The Sky is Falling

It was a big week for higher education in Texas.
 
On Monday, Governor Abbott announced the appointment of new regents for UT Austin, Texas A&M and Texas Tech University. The Coalition issued the following statement in support of the nominees: “We applaud Governor Abbott on the appointment of outstanding Texans for positions on the Boards of Regents of our state institutions. Those announced today are committed to ensuring excellence in higher education and will continue to push our institutions forward. We urge the Senate Committee on Nominations to move quickly to confirm these nominees so they can get to work for higher education in Texas.” Former regent Bobby Stillwell spoke to the Houston Chronicle about the appointments. “They're on the same page and seeking the same outcome,”… a contrast to the mindset of the three outgoing regents.
 
On Wednesday the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on proposed budget cuts to higher education. Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp painted a grave picture of what the cuts would do for higher education broadly, and Texas A&M specifically. “I remember when I was on this committee, and I used to listen to all these people like me talking about how the sky is falling, but the sky is really going to fall if this budget passes,” Sharp said. “Higher education is a long-term investment in the economic well-being of our state, [and] more importantly it is an investment in our students and our families. Almost all of our system teaching institutions will experience some significant general revenue reductions if Senate Bill 1 was implemented in its introduced form.”
 
On Thursday, the Senate Nominations Committee held the first hearing on the new crop of potential regents, with the three proposed for UT Austin’s board – Kevin Eltife, Janiece Longoria and Rad Weaver – going first. “Gov. Greg Abbott’s three nominees … are likely to win easy approval from the state Senate, judging by the friendly reception they enjoyed at a confirmation hearing Thursday before the Nominations Committee. ‘I see very capable people in front of me … I am very impressed’.”
 
On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against UT System Regent Hall in his long feud with the System and its Chancellor, Bill McRaven. “Wallace Hall’s final days as a University of Texas System regent are ending with a defeat in the Texas Supreme Court. The court ruled Friday that Hall had no standing to sue the chancellor of the system he oversees.”
 
An editorial in this weekend’s Houston Chronicle focused on college costs, and how Sen. Seliger’s proposed solutions to addressing them, may not help. “ … This bill focuses on only one side of the triangle of school funding, tuition, without any acknowledgement of the Legislature's own share of responsibility for the unaffordability of Texas' colleges. … what [Lt. Gov] Patrick and Seliger aren't talking about is the fact that Texas' per-student funding for public colleges and universities has plummeted to 17 percent below 2008 levels. Texas' system of higher education needs a champion, and it needs tuition reform. These measures point to neither, and we urge lawmakers to try again.”

Week of January 29, 2017

Latest Updates

  • Big Government, Top 10 Percent and Tom Brady

    In a push to regain more state control of higher education, a number of bills have been introduced this Session that would limit individual institutions’ authority and give power back to The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The Texas Tribune cited a number of efforts from tuition increases to regional expansions and new programs, which have made lawmakers rethink a 2013 move that limited the powers of the Coordinating Board under the belief that individual institutions could best make decisions about their campuses. Raymund Paredes, whose office stands to regain old power and add in some new res[responsibilities if some of these bills pass, supports the moves. “We need some oversight,” he said, “and I think the coordinating board was intended to fill that role.”
     
    One of a number of higher education bills passed by the Senate this week included a revision to the top 10 percent law, which would allow all universities (not just UT Austin) to cap at 30 percent the number of students admitted under the law. This bill is a step back from earlier efforts to repeal it altogether, in what State Sen. Kel Seliger, higher ed chair and the bill’s author, said was a response to “political realities.” Some lawmakers have expressed concern that eliminating the automatic admissions policy would have an adverse impact on diversity. But Seliger has questioned if this is a proper role for the state. “Is it the role of government to run the admissions department of any university?” he said. “It’s just another example of big government.”
     
    One of the nine researchers headed to Texas as a result of the Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) is chemical engineering professor Joan Brennecke, who UT Austin was able to recruit from Notre Dame. Brennecke specializes in researching how to make fossil fuels “greener” and will bring with her a lab, equipment, and endless possibilities for innovation and commercialization that will attract new talent and industry to Texas. “It is really amazing that [GURI] exists,” Brennecke said. “I don’t know of any other states where the state is committed to attracting top people into their academic institutions and is committed to doing that by putting their money behind what they say.” However, the Legislature has neglected to fund GURI for the next biennium, something that may change when House and Senate budget negotiators begin meeting in the coming weeks.
     
    John Sharp may be on track to be the Texas A&M System’s longest serving chancellor. His contract isn’t up until 2020, but this week regents have submitted a proposal to extend his contract through 2023. The proposal does not include a pay increase. Citing the “tough decisions” the Legislature is making about university budgets, the regents cite transparency and consistency of leadership as important for the system moving forward. Using a professional sports analogy, [Regent Charles] Schwartz said the extension is an opportunity to "lock in a high performer at the current level." "The Patriots don't get to do that with Tom Brady, and we have an opportunity to do so," Schwartz said.
     
    Both the House and Senate have introduced legislation aimed at reducing teen pregnancy by requiring state institutions of higher education to “develop and implement a strategic plan for the prevention of sexual assault and unplanned pregnancy.” The legislation is based on similar efforts in Mississippi and Arkansas, which rank number one and three respectively, when it comes to teen pregnancy. Texas has the fifth highest rate of teen pregnancy nationally, a statistic, which has long term impacts on our economy. “If we want an educated workforce in Texas, students have to stay in school to get an education. And the reality is that the burden of being a teen parent makes that nearly impossible.”

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  • “Eating Your Seed Corn”

    Ahead of conference committees to hammer out differences between the House and Senate budgets, Columnists and editorial writers around the state have been lambasting the deep cuts to higher education proposed in the Senate version. Chris Tomlinson of the Houston Chronicle wrote, “The technical term is ‘eating your seed corn.’ That's what Texas state senators proposed when they voted to gut public universities, drive away talented scientists and stunt the future workforce …” The San Antonio Express-News wrote, “Higher education is an investment with the potential for tremendous returns for students and the state. It’s a false calculation to think reducing higher education funding is in the best interest of a state looking to grow its economy.”

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