The modern world presents challenges that our graduates must be prepared to meet. In particular, they must learn to achieve in a world made smaller by technology and even more complex by the importance of different cultures and peoples. A narrow education, no matter how deep in its field, will not be sufficient.
Future citizens will need to think critically and have a confident grasp of the arts, the humanities, mathematics, science, and technology.
The success of UT graduates throughout the disciplines and professions indicates that they have received a generally sound education, and on its face, UT’s curriculum would seem to be doing a good job of keeping up with the times. Currently 14 colleges offer 333 degree plans, 123 of which are bachelor’s programs. But the Commission believes that while the current system offers students myriad courses of study, it fails to equip undergraduates with a core body of knowledge essential to a well-balanced education. For too many degree plans, the current curriculum resembles little more than a vast à la carte menu.
While this makes for great flexibility and variety, course-selection decisions are frequently driven by class availability, convenience, and whim rather than by a well-conceived plan of instruction.
Students and alumni have cited other shortcomings such as inadequate development of writing skills, lack of exposure to the great books of civilization, overspecialization of study in professional education at the undergraduate level, and inadequate training in the tools and methods of research.
UT’s last curriculum review occurred in 1981, and its recommendations are now outdated. The University should prepare its students for a changing and more challenging world. This goal is best achieved through the development of a new core curriculum, defined as an academic program required of all undergraduates, regardless of their majors.
The Commission is not recommending a curriculum dictated by a literary canon. While the new core curriculum would require all undergraduates to take certain courses, the balance of their core requirements could be satisfied by selection from a broader list of approved course offerings. The Commission also envisions a curriculum that requires rigorous study and creates more intellectual interaction among students. The core curriculum should replace existing requirements, not be added to them. To have a first-class undergraduate educational experience, the Commission believes every student should:
- Receive a broad education that includes exposure to culture, literature, foreign languages, the humanities, and the arts.
- Explore mathematics, science, and technology.
- Learn to think and read critically, write cogently, speak persuasively, and work both independently and as part of a team.
- Engage in open discussion, inquiry, discovery, research, problem-solving, and learning to learn.
- Examine questions of ethics and the attributes of effective leadership.
- Acquire a sense of history and the global community together with a respect for other cultures.
The creation of a core curriculum is the province of the faculty.
The president should convene a committee to develop a new core curriculum. Once the core curriculum is determined, the Commission recommends prompt implementation. The president of The University should monitor the implementation to ensure that it achieves the intended breadth and quality. A key to success is adequate course availability. In addition, the new core curriculum should be monitored on an ongoing basis.
Core curriculum courses, like all others at The University, should be university-level curricula. Therefore, comparable courses may not be readily available at other educational institutions. Nor should course requirements be easily satisfied through advanced-placement examinations.
To the extent that core course requirements are satisfied by transfer or advanced-placement credit, other more advanced courses in the respective subject must be taken both to satisfy core requirements and to give the student a university-quality learning experience. The committee appointed by the president should confer with UT’s various colleges and schools to ensure that its recommendations meet licensing and accreditation requirements and appropriately enhance each degree program.
The core curriculum should be required of all undergraduates. The University is preparing the next generation of leaders. It is too important a job to be left to the vagaries of course availability, convenience, and whim. The University of Texas can do better.
Strong academic leadership at the department and research-center level is a hallmark of our nation’s finest universities. Commission members believe that a key to improving UT’s capacity for world-class teaching, scholarship, and research is to require that those who lead departments and research centers meet a higher standard of excellence, accomplishment, and leadership ability. This means (a) recruiting superior scholars and researchers who are proven leaders, (b) giving them the authority and resources with which to lead, and (c) holding them accountable for the outcome. An external advisory board should be established to help The University evaluate existing academic programs, identify new research opportunities, and recruit exceptional academic leaders.
This recommendation represents a major change in how academic programs are governed at UT. At present, decision-making authority regarding resources, hiring, and new research initiatives is shared three ways—by a dean, a department chair, and a budget council composed of the department’s tenured professors. In many cases, the chair is the least influential of the three. Furthermore, the chair typically rotates among faculty members for relatively short terms (usually every four years) and receives only a small increase in compensation and a small reduction in teaching load. In most departments the chair is an onerous burden to be borne rather than an opportunity to lead the unit to a higher level. The job currently requires tedious work without adequate staff support, which can distract from teaching and research.
This is hardly an environment likely to attract strong, visionary leadership.
While there are departments that have given the chair adequate authority to lead effectively, they are not the norm.
Much of the current leadership has been provided by The University’s deans. It is unrealistic for deans, who oversee large, complex organizations, to provide the vision and day-to-day guidance to lead multiple departments to excellence. One dean on campus, for instance, oversees 46 academic departments, research institutes, and research centers. Any leader would be hard-pressed to build excellence in 46 academic units.
A substandard department or center has little chance to achieve excellence without the appointment of an outstanding leader who is empowered and appointed for a sufficient duration to direct meaningful change. Typically, such a turnaround takes at least a decade. But empowered leadership can have a profound effect on teaching and research at The University. We can no longer allow leadership of our academic programs to be viewed as an assignment to be avoided. The academic enterprise is too important, too expensive, and too critical to the future to be left to default leadership.
Leaders will be needed to head programs in fields that hold exceptional promise or strategic value for UT. In these situations, it is essential that The University commit the resources to compete successfully for top talent. The Commission recommends that resources be dedicated to select, fund, and fully support at least one world-class chair or center leader per year for the next two decades.
Character and Scope
A commitment to a disciplined culture of excellence will force The University to reexamine its character and scope.
To be the best requires that UT not only attract superb students and faculty, but also achieve national recognition in all academic programs that it undertakes. Every program should rank at least among the nation’s top twenty. An institution that achieves a top-twenty ranking in every department will inevitably be regarded as among the nation’s very best.
Aspiring to genuine preeminence in all possible fields, however, is unrealistic. Given its finite resources, The University must be selective about which programs to emphasize. Underperforming programs should be either eliminated or improved to meet The University’s standard.
This is a necessary change from the role The University played during the 20th century, when it aspired to be fully comprehensive. Creating a disciplined culture of excellence precludes The University from trying to be all things to all people.
Moreover, UT should aggressively pursue the highest level of international distinction in targeted academic areas, particularly those that are most critical to our overall mission, character, and location, and in those areas that have a disproportionately large impact on our reputation.
A disciplined culture of excellence requires accountability. The administration must implement systems by which performance of every program is evaluated consistently and rigorously and those individuals responsible for excellence are held accountable. In most cases it will be useful to enlist outside review of programs.