UT’s Fenves: We’re not dumbing down courses to boost graduation rate

The four-year graduation rate at the University of Texas is on the rise. As my story the other day noted, it reached 57.8 percent last fall, the highest on record for a campus that had a slacker reputation for decades when it came to getting students out on time.

The goal, set by former President Bill Powers and embraced by his successor, Gregory L. Fenves, is to graduate 70 percent of entering freshmen in four years by fall 2017.

An alert reader posed the following question: “Are we pushing them through meaningless cream-puff  courses and awarding undeserved  passing grades, or does this represent increasing student  awareness and concentration in rigorous courses?”

I posed a similar question to Fenves recently when I spoke to him for a story about the controversies and other challenges he has faced since becoming the leader of Longhorn Nation in June of last year. Here’s what he said in a quote that didn’t make it into that story:

“No, we’re not dumbing down the curriculum. Standards aren’t going down. The student success is not built on remedial education. Students are rising to the standards, given the support systems, especially for students who are first in their family to go to college and don’t have that kind of family support necessarily. And they support each other; that’s been a key part of what we’ve done, especially for freshmen persistence. Students are much more successful if they have peers that are going through this tough challenge, making that transition from living at home, going from high school to college where there are high expectations, and that small network is very, very important for student success.”

Great to see ‘complexities and ambiguities’ of campus carry aired, professor says

Three University of Texas professors sat quietly at a table with their lawyers Thursday during a federal court hearing in Austin on the professor’s campus carry lawsuit. Afterward, one of the faculty members, Mia Carter, an associate professor of English, said that it was hard to read how the judge might rule.

“It was great to see the complexities and ambiguities of the case being aired,” Carter said.

Kind of like a classroom discussion, I suggested. She chuckled.

At the center of the professors’ case is their contention that actual classroom discussion would inevitably be chilled by the possible presence of concealed handguns. Renea Hicks, one of their lawyers, said the trio simply wouldn’t push students as hard and as far intellectually as they have in the past, for fear that someone with a weapon might snap.

The professors want the option of banning concealed handguns from their classrooms. The university and state Attorney General Ken Paxton say that option does not exist.

At one point during the hearing, it seemed that the professors might not face any disciplinary action if they went ahead and told their students guns would be a no-no. Lawyers for UT quickly tried to disabuse Judge Lee Yeakel of any such notion.

The judge set a 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline for filings in the case and promised to rule quickly on the professors’ request for a preliminary injunction that would allow them to bar handguns.

Texas A&M ranked among ‘best colleges for women’

From Texas A&M University:

Texas A&M University, known for decades as an all-male college, is one of 50 U.S. institutions featured in a new “Best Colleges and Universities for Women” article — and the only public university in Texas so cited.

The 2016 ranking of the nation’s best colleges for women was compiled by College Choice, an online firm that has as its slogan “Helping You Choose the Right College.”

Texas A&M is ranked 40th in the listings that are dominated by private institutions, particularly Ivy League schools. The only Texas institution ranked higher than Texas A&M is Rice at 13th. The only other Texas school citied is SMU, which ranks 48th.

Women now account for almost half of the 60,000+ students at Texas A&M, which ranks among the top five universities in the nation in student body size. Last fall, women totaled 30,677 in the university’s overall enrollment, with men totaling 33,699.

Not only are a lot of women enrolled at Texas A&M, but many of them also are serving in key leadership positions. For example, the 2016-17 student body president is a woman, Hannah Wimberly of Friendswood, as is the commander of the university’s Corps of Cadets, Cecille Sorio, formerly of San Antonio.

Opened in 1876 as Texas’ first public institution of higher learning, Texas A&M was essentially an all-male institution until 1963, when enrollment of women was formally allowed on “a limited basis.” The limitation stipulated that women could enroll at Texas A&M if that was the only public institution in the state that offered a woman her desired course of study. Soon afterwards, women started enrollment in ever increasing numbers without regard to their courses of study, university records show, and on-campus housing was made available to them beginning in 1972.

“This ranking accentuates universities that provide exceptional academic programs and thorough support services for women and individuals passionate about gender equality,” notes the College Choice editors. “We began with a base list of hundreds of regionally accredited schools who are ranked highly by the Women’s Choice Award for being top colleges for women. From there we ranked the schools according to affordability, financial aid awarded, female student satisfaction, return on investment, and academic reputation. We are confident that the list will provide a great launching pad for all looking for a quality school with thoughtful programming and services that promote gender equity.”

Follow live: UT System Board meeting on campus carry rules

The University of Texas System Board of Regents will meet Wednesday morning and is scheduled to discuss concealed carry rules adopted by the presidents of the system’s 14 academic and health campuses.

The meeting will address two contentious rules at the University of Texas at Austin that would bar license holders from carrying semiautomatic handguns with chambered rounds and allow the sole occupant of a university office to declare the room off-limits to guns.

Follow American-Statesman higher education writer Ralph K. M. Haurwitz who will live-tweet the meeting when it goes into open session about 11 a.m.

Pro-concealed carry group, Paxton blast UT professors’ lawsuit

At best, a Hail Mary pass. At worst, an attempt to manipulate the University of Texas System Board of Regents.

That’s how Students for Concealed Carry, a nonprofit group whose name states its mission, described a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court by three professors at the Austin campus. The professors want to be able to prohibit the carrying of concealed handguns in their classrooms.

Here’s what Antonia Okafor, Southwest regional director of Students for Concealed Carry, had to say in an emailed statement:

“Licensed concealed carry has been allowed throughout most of Texas for more than twenty years, with no indication that it has led to an increase in violent crime or gun accidents. It’s been allowed on more than 100 U.S. college campuses for an average of seven years, without a single report of a resulting assault, suicide attempt, or fatality of any kind. To put it in terms these professors should understand, the clinical trials are over, and campus carry has been shown to pose little risk to public safety.”

For his part, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said he would vigorously defend the campus carry law. His emailed statement:

“This lawsuit is not only baseless, it is an insult to the millions of law abiding gun owners in Texas and across this country. The Texas Legislature passed a constitutionally sound law, and I will vigorously defend it. Adults who are licensed by the State to carry a handgun anywhere in Texas do not suddenly become a menace to society when they set foot on campus. The right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed for all Americans, including college students, and must be vigilantly protected and preserved.”

UT President Gregory L. Fenves is another defendant in the case. “We are reviewing the lawsuit,” his spokesman, Gary Susswein, said by email.

When he announced the university’s campus carry policies in February, Fenves made it clear that his personal views don’t square up with his obligation to uphold the law, which bars policies that generally prohibit concealed handguns.

“I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date,” Fenves said at the time. “I empathize with the many faculty members, staffers, students and parents of students who signed petitions, sent emails and letters, and organized to ban guns from campus and especially classrooms. As a professor, I understand the deep concerns raised by so many. However, as president, I have an obligation to uphold the law.”

3 members of Congressional Black Caucus back Muny

Three members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including its chairman, have called on the National Park Service to add Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin to the nation’s list of historic places.

Democratic U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, James Clyburn of South Carolina and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas said in letters this month to Stephanie Toothman, the Park Service’s keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, that the golf course merits listing because of its role in civil rights history.

Lions Municipal, also known as Muny, became quietly and peacefully integrated in the early 1950s, well before violent confrontations that characterized desegregation of public accommodations elsewhere in the South. It is considered one of the earliest, if not the first, municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states of the South to be desegregated.

Save Muny, a group whose name sums up its mission, nominated the course for the National Register. The Texas Historical Commission agreed and forwarded the nomination to the Park Service, which is reviewing the matter.

“I support this nomination and urge you to list Muny in the Register as a nationally significant place that should be preserved for its civil rights history,” Butterfield wrote to Toothman.

Clyburn wrote that Muny stands as “a teachable experience for the nation in our country’s civil rights history.” Johnson said a listing “would preserve a historical landmark while honoring the pride of Austin.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, previously wrote to Toothman in support of “preservation and recognition” of Muny’s role as a civil rights landmark.

Save Muny leaders say their research shows that two black youths integrated the course in the latter part of 1950, probably in September, when they walked on and began playing in brazen disregard of Jim Crow laws. City officials decided to let them play despite laws against it.

The 141-acre course, along Lake Austin Boulevard in West Austin, is owned by the University of Texas System and operated by the city of Austin. The UT System and UT-Austin oppose the proposed nomination, preferring instead that any listing on the National Register be confined to the clubhouse, greenskeeper’s cottage, a maintenance building, two limestone entry gate piers and a concrete statue of a lion.

The system’s Board of Regents has long contemplated leasing Muny for commercial and residential development, with revenues earmarked for the Austin campus. The UT board has said the city’s lease will not be renewed after it expires in 2019.

For the instigator of Fisher v. UT, a time for wine and noodles

When Edward Blum learned Thursday that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled for the University of Texas in a challenge to its consideration of race in undergraduate admissions, he was more than a little disappointed. So after fielding 100 phone calls, he went to a Thai restaurant, downed three glass of wine and some noodles, took an Ambien and went to bed.

“I am comforted by the lyrics written by Bill Joel,” Blum said Friday. “He wrote, ‘Lost a lot of fights, but it taught me how to lose OK.’ If you’re going to be litigating difficult issues, you have to be prepared to endure and lose and not dwell on it forever.”

Blum more than anyone else is responsible for ushering Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin to the Supreme Court. The former stockbroker and onetime candidate for Congress is not a lawyer. Rather, he has specialized in lining up funding, lawyers and plaintiffs in a 20-year quest to end the use of racial and ethnic considerations in college admissions, voting rights and other aspects of public policy.

In the case that was decided by a 4-3 margin Thursday, Blum lined up Abigail Fisher to sue his own alma mater, where he majored in English and government.

Blum has taken six cases to the high court, assuming you count the UT case twice, which seems fair considering that it was heard twice. In Round I, the court vacated an appeals court ruling that upheld UT’s admissions program and instructed that court to conduct a more exhaustive review to ensure that racial and ethnic considerations were necessary to achieve student body diversity.

That felt like a victory to Blum, which made Thursday’s ruling all the more surprising. Still, his track record isn’t bad.

Of the six stops at the Supreme Court, he has won four times and lost twice, the latter being Fisher II and Evenwel v. Greg Abbott, in which Blum’s legal team contended that Texas’ redistricting practices don’t square with the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote,” which is intended to guarantee equal representation. The justices ruled unanimously to uphold the state’s redistricting methods.

Blum’s take on the Fisher rulings: “I would say that the guidance that the court gave the country in Fisher I is guidance that we hope the higher education community takes seriously. It is my concern that Fisher II, however, will signal to colleges and universities that they have a green light to use a heavy thumb on the scales in administering their affirmative action policies.”

That concern might be overdrawn, though. Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.” He went on to say that UT must use the data it is collecting “to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.”

Doggett adds his voice to proponents of saving Muny

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett has added his voice to proponents of listing Lions Municipal Golf Course as a historic site.

“Its role as one of the first public accommodations, and certainly the first municipal golf course, in the South of the old confederate states to desegregate in 1950-51 is worthy of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places,” the Austin Democrat said in a letter last month to Stephanie Toothman, the National Park Service’s keeper of the register.

Muny’s role as a civil rights landmark makes it “an ideal candidate for preservation and recognition,” Doggett said.

The 141-acre course, along Lake Austin Boulevard in West Austin, is owned by the University of Texas System.

Doggett’s stance puts him squarely behind the activist group Save Muny and the Texas Historical Commission, which want the entire course placed on the register. Leaders of Save Muny nominated the course for that status.

By contrast, the UT System and UT-Austin are opposed to the proposed nomination, preferring instead that any listing on the National Register be confined to the clubhouse, greenskeeper’s cottage, a maintenance building, two limestone entry gate piers and a concrete statue of a lion.

The system’s Board of Regents has long contemplated leasing Muny for commercial and residential development, with revenues earmarked for the Austin campus. The UT board has said the current lease to the city of Austin to operate the course will not be renewed after it expires in 2019.

Meanwhile, the clock is going to tick a bit longer before the federal government decides whether to add Muny to the National Register.

The National Park Service this week tacked 30 days onto a just-completed 45-day comment period. The service did so at the request of the UT System.


System officials did not immediately respond when the Statesman asked why they sought the extension.

‘Non-UT subjects’ keeping police busy, as usual

Friday’s email blast from the University of Texas Police Department illustrates what worries many students and their parents, especially after the on-campus slaying in April of Haruka Weiser, an 18-year-old theater and dance student. Nearly every item in the crime report deals with “a non-UT subject” doing something prohibited on campus: camping in a stairwell, sleeping on a loading dock, passed out against a building — you get the idea.

Coincidentally, I wrote an article for our website and Friday’s print edition about emails from parents and alumni to UT President Gregory L. Fenves, many of which focused on homeless and transient people on campus and in West Campus, a commercial and residential neighborhood adjacent to the university.

As regular readers of UT’s “Campus Watch” emails know, the police spend a fair amount of their time dealing with non-UT subjects engaged in one prohibited activity or another. A first offense usually draws a criminal trespass warning. Subsequent offenses can lead to arrest. I have copied and pasted below the contents of the email I received a short time ago from the UT Police Department:

Campus Watch: Below is a summary of campus activity reported to or observed by The University Police Department Patrol Officers between Thursday, 06/02/16 and Friday, 06/03/16.

GOLDSMITH HALL, 310 Inner Campus Drive

Criminal Trespass Warning: A non-UT subject was found sleeping near the building. The subject was awakened and issued a written criminal trespass warning. Occurred on 06/03/16 at 2:16 a.m.


Warrant Service: A patrolling UT patrol officer observed a subject walking along the sidewalk on the west side of the building. The officer knew the subject to have an arrest warrant form the UT Police Department for criminal trespass. The officer stopped the subject, confirmed the arrest warrant and took the subject into custody. Occurred on 06/03/16 at 5:36 a.m.


Criminal Trespass: A non-UT subject was found camping in the second floor stairwell located on the northwest side of the parking garage. Once awakened, it was learned the subject had previously been issued a written criminal trespass warning and was subsequently taken into custody. Occurred on 06/02/16 at 7:17 a.m.


Criminal Trespass Warning: A non-UT subject was found sleeping on the loading dock of the elementary school. The subject was awakened and issued a written criminal trespass warning. Occurred on 06/03/16 at 12:22 a.m.

WALTER WEBB HALL, 405 West 25th Street

Public Intoxication: A non-UT subject was found passed out on the east side of the building. Once awakened, the subject displayed several indications of intoxication. As an example, when asked who the current president of the United States was, the subject answered, “Donald.” I could take this narrative in so many directions here; but, in the interest of non-partisanship I will just state the subject was found to be intoxicated to the point he was a deemed to be a danger to himself and others. Occurred on 06/03/16 at 3:00 a.m.

3-judge panel named to consider UT regent’s records case

A university regent’s lawsuit seeking records of an admissions investigation is inching forward. On Wednesday, the state’s Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals assigned three justices to the case. In theory, they could rule in 21 days — meaning June 22 at the earliest — but rulings typically take longer.

The lawsuit by University of Texas System Regent Wallace L. Hall Jr. demands that system Chancellor Bill McRaven turn over the records from an exhaustive investigation into favoritism in admissions at the Austin flagship. McRaven, backed by a majority of the Board of Regents, contends that Hall is not entitled to see confidential student information. Hall says he can’t do his job as a regent properly without seeing that information.

Both sides have filed briefs. The three-judge panel consists of Chief Justice Jeff L. Rose and Justices Bob Pemberton and Cindy Olson Bourland. Briefs have already been filed, and there will be no oral arguments.