"The Systematic Defunding of Higher Education"

This week the Coalition issued a statement ahead of the Texas House vote on the budget. It read, in part, “Six years ago our Coalition came together to fight back against shortsighted so-called ‘reform’ efforts that would have damaged our educational institutions, undermined our state’s academic standing, and stymied Texas’ ability to fuel life-saving innovations and discoveries. Today, some members of the Texas Legislature have proposed shortsighted budget cuts that would realize those negative effects.” We urged lawmakers to pass a budget that would “soften the budgetary blow to our state’s institutions.”
 
Texas Exes leader, Will O’Hara, also made the case for not shortchanging higher education in an interview on Capital Tonight, referring to the Senate version of the budget as a “continuation of the systematic defunding of higher education.” He continued, “they are taking a short-term view … Top tier research institutions are the engine that fuels job creation, research, discoveries; it gives our students a cutting edge education, it gives them a competitive edge in the job market, it’s the reason why all these companies have moved to Texas in the last five years … all of that is on the line.”
 
Thankfully, the House ultimately passed a budget that is “more generous” than the Senate. “The final spending plan for higher education, of course, won’t be known until the closed-door sausage-making by a conference committee of senators and representatives grinds out the finished product.” The two chambers differ on funds for the Texas Grants financial aid program, special items and the Governor’s University Research Initiative, among other items. Budget conferees will be named in the coming weeks and negotiations will begin thereafter.
 
In addition to budget cuts across the board, the Senate also voted to freeze tuition this week. The bill, however, faces an uncertain future in the House. Speaker Straus recently referred to Texas tuition as a “pretty good bargain,” noting that students are applying to schools in record numbers. “The supply and demand seems to be working,” he said. Acknowledging concerns over the negative compound effect of budget cuts and a tuition freeze, Sen. Kel Seliger, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said, “I am determined to do everything we can to keep those universities whole.”
 
This week, the top 10% rule was again the topic of debate in the Legislature. UT Austin President Fenves testified at a hearing on the bill, highlighting that while campus diversity may have increased, it may also have come from the state’s changing demographics, not just the law. “The Top 10 Percent Rule is a blunt instrument,” said UT-Austin President Greg Fenves. “Without the automatic admissions policy, he said, the university could factor in applicants’ academic interests, test scores, personal adversity and demographics for a larger proportion of its freshman class.”

Week of April 9, 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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