New York Times takes deep dive into UT’s student success efforts


Students in UT’s University Leadership Network. Photo by Bill McCullough, a 1986 Plan II graduate, for The New York Times. Read about the photo shoot.


If you read only one article about UT Austin this year, please read yesterday’s New York Times Magazine cover story about our efforts to increase student success and graduation.

Titled “Who gets to graduate?” the story, which runs nearly 8,500 words, is a deep dive and a fascinating look inside the efforts of David Laude, our senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management, to increase student success. The piece also looks at the work of one of David’s collaborators, David Yeager, a UT assistant professor in psychology, and profiles one of our freshmen, Vanessa Brewer of Mesquite.

Paul Tough, a Times contributing writer and the author of How Children Succeed, spent months reporting this story from Austin. He writes:

“What Laude and Yeager are helping to demonstrate is that with the right support, both academic and psychological, these students can actually graduate at high rates from an elite university like the University of Texas. Which is exactly why the giant educational experiment now taking place there has meaning well beyond the Austin campus.”

Tough concludes:

“To [reverse the trend of educational stratification] will take some sustained work, on a national level, on a number of fronts. But a big part of the solution lies at colleges like the University of Texas at Austin, selective but not superelite, that are able to perform, on a large scale, what used to be a central mission — arguably the central mission — of American universities: to take large numbers of highly motivated working-class teenagers and give them the tools they need to become successful professionals. The U.T. experiment reminds us that that process isn’t easy; it never has been. But it also reminds us that it is possible.”

This related article on the writing of the story is also worth your time.

What starts here changes the world.


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Best 12 Stories of the Academic Year

Campus scenes 2012 McCombs, Union, Tower and flowers

As the 2011-2012 academic year comes to a close, it’s a good time to look back on a dozen good milestones and accomplishments from the year. All of these achievements, which we reached as a community, indicate our growing strength as a university of national and international importance. So here, in no particular order, is my list:

(Clicking on the numbered item will take you to a related article.)

1. Medical School Momentum
With support from Senator Kirk Watson, the UT System, the Seton Healthcare Family, and others, we now have real momentum toward a medical school at UT Austin.

2. Four-year Graduation Rate Initiative
Our Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates submitted more than 60 recommendations for faster time-to-degree, and we’re already acting on them.

 3. Study finds UT No. 2 in efficiency
Factoring together multiple indicators of efficiency such as graduation rates, state support, and faculty employed put UT Austin nearly at the top nationally.

4. New Deans and Vice President
Leadership is critical to the success of any institution, and this year we recruited four outstanding executives to the campus. Luis Zayas became dean of Social Work; Linda Hicke will lead Natural Sciences; Ward Farnsworth is our new dean of Law; and Gage Paine will become our new vice president for student affairs.

5. Course Transformation
Using new educational technology and new findings in cognitive science, introductory courses in chemistry, statistics, and biology have been energized by experimental formats that increase interaction between students and teachers and among students themselves. And class attendance is up.

6. Big 12 strengthens with new members
The Horned Frogs and Mountaineers joined the conference to replace departing Aggies and Tigers.

7. Stampede
UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center won a National Science Foundation supercomputer grant worth a potential $50 million.

8. Alumni join students in The Project
Texas Exes chapters pitch in to take UT students’ community service project nationwide.

9. UT Business professors, Graduate Programs in Education and Accounting No. 1 in nation
The Princeton Review gave McCombs faculty top honors; U.S. News and World Report again ranked the graduate programs in our College of Education best among public universities in the nation and our graduate accounting program was ranked No. 1 for the seventh straight year.

10. UT hosts Fire Relief Benefit
Star-studded Erwin Center event raised $725,000 for Bastrop County fire victims.

11. Harry Ransom Center acquires J.M. Coetzee Archive
A Nobel-winning novelist trusts his alma mater with his papers.

12. Campaign for Texas reaches $1.93 billion
We expect to reach the $2 billion milestone this summer.

I’m so proud of this university and all it does every day to make the world a better place. Although no one knows what will be on this list a year from now, I know it will change the world.

Measuring Productivity and Efficiency at a Research University

At UT Austin, we’re working every day to improve the student experience and our academic outcomes.

I have created a task force, which convened in July, to work on increasing our graduation rates. As I said in my May speech on the future of the public research university, raising our four-year graduation rate is one of the most effective ways we can lower costs for Texas families and increase capacity at UT.

This effort is consistent with Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s Framework for Advancing Excellence Action Plan, which was unanimously approved by the Board of Regents on August 25. The framework addresses student success, faculty productivity, higher education costs, and many other factors.

I want to call your attention to some related comparative data taken from a study conducted by UT Austin sociology professor and associate dean Marc Musick:

  • UT Austin’s six-year graduation rate of 81% is 13th out of 120 American public research universities.
  • We rank 10th out of those 120 universities in the percentage of students graduating for every taxpayer and tuition dollar received.
  • We are 2nd in the number of faculty employed for every taxpayer and tuition dollar received.

Based on these objective measures, UT Austin is near the top in efficiency among the nation’s public universities.

Of course there is much room for improvement. Our four-year graduation rate of 53% is not good enough. Michigan and Berkeley graduate about 70% of their undergraduates in four years. We must identify and remove the obstacles to timely graduation at UT Austin.

Public research universities must be good stewards of the public trust—and public resources. I am committed to making UT Austin an even more efficient university.

Hook ’em Horns,

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An Important New Initiative on Graduation Rates

As I said in my recent report to the UT community, we need to improve our four-year graduation rates. Doing so will save the state and Texas families millions of dollars annually, and enable the University to accommodate more of the outstanding students who want to attend UT. In my May 9 address, I challenged all of us to deepen our commitment to this goal.

Today I am announcing the formation of a task force on graduation rates. It will be chaired by Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. I have invited eight faculty members in addition to Dean Diehl and five students to serve on the task force, and I’ll share their names as soon as I receive confirmation.

I have asked the task force to submit a report and recommendations by December.

We have great students and great faculty, and our four-year graduation rates should be among the highest in the nation. Although our graduation rates are the highest in the state, we should not be satisfied until they are among the very best. Together we will make this happen.

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Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates:


Dr. Randy Diehl, Task Force Chair
Dean, College of Liberal Arts

Dr. Rowena Fong, Professor
School of Social Work

Dr. Robert Gilbert, Professor
Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering

Dr. Beverly Hadaway, Associate Professor
Department of Finance

Dr. Brent Iverson, Professor and Chair
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Dr. Charles Ramirez-Berg, Professor
Department of Radio-Television-Film

Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, Associate Professor
Department of English

Dr. Mary Steinhardt, Professor
Department of Kinesiology and Health

Dr. Philip Uri Treisman, Professor,
Department of Mathematics


Ms. Shannon Allport
Biology/Premed, Predental, Preveterinary

Mr. Gilberto Ortega-Rivera,

Ms. Ilse Quijano
Comm. Studies / Political Comm.

Mr. Francisco Tamayo

Mr. Wesley Williams

Research Enhances Teaching

There has been an active conversation in the media over the past few weeks regarding the value of research and its role in higher education. This week, The Houston Chronicle published my op-ed on these important issues. You can read the full piece online, but I’ll share the key points with you here:

  • Our faculty is committed to teaching—both undergraduates and graduate students. In the past seven years, we have devoted a great deal of thought, energy, and funding to improving the undergraduate learning experience. Our Signature Courses for all first-year students are an example of the progress we have made. We have also revised much of our undergraduate curriculum to help develop our students’ proficiency in writing, speaking, quantitative reasoning, and independent inquiry.
  • We give our freshmen a chance to get involved in research. More than 500 first-year students participate in the Freshman Research Initiative in laboratories with faculty mentors. This experience improves their overall success—participants go on to earn higher grades and more scholarships and have higher retention and graduation rates.

We believe it’s important to expose our freshmen and sophomores to great teaching, the tools of scholarship, and problem solving.

  • Research enhances teaching—and it’s good for Texas. Universities enable research that the private sector may be unwilling to support but that has incalculable benefit to society. For example, the research that provided the basis for the creation of today’s lithium-ion batteries started at a university in the lab of a professor now on our faculty. Not only are our faculty conducting groundbreaking research, they are educating the students who will become tomorrow’s private-sector researchers. University research stimulates progress in both the private and public sectors.

All of this is good for our state economy.

  • UT-Austin received about $318 million in state support in 2010-11. It leveraged the state’s investment into $642 million (2009-10) in external research grants secured by faculty. The University generated more than $5.8 billion in economic activity in Texas during 2009-10, according to the Bureau of Business Research.

We grant more undergraduate and graduate degrees than any Texas university. We have the highest four-year graduation rate of any public university in the state. I’m proud of UT-Austin’s stature as a national and global university. But like any institution, we can improve, and we will.

As we explore ways to adapt public higher education for the 21st century, we must make sure that we preserve those attributes that have brought us this far in our quest to be the best public university in America.

Bill's Signature