The University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven has just laid out to the Board of Regents a bold new vision for the UT system, including a new mission statement draft, the operating concept, and decision process that encompasses eight elements including:
• Texas Prospect Initiative—increased active engagement with leaders in PreK-12 beyond anything yet seen in higher education.
• The American Leadership Program to develop great organizational leaders.
• Winning the Talent War—a significant new investment in attracting the next generation of outstanding faculty.
• Enhancing Fairness and Opportunity—aggressive efforts to drive equal opportunity and fairness in hiring and promotion.
• The UT Health Care Enterprise—using the collective power of its institutions to incentivize and drive partnering to deliver the finest health care possible.
• Leading the Brain Health Revolution—an effort akin to the Manhattan Project to understand, treat, and cure the diseases of the brain.
• The UT Network for National Security—to use its system-wide alliance of over 40 national security centers to establish itself as a leader in national security.
• UT System Expansion in Houston—to provide a venue for UT institutions across the state to have a significant presence in Houston.
Some of this almost takes your breath away and I won’t even venture a guess as to the cost or sources of funding, but it is certainly nothing if not bold, even audacious, and I commend the Chancellor for this level of boldness and fearless leadership. From the initial response, there seems to be no doubt that the expansion into Houston will be the most politically sensitive strategy, particularly in view of the statewide competition among those institutions, such as the University of Houston, who are vying to join UT, Texas A&M, and Rice as so-called Tier One research institutions. For that reason and others, this part of the strategy figures to spill over to hot button issues involving Texas higher education governance, a subject I will visit in a later essay.
In a strategy so sweeping, there are a lot of moving parts and I will defer commentary on most of it until more of the details are made clear. For now I want to focus on the element called the Texas Prospect Initiative, which immediately jumped out at me because of my interest in PreK-12 reform. According to the release on the plan, this initiative will encompass the system-wide development of a program to focus on dramatically improving elementary level literacy through a UT Literacy Institute. Hallelujah! If there ever was a crying need for a Manhattan Project-type commitment in Texas, a full frontal attack on the reading crisis should be at the top of the list. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress data, only 28% of Texas fourth graders are proficient readers, 34% read at a basic level, and the rest read at below basic level. Worse, these results have been basically flat to downward sloping over the past twelve years. Nothing would do more to completely transform public education and make Texas the beacon state than to have a substantial majority of our children at grade level in reading by the third grade.
What more appropriate institution to take on such a challenge than our flagship higher education system? And I believe that even fiscally conservative folks like me would support the necessary targeted funding with accountability to achieve this objective, but there will need to be major changes in educator preparation and development, instruction methodology, curriculum standards, and assessments, and there will be pushback on all of these items. In other words, we know how to attack the reading crisis; what has been missing is the will, so if UT can overcome that barrier, it would be a major breakthrough. For more thoughts on the reading crisis and how to fix it, see “Addressing the Reading Crisis in Texas Schools: An Agenda for Success” at www.texaseducationreform.org.
Meanwhile, I look forward to the further unfolding of this aggressive strategy laid out by the Chancellor. Good luck!