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As Longtime UNT Chancellor Departs, Inaction On Student Debt Is His Lingering Worry

University of North Texas
Outgoing University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson.

Lee Jackson plans to do a lot more than just clean out his desk and say his goodbyes during his last full workday Friday as chancellor of the University of North Texas System. He's got a meeting at 7:30 a.m., a charity fundraising luncheon at noon and a visit to University of North Texas at Dallas scheduled for the afternoon.

"I told people a long time ago that I was going to work until 5 o'clock because that's consistent with my life," he said.

The chancellor of 15 years, the longest tenure in Texas, had a lot to say during a Tuesday interview about how he plans to stay engaged until the end — and beyond. For example, when asked how these last few months have been, knowing that his time as chancellor is coming to an end, his 20-minute-long answer touched on his thoughts on his career, politics and the cost of attending college.

Jackson's appointment as chancellor in 2002 raised some eyebrows. It was considered unusual at the time to hire a career politician — he's a former state legislator and Dallas County judge — to a top academic post. But Jackson's tenure reshaped the UNT System. Since he started, the system has added UNT-Dallas, a new campus in economically challenged south Dallas. It has also enrolled thousands more students, spent millions of dollars more on research and raised its six-year-graduation rate to 51 percent.

And during Jackson's time, the way state leaders view the job of chancellor has shifted. Now, four of the five chancellors of the state's other big systems are nonacademics — Brian McCall of Texas State, Robert Duncan of Texas Tech and John Sharp of Texas A&M are former state politicians, and Bill McRaven of the University of Texas is a retired Navy admiral. Jackson's replacement will be another "nontraditional" choice: former NASA administrator Lesa Roe.

Here are the highlights from the interview, edited and rearranged chronologically for clarity:

What surprised Jackson about the job when he became chancellor:

When I came in in 2002, I asked to see the workforce studies we had done at our two campuses, thinking that would have been part of the culture of higher education, and I was basically told that was for trade schools. Technical colleges or some community colleges were directly attuned to the workforce needs; we [at universities] were training students in critical thinking, basic skills and a base of knowledge. Students would then go on to graduate school or be retrained by their employers. I just couldn’t quite understand that.

How Jackson tried to change the system's focus to preparing students for careers:

One of our goals is connecting students to significant, high-impact career exposure. We are looking to have embedded internships, summer work experiences, assigned mentors for every student in every degree discipline. UNT has made a big commitment in Denton to making the career center something other than an afterthought in the senior year but an active program working in every department. UNT-Dallas, because it is small, has made a bold commitment that 100 percent of its students are going to have a high-impact experience [connecting them to the workforce] in the next five years. I think they can get there.

I am proud of the way we have focused on improving academic programs on campus, but also to step off campus and connected better to the surrounding communities and employers.

On addressing the problem of college and student debt:

Something is going to cause the dam to break in the cost arena, and I don’t think the problem is being driven by colleges and universities. We give students and families what they want. As long as students have choices between low cost and enriched higher-cost programs, I think that is a good model.

We deliberately started UNT-Dallas to have a different cost structure. By having UNT, an emerging research institution in Denton, and UNT-Dallas, an access-oriented school with the same admissions standards and the same commitment to quality but just not as many expensive things that need to be subsidized, like research and intercollegiate athletics, there is an ability to provide a different cost choice.

On the "crazy system" for federal student loans:

Sometimes [the media] oversimplifies the nature of the so-called debt crisis. In most cases, the amount of the loans a student takes out is $20,000 to $30,000 on average. $30,000 in debt is not a crisis. But if you are in a field where you cannot get work and you are not eligible for income-based repayment because [Congress] hasn't rewritten the rules for a long time, that debt becomes $150,000 in 20 years and then that is a problem.

We don’t have a real student loan system. We have a patchwork quilt. It has been so long since Congress could get together on a fundamental rewrite of the Higher Education Act. Many people hoped that this would be the year that they would actually consolidate 17 different federal loan programs into one or two. That they would make the rules consistent so that students wouldn’t find out five or 10 years after they graduated that they accidentally refinanced their loans and are now not eligible for income-based repayment. It’s just a crazy system.

I think the problem can only be addressed in Washington. I spent some time there after the November election because the one thing that election did was reset everyone’s outlook on what might be possible. I thought a rewrite of the Higher Education Act was a natural middle-class benefit that would have significant populist appeal and have bipartisan support. But now, I am worried that perhaps that is not going to happen.

The good and bad of Texas' focus on higher education:

There really is a very different environment [in Texas] from when I came in 2002. The TEXAS Grant program [which provides $400 million in state grants to low-income college students each year] didn’t really exist when I came in. It was created in 1999 and went from $0 to several hundred million dollars each year. The state has incentivized research, it has funded more medical schools and more graduate medical education slots.

But at the same time that an anti-tax mood has prevailed, the state has also had a growing number of students. So sure, we are disappointed any time the state can’t increase or at least maintain the per-student funding. But Texas has a growing student population in ways that many states aren’t — and I think it has come up with a pretty decent compromise to provide many decent choices to students.

Texas worked under two different higher education strategic plans during Jackson’s tenure — Closing the Gaps starting in 2000 and 60x30 after 2015. Their differences show how dramatically the state’s priorities have shifted this century, Jackson says:

The Closing the Gaps plan had two goals that were idealistic and unrealistic. One was to put an emphasis on nationally ranked academic programs. The state wasn’t going to fund nationally ranked programs for their own sake, and little was going to be done in the short-term to change academic rankings. Besides, I don’t think Texans cared how many nationally ranked programs each campus had.

Our second goal was about increasing our share of federally sponsored research, which was and still is an admirable goal, but it takes a long time to move that needle. And when you move it, the rest of the country is sometimes moving as well.

Some of the goals in 60x30 probably speak to the two issues that most people talk about in higher education: One is cost containment, and the other is career success. So the state has now said that every graduate of every program will have a marketable skill, and the university has to go through the process of identifying what skill is developed in every degree program and how that markets to a place of employment. That is a 180-degree dramatic turn from the tenor of the discussion of the early 2000s, and I think it is spot on if we are going to increase the support for higher education.

What are his future plans?

The last time I couldn't answer that question, I was 23 years old. That was over 40 years ago. I am going to deliberately not have a simple answer to that. I am going to spend the rest of the fall as a consultant to help my successor and the board. I am going to consider teaching, if asked, because I have some interest areas. I am planning to be active. I made a list — I said I was going to do no more than 10 things. So I have already got that list filled out and have had to go to a 10a, a 10b and a 10c in order to keep it at 10.

The Texas Tribune provided this story. Disclosure: The University of North Texas, Texas State University, Texas Tech University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune.

Matthew Watkins writes about higher education and the business of college sports for the Tribune. Previously, he has covered local government at The Dallas Morning News and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. A Texas native, Matthew grew up in Austin and has lived in Houston, Dallas and Bryan. He earned his bachelor's degree from Texas A&M University in 2008.