been a steady decline,” Knight said, noting that state funding has increased, on average, 1.9 percent annually for the past 20 years or so — well below the rate of inflation.
The figures do not include fruits of the state’s multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund, which helps supports 18 campuses and six agencies in the UT and Texas A&M University systems. UT-Austin’s share — $165.3 million — plus state appropriations put it in the middle of the pack on a per-student basis in the 2009 budget year, according to the most recent figures compiled from federal data on a dozen major research universities.
UT’s funding averaged $10,539 a student. The University of North Carolina led at $20,268, and Indiana University brought up the rear at $6,327. But with tuition added, UT’s funding per student came to $19,064, lowest of the group.
Business leaders worry that erosion of UT’s capacity to attract and retain the brightest faculty members would reduce its research programs.
“Research brings capital, which brings jobs,” said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, which has urged lawmakers to maintain current funding for UT and the rest of higher education.
UT and other public colleges and universities in Texas aren’t alone in facing tough budget times.
California Gov. Jerry Brown wants to reduce spending on higher education by $1.4 billion . Rutgers University’s governing board raised tuition and fees 4 percent last year after New Jersey lawmakers cut support for higher education. And New York lawmakers have reduced funding for the 64-campus State University of New York in the past three years, resulting in larger classes and fewer course offerings.
“Even after the cuts at Berkeley or UCLA, we’re still several thousand dollars per student per year behind them. I’d trade my budget with the Berkeley budget per student per year like that,” Powers said, snapping his fingers.
One noteworthy difference between UT and UC-Berkeley, considered the leading public research university, is that the California school charges undergraduates $12,462 a year in tuition and fees — $3,044 more than UT’s $9,418.
In the past, the Board of Regents has scaled back increases sought by the Austin campus after Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other officials voiced objections. The Legislature considered, but did not approve, limits on tuition increases two years ago. Tuition-control measures also have been filed in the current legislative session.
“To the extent the public wants to own the university and see that it is used for public purposes and exercise control over it, then the public also needs to put resources into the institution,” said Larry Faulkner, a former UT president who is now president of the Houston Endowment, a charitable foundation. “A university of the first class that’s accessible to all citizens without any public support is not realizable.”