Read my lips: No More Bills

Friday was the last day for Texas lawmakers to file a bill this legislative session, which brought about an expected flurry of activity. One bill, filed by Rep. J.M. Lozano, would limit higher education benefits for the children of veterans, a controversial issue killed in the 2015 Session. When lawmakers passed the provision (the Hazelwood Act) to allow veterans to pass their benefits to their dependents, it predicted a $10 million price tag – a figure, it turns out, was dramatically underestimated. The cost in 2015 was $178 million and is expected to increase. The state only picks up 20% of the tab, leaving the universities to pay for the rest. Lozano’s bill would limit benefits to veterans who served four years or more, and would expire the benefit 15 years after an honorable discharge, so it would only apply to kids born while their parents were on active duty.
 
The Texas Tribune highlighted the ongoing battle over funding for Governor Abbott’s research initiative by telling the story of one electrical engineering professor who was recently recruited to Texas A&M with a promise of $9 million in research funding. While the Legislator has zeroed out the fund in both the House and Senate versions of the budget, Abbott is pushing hard to showcase the success of the program, hosting the researchers and lawmakers at a reception last week. A&M System Chancellor John Sharp praised the governor’s willingness to invest in higher education, saying Abbott was “one of the finest governors, perhaps the best governor for higher education that we have ever had.”
 
This week a UT Austin student made history by becoming the campus’ first Latina, physically disabled student body president. Alejandrina Guzman won a campus-wide run-off by nearly 800 votes. She is the first disabled student to win student body president in the entire Big 12 Conference. Guzman ran on a platform of diversity and inclusion, topics of debate and discussion on a campuses throughout the state. According to the Austin American-Statesman, “It has been 17 years since the last African-American student body president, Daron Roberts. Six years have passed since the last female student body president, Natalie Butler — until Alejandrina.” (Roberts and Butler are both members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.)
 
University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson will this week announce he’s retiring after 15 years. According to the Morning-News report on his 40-year public service career, “He oversaw the transition of UNT-Dallas from a satellite location to its own institution as well as expansion of both the main campus in Denton and the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, which added a pharmacy school. The system also added a satellite campus in Frisco in 2016. Enrollment across the system increased from 27,769 to 43,384 during Jackson's tenure.”
 
This week Texas A&M University announced it received a "gold rating" for its work to make the campus a more sustainable environment. Also this week, the UT System announced that all 14 of its institutions will be tobacco free by the end of this academic year, making it the first public university system in Texas to become fully tobacco free. It will also become the largest single employer in Texas to prohibit tobacco use in the workplace.

Week of March 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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