Home Stretch

Bills were killed or passed at a furious pace this week in the mad dash to finish out the Texas Legislative Session. A number of those bills impact higher education but none quite as drastically as the budget, which passed late into Sunday morning after concessions were made from both House and Senate negotiators. The final budget dips into the Rainy Day Fund for $1 billion, and employs an “accounting trick” to delay transportation funding approved in 2015, for the remaining shortfall of nearly $2 billion.

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Waging War on Mediocrity

The University of Texas community awoke today to the sad news of the passing of Peter T. Flawn, who had twice served as the university’s president. "Peter was a visionary leader at UT, a beloved friend and a wise counselor to me and many university presidents," said UT Austin President Greg Fenves. Flawn was president from 1979 to 1985 where he “declared a ‘war on mediocrity,’ pushing the university to pursue greater academic rigor and excellence.” He served a second term as interim president during the presidential search that brought Larry Faulkner into office. In 1979, Flawn wrote the Widget Theory of Education, a satirical look at attempts to treat students like widgets and universities like businesses. Flawn’s warnings have seemed particularly prescient in recent years.

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Budget Tricks, Sexual Assault & Free Speech

This week House and Senate budget negotiators began meeting to discuss the differences between their two bills. While there are a number of differences in what gets funded, the biggest difference is in how it will get funded. House budget writers have recommended leveraging $2.5 billion from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund (more commonly known as the Rainy Day Fund). The Senate wants to use an “untested accounting trick” that delays payment to a dedicated highway fund from one budget cycle to the next. Higher education advocates have been rallying alumni to call on lawmakers during this negotiation period to address drastic shortfalls in funding that will adversely impact state institutions.

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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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Latest Updates

  • "A workhorse for our nation’s scientists and engineers"

    Saying it was “among our biggest challenges,” this week Texas A&M President Michael K. Young indicated that lowering the faculty-to-student ratio was a top priority. While the institution has experienced tremendous growth in its student body, hiring of faculty has not kept pace. Last fall, Texas A&M’s ratio was 23-to-1. “As a comparison, Young noted the University of Texas had an 18-to-1 ratio -- 23 percent better than A&M -- and the University of Michigan has a 12-to-1 ratio -- 92 percent better than A&M.” Young told The Eagle, “We would like to improve that [ratio] as quickly as we can, but it does take time to hire quality faculty, [and] it is also a tremendous financial challenge.”

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  • Minors, Guns & Affirmative Action

    Race in college admissions was in the headlines again this week when the Justice Department announced it was “preparing to investigate and sue colleges over their affirmative action policies.” UT Austin is “likely well-shielded” from any changes to its admissions policies, since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2016 approved of The University’s approach. And, though, most institutions in Texas don’t use affirmative action, those that do employ it may face scrutiny. “Officials at Texas State University and Texas A&M University, for example, said such factors play no role in admissions decisions. However, some schools — notably UT and A&M — go to considerable lengths to recruit applicants from heavily minority areas in Dallas, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley and other parts of the state.”

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