By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Not too many people perform liver transplants in their spare time. Francisco Cigarroa says it keeps him grounded.
Cigarroa’s day job since February 2009 has been chancellor of the University of Texas System, overseeing 15 academic and health campuses. It’s been an especially challenging assignment the past few months.
His bosses, the nine members of the UT System Board of Regents, don’t necessarily see eye to eye on the appropriate teaching load for faculty members, the cost of tuition, the adequacy of legislative appropriations and other matters. Gene Powell, the chairman of the regents, bypassed Cigarroa in hiring an adviser. And although the adviser, Rick O’Donnell, was dismissed after seven weeks on the job, he has been lobbing verbal hand grenades from the sidelines.
Cigarroa sought and received a unanimous vote of support in May from the regents after insisting that they refrain from micromanaging. He plans to propose a framework for improving graduation rates, advising, introductory lecture courses and other facets of campus operations during the regents’ August meeting.
Cigarroa, 53, reflected on his chancellorship, surgery, the legislative session and other matters during an interview last week with the American-Statesman. Here is an edited account.
How often are you performing transplants?
Every third weekend on the average, which sends a powerful message that, despite being an administrator, you’re still involved in the front line of interacting with students and nurses and physicians. It’s predominantly liver and kidney transplants — mostly adults. You know, I can still throw in a pretty darn good stitch.
As these various controversies have bubbled up during the past few months, have you felt at any moment that you’d like to go back to surgery full time?
No. Leading the University of Texas System is one of the greatest privileges that can be given to an individual. The best time to be in a position like this is during challenging times, because this is a time to lead. I also feel that a debate such that we’re experiencing in Texas and the nation can be very positive if the best recommendations of the debate bubble to the top. Now, the one thing that I demand in any debate is respect, understanding of the value of our presidents and our faculty and our students, and to always keep debate in a constructive perspective.
It hasn’t always been that way, though. Just recently, Rick O’Donnell described some of the faculty at the Austin flagship as “dodgers” and “coasters.”
I personally was appalled with defining faculty in such terms. I have visited every campus and interacted with hundreds and hundreds of faculty. I see faculty who are working very, very hard, who are educating over 200,000 students, who are improving the number of degrees conferred systemwide, who are trying to improve their universities. Can we do better? Of course.
Was it a mistake for the Legislature to cut higher education funding?
I’m not going to say it was mistake in the sense that Texas had a historic budgetary shortfall. And in fact, we were facing at the beginning of the session an average of a 25 percent cut. It ended up being an average of about a 15 percent cut. But if it’s like this every biennium over the next decade, I think that would be a terrible mistake.
How are your relations with the regents?
Since May, the relationship between our regents and system administration has significantly improved. We’re still basically finding that better equilibrium. Listen, the dynamics of the board changed. Change is always a little anxiety-provoking, but we’re getting to a much better steady state. In August, if the framework I’ll be presenting moves forward, I would say that the debate was worth it. Tension, if it’s done constructively, can lead to good things. Being a classical guitarist, I also understand that if you put too much tension on a string it can pop and the performance will be bad.
What are some of the recommendations you’ll make?
The areas that I want to focus on include the need to improve student success and outcomes through increasing degrees conferred, and certainly working with our campuses to kind of redouble our efforts on graduation rates. I think we can do better to make sure that when students transfer from a community college to our four-year universities that we’re able to help those students define a major where most of their credits from the community college advance toward that major. It goes back to advising. One of the areas that we’ve been really significantly discussing is how we can use technology to improve student success and student learning and student outcomes in regards to these large gateway courses. And that’s where blended, online learning may actually be able to make a large classroom setting become much more interactive with the students.
Is it possible to do more with less? Read more…