Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have created a new Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency. It will be chaired by Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

The members from the Senate will include Dallas Republican John Carona, Lubbock Republican Robert Duncan, Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger, Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis and Austin Democrat Kirk Watson.

The House members will be Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro, Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson, Brenham Republican Lois Kolkhorst and Waxahachie Republican Jim Pitts.

"The talented members that we are appointing today understand that effective university governing systems enable our students to compete on the global stage," Straus said in a statement.

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The announcement comes amidst an ongoing, contentious debate about the future of higher education in Texas. Recently, this debate has been playing out very publicly at the University of Texas Board of Regents, which have a scheduled meeting next week. Comments and actions by chairman Gene Powell have sparked a barrage of concerned letters from students and alumni of the University of Texas at Austin. Others, meanwhile, have rallied to defend the board's actions.

At the center of the matter is a dispute over seven "breakthrough solutions" for higher education developed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin. Regents of all the university systems were encouraged to implement the proposed "solutions" (the most contentious of which has been the separation of research and teaching budgets) at a summit hosted by the TPPF and Gov. Rick Perry in 2008.

The joint committee's focus extends beyond the proposed reforms. According to the press release announcing the committee's creation, they will seek to ensure that governing boards are following best practices when they develop and implement policy, look for major policy decisions to be adequately vetted and discussed transparently, and protect the excellence and high quality of the state’s institutions of higher education.

"I believe the state's partnership with our colleges and universities merits ongoing involvement with the Legislature − not just during Session − in order to achieve the educational excellence Texans expect and our students deserve," Dewhurst said in the release.

Branch issued a statement commending the Straus and Dewhurst for creating the committee. "Our state's future - along with that of our students - will be ensured by the quality of our higher education infrastructure," he said. "I look forward to working with my House and Senate colleagues as we keenly focus on improving the transparency and administration of our colleges and universities."

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