A Momentum Changer

The Texas Senate unanimously approved three new regents on Tuesday of last week. Janiece Longoria, Rad Weaver and Kevin Eltife were confirmed and sworn-in ahead of their first board meeting in Austin on Wednesday. Their appointments bring to a close what has been, at times, a tumultuous period for the Board, most notably because of the ongoing battles – legal and otherwise – brought on by outgoing regent Wallace Hall. The terms of regents Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich also came to an end this week.
 
Texas institutions are “scrambling” to comply with a hiring freeze ordered by Gov. Abbott. While there is some question as to whether or not the governor has the legal authority to issue the freeze, the institutions are working with the Governor’s office to obtain waivers for “critical positions” as needed. Both Texas A&M and UT Austin have expressed concern over the ability to hire in time for summer courses and camps. “… If we don’t get a waiver, we are studying whether or not we can offer summer classes. Many of those classes are critical for students to be able to graduate on time,” said Laylan Copelin, Texas A&M System spokesman.
 
In a roundup of higher education budget cuts around the country the Wall Street Journal this week highlighted how the budget proposal in the Texas Senate would impact smaller schools around the state. “Texas A&M University-Kingsville, which has grown quickly in recent years and now has about 9,300 students, gets about one-third of its total operating budget from state sources and it is facing a 37% cut in state appropriations—about $26 million—over the next biennium, according to President Steven Tallant.” If the Senate budget were to pass, Talent added, “It is absolutely a momentum-changer.”
 
This week The University of Texas System and the Texas Association of Community Colleges convened a “first-of-its-kind” collaboration called the Texas Dual Credit Task Force. “Dual credit programs have experienced remarkable growth in recent years. We want to ensure that students have access to effective, high-quality dual credit programs that equip them with the knowledge and skills to complete certificates, associate degrees and baccalaureate degrees,” said Wanda Mercer, UT System Associate Vice Chancellor for student Affairs. “At the end of the day, we want graduates from all Texas institutions to strengthen the state’s workforce with their skills.”
 
The Legislature is also looking closely at the community college to university pipeline. Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson has asked Sen. Royce West to spearhead a working group on the issue. Lawmakers have expressed frustration with an estimated $60 million that students spend on community college credits that do not transfer to universities. “I am tired of answering these questions from parents of 'Why can’t this transfer' and 'Why can’t that transfer,'” West told the Texas Tribune. “And I know I am not the only one.”

Week of February 12, 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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