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Groups Positioning For Long Higher Ed Debate

With multiple third-party organizations cropping up, along with a new Legislature-created oversight committee, expect a protracted debate about how best to tackle the state's higher ed problems.

Natalie Butler (upper left) is the student body president at University of Texas at Austin and a member of the executive committee of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. Christopher Covo (lower left) is the director of America's Next Impact, a project of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

For years, Gov. Rick Perry’s efforts to boost efficiency and productivity at public universities — largely by pressuring university system officials to implement a set of specific changes proposed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative research group — were mostly conducted out of the public eye.

 Now, following months of controversy, with multiple third-party organizations across the state cropping up to focus on the issue, along with a new Legislature-created oversight committee, the various constituents are preparing for a protracted public discussion about how to best address problems such as rising tuition and ballooning student debt.

“I think the more people who are looking at the discussion and bringing their ideas to the table, that’s a good thing,” said David Guenthner, a spokesman for the policy foundation.

Christopher Covo, a recent graduate and former student body president of Texas State University, is the director of one such outside group, America’s Next Impact, a project of the Texas division of Americans for Prosperity, a national conservative advocacy group. The group’s higher education efforts are branded under the banner “Rock the Ivory Tower.” Covo, who is strapped with $30,000 in student loan debt, said making universities more efficient is an idea that resounds with the young professional crowd he is trying to rally.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education has called for taking a different tack than the approach pushed by the governor, one that gives more weight to faculty and administrator input. With Natalie Butler, the current student body president of The University of Texas at Austin, as the youngest executive committee member, the group includes a bipartisan who’s who list of influential, deep-pocketed higher education players. Karen Hughes, a former counselor to President George W. Bush, is handling their communications.

“There are some reforms floating out there that we do not think are in the best interest of our institutions, particularly our flagships,” said Pamela Willeford, a former United States ambassador and chair of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, who also sits on the executive committee. “I think we’re being mischaracterized as just for the status quo and against change.”

Michael Quinn Sullivan, an influential ally of Perry with a loud online megaphone, now blogs frequently on the issue. “We’re talking about public policy at the intersection of politics — of course there is hyperbole,” he said, shortly before referring to Willeford’s group as “the folks building the brick wall around the ivory tower.”

A recent post questioned a promotion at U.T.’s recreation center offering two free upgrades with the purchase of a table massage. “Apparently life in the tax-funded ivory tower comes with some interesting benefits,” Sullivan wrote. As interest in the issue increases, so does the amount of scrutiny on U.T., which has largely served as the focal point of the debate. Last month, a Washington, D.C.-based organization used unverified data to make the case nationally — despite detractors contending that the analysis was “simplistic” — that the university is run inefficiently.

In response, Don Hale, a U.T. spokesman, said the university is “committed to managing its resources wisely and efficiently.”

Such assurances, however, may not be enough to cool the back-and-forth. Daniel Greer, a blogger and associate of Sullivan’s said: “Ultimately, what’s going to have to happen is you’re going to have to have a shake-up or some sort of paradigm shift. It’s a stalemate until one side takes another.”

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