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A New Economics for Excellence

While doing more with less is a recurring theme for higher education, state and federal budgets are forcing the issue. The University of Texas System is making headway via a defined framework that focuses in part on collaboration, core metrics, and cyberinfrastructure.

By Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D.

The media spotlight and public attention on higher education institutions are at an all-time high. In a challenging economic environment, lawmakers, policy experts, students, and parents across the nation are demanding that we keep tuition increases low and, at the same time, control costs. In the global arena, institutions are encountering serious competition from other nations, which are now offering comparable higher education opportunities and innovative, cutting-edge research.

And, at home, universities and colleges are facing a demand for more accessible, accountable, and affordable education in a world where terabytes of information can be transferred instantly to all corners of the globe—and students are comfortable within these portals of communication that challenge traditional classrooms and pedagogy.

The University of Texas (UT) System, with its nine academic institutions and six health science centers, has worked diligently for many years to continually identify cost-saving initiatives and organizational efficiencies. All this without compromising our core missions of quality education, patient care, research, and service.

Taking Deliberate Action

With the unanimous support of our board of regents and the 15 institution presidents, we've begun to implement "A Framework for Advancing Excellence Throughout the University of Texas System." This effort identifies nine strategic areas, each with its own initiatives and related metrics. The framework action plan includes several projects to support our established culture of innovation and positive change.

Among the focus areas are under-graduate student access and success, strategic information technology infrastructure, and physician education(for details on the framework, go to www.utsystem.edu/sites/utsfiles/news/assets/FrameworkActionPlan-08-25-11.pdf).

We've made progress in several of these key areas, including:

  • Access and completion. We're facilitating four-year graduation rate improvement by using campus facilities more effectively, enhancing student advising through a partnership with MyEDU (a student support portal), and offering more blended and online learning courses. UT Austin President Bill Powers has stated his desire to see the institution's four-year graduation rate improve from 53 percent to 70 percent within five years.
  • Technology infrastructure. The UT System's Research Cyberinfrastructure Initiative is aimed at creating a technical and cultural environment that will allow the nine academic universities and six health institutions within the system to grow computational approaches for teaching in the classroom and for researching and supporting business processes. It is an example of the power of pooling together and leveraging current resources, which will increase high-performance computer connectivity and capacity across all 15 UT institutions, support research projects, and foster stronger collaborations among scientists in Texas and around the world. 
  • Physician education. Collaborations among the system's academic institutions and health science centers have seen some results. Specifically, the UT System's Transformation in Medical Education (TIME) initiative—a multi-institutional program aimed at increasing the effectiveness and pedagogy of physician education while shortening time to degree—is a new model for physician education that spans the traditional baccalaureate-medical school boundary.

Maintaining Robust Research Activities

Collaboration, as we've facilitated among our academic and health institutions, is a superb catalyst in external relationships as well. As research institutions face constrained revenue streams from federal, state, and other institutional grants, we must come up with creative synergies that help fill the gap in research dollars. We need to work together to assure the strength of American research institutions in a more competitive world.

A National Academies committee on which I serve has just completed a project with that goal in mind. A consensus report released June 14 offers findings and recommendations that relate to actions Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities and others can take in concert to ensure that we maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education necessary for the United States to achieve its national goals in the 21st century. (Visit www.nap.edu to obtain a free summary of the report or to order a copy of the complete report.)

FRANCISCO G. CIGARROA, M.D., is chancellor of The University of Texas System.