Zaffirini and Powell Escalate Texas Higher Ed Fight

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, listens to a colleague while discussing SB5 on April 28, 2011.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, listens to a colleague while discussing SB5 on April 28, 2011.

An increasingly bitter disagreement over the future of the University of Texas at Austin between University of Texas System regents' chairman Gene Powell and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is ratcheting up the ongoing debate surrounding higher education in Texas.

Any thought that the tense atmosphere would calm following the departure of controversial employee Rick O'Donnell from the UT System can likely be laid to rest. This morning, Zaffirini, the chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and the most vocal critic of reformist regents, specifically called out Powell, saying in a statement, "Since his election in February he has caused a firestorm of negativity that is detrimental to UT-Austin, to the system, to higher education in general — and to his relationship with legislators."

The comments were in response to a report by the Austin American-Statesman, which obtained a draft copy of Powell's goals. In the document, Powell indicated a desire to see undergraduate enrollment increased at UT by 10 percent each year for four years, and to see tuition drop by approximately 50 percent. It also included the creation of a "high quality, low cost degree" and developing a timeline to make UT the top public university in the country.

Zaffirini says the goals are inconsistent — "mutually exclusive" even — and that Powell's proposed changes are "detrimental to the pursuit of excellence."

Powell's goals are consistent with previous statements he has made, including his enthusiasm for meeting a challenge by Gov. Rick Perry to create a $10,000 bachelor's degree — books included. Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said such a degree is "entirely feasible."

Recently, UT regents and representatives from a number of universities within the system made a day trip to Arizona State University, which has gotten notice for deliberately seeking to increase accessibility to higher education by boosting enrollment and attempting to maintain affordable tuition. This event drew some attention when UT student body president Natalie Butler warned against using ASU as a model. (Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa apologized to ASU officials for the letter.)

In fact, Powell's three-month-old tenure as chairman of the board of regents has been marked by such heated exchanges. In addition to the dust storm he kicked up with the hiring of O'Donnell, he previously drew heat for comments that he later attempted to walk back about how not all education had to be of Cadillac-caliber, and that a Chevy Bel-Air education was fine.

"At a time when regents should be working with legislators to minimize dramatic funding cuts," Zaffirini says, "Chair Powell instead apparently is proposing changes that are detrimental to the pursuit of excellence."

Update: In a statement, Powell said there are a number of common goals that Zaffirni and he agree upon, particularly access to quality higher education, pursuing innovative research and enhancing the reputation of UT-Austin.

"The discussion about how the UT System continues to evolve, grow and reinvent itself in these tough economic times will clearly continue to stimulate debate," Powell said. "I believe this debate is worthy and healthy. As in any university setting - all points of view are welcome and respected."

Powell indicated that his goals were driven by concern regarding the ability of Texans "to access a high quality education at a reasonable cost and their ability to complete that education within a time frame that does not burden them with excessive debt."

UT regents' vice chairman Steve Hicks, who chairs the regents' academic affairs committee, said of Powell, "I know on many levels that he wants what is best for the University of Texas at Austin."

However, Hicks expressed doubt about the approach listed in the draft of Powell's goals. "I am hopeful that these draft statements were for discussion purposes only" he told the Tribune. "I have never had him pressure me as chair of academic affairs to institute any of these policies. It is not logical to me that you could cut tuition in half, cut state funding by 15 percent, increase enrollment by 40 percent and expect the outcome to be an improvement in the quality of education."

Hicks, who said a healthy debate could lead the system in a positive direction "if we all work together," favors a focus on boosting graduation rates. "This would put more graduates into the workforce without having to increase enrollment," he says. "This is done by improving the curriculum and better serving the outstanding students we have on campus today."

Other groups have also been weighing in. Justin Keener, a spokesman for Texas Business for Higher Education, issued a statement of support for Powell's drafted goals. "Too many academically-qualified Texans are denied a college education because of the high cost or enrollment caps," he said, "and we enthusiastically commend the regents for asking tough questions and seeking solutions.”

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