Mad Men

This week the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature kicked off in Austin. Check out this new interactive map to find your legislator on your next visit to the capitol, and sign up for Orange and Maroon Legislative Day on February 15th to help advocate for higher education issues impacting our state’s research institutions.

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They're Back ...

Tuesday marks the kickoff of the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature and higher education is among the many issues lawmakers will address in the coming months. (Watch video of the Texas Tribune’s Symposium previewing the Session here.) One issue already driving headlines is in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick have conveyed differing views on the issue with Straus setting it up as an economic versus a political one. “There’s no debate at all that we need more and better-skilled people in our workforce,” Straus said. “I see no benefit to the state, or to the state’s future, by limiting the success of people who’ve played by the rules and have qualified for higher education and who can become successful citizens of the state of Texas and productive in our economy.”

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A gift, a loss and a "bit of a pause" ...

This week James and Miriam Mulva, and the Mulva Family Foundation donated $50 million to build a neuroscience clinic at The University of Texas Dell Medical School. The gift, which will be paid out over 10 years, could complement a proposal by state Sen. Kirk Watson, “to remake the aging Austin State Hospital into a cutting-edge site for mental illness research” and turn Austin into a center for mental health. The Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences will investigate Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder and stroke among other neurological disorders. The Mulvas also gave $25 million for cancer research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. 

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On Probation

“If you want to ensure that only wealthy students and upper middle-class students can afford to go to Texas public colleges and universities in the future, do away with tuition set-asides,” said Tom Melecki, former director of financial services at UT Austin recently. Set-asides, a portion of tuition carved out to help low and middle-income students afford college, are in the news again as the Legislative agenda is rolled out ahead of the next Session. Lt. Gov Patrick has dubbed the set-asides as a “hidden tax” and vowed to get rid of them in the name of lowering college costs. However, concern has risen about whether the Legislature would actually fund an alternate method to provide aid if set-asides are eliminated. As the Rivard Report notes, “In a state like Texas, the danger is that once funds are gone, they are gone. Lawmakers in recent sessions have showed little willingness to spend budget surpluses when they have them, and all signs point to a tighter year in 2017.”

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Chilling to Academic Discourse

The first bills filed in advance of the 85th Texas Legislative Session provide a preview of the likely mood toward higher education when lawmakers convene in Austin in January. One bill getting the attention of education stakeholders wasfiled by State Sen. Charles Schwertner and calls for a cap on tuition and fees at public universities to combat rising tuition rates. It does not address the decline in state support for the institutions. Coalition Advisory Committee Member, Bobby Inman, continues to be a voice calling on lawmakers to acknowledge their role in rising college costs. He told the Statesman that the Legislature wants “to be seen politically as really helping those students who are getting in debt. I have that same great concern, but I know how it came about. It came about because of dramatically declining state funding for higher education.” For his part, Schwertner laid out his case in an editorial for the Texas Tribune.

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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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