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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Latest Updates

  • Apples and Oranges

    Texas A&M is expanding into Houston with a recent purchase of an “18-story office building for a specialized engineering medicine program in collaboration” with Houston Methodist Hospital, according to the Houston Chronicle. The program, called “EnMed,” aims to attract 50 medical students annually with dual degrees in engineering and medicine, starting in July 2019. “The program expects to field requests from Texas Medical Center doctors who need engineers to create devices that will improve health care delivery, such as a pacifier that measures babies' dehydration. The goal will be for every graduate to invent an innovative device during the program. The announcement raised some eyebrows after a UT System expansion into Houston was shut down by lawmakers. State Sen. John Whitmire, a vocal opponent of the UT expansion, said the two land deals were "apples and oranges."

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  • Record Enrollment

    At an event in Killeen this week the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board unveiled progress toward the states’ 60x30TX plan, which “aims to ensure 60 percent of adults, ages 25 to 34, will earn a college certificate or degree by 2030.” The number of Texans with degrees or certificates currently is just under 40 percent. Increasing this number is critical to the state’s future as some “estimates have shown that 65 percent of all new jobs by the year 2020 will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.”

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