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Parsing the History of Perry's Higher Ed Battles

In recent months, the various forces in Gov. Rick Perry’s conflicted higher ed history have come to a head. The result: an overwrought public identity crisis in the higher education community, the resolution of which could define the governor’s legacy on the topic.

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In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry signed off one of the most significant policy changes in the history of Texas higher education. With both the state and its public universities strapped for cash, the decision was made to grant universities the autonomy to set tuition rates, freeing them from government regulation that had artificially kept Texas public higher education affordable for generations.

As expected, college costs in Texas ticked upward — a trend that looks likely to persist as the state’s contribution continues to decline. Texas Tech University in Lubbock, for example, has seen the state-funded portion of its budget drop from 56 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 2010. After taking another cut this year, the Texas Tech University System regents — all Perry appointees — just hiked the tuition at their main campus by 5.9 percent and at Angelo State University by 9.9 percent. At the state’s flagship institutions, the numbers are even worse: State contributions make up 24 percent of Texas A&M University’s budget and 14 percent of the University of Texas' budget, down from 52 percent 30 years ago

It’s not the sort of trend that Perry — who often notes in his stump speeches that he is an animal-science graduate from Texas A&M — wants to be associated with. More recently, he has ramped up a public push for lower tuition while shifting blame to the universities by urging them to reduce inefficiencies.

“There are serious improvements that need to be made to our higher education system,” Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier says. “We have a great higher education system, but there are steps that need to be taken to improve it, and we can’t ignore what those needs are."

In recent months, the various forces in Perry’s conflicted higher ed history have come to a head. The result: an overwrought public identity crisis in the state’s higher education community, the resolution of which will likely define the governor’s legacy on the topic and could be a factor in any potential bid for higher office.

Among the issues at hand: Can access to higher education be expanded and tuition lowered without sacrificing quality? What role should academic research play at public universities? Who should and shouldn’t be managing the state’s educational institutions — and how are the current leaders doing so far?

Even before taking the helm of the state in late 2000, Perry showed interest in higher education. In 1999, as lieutenant governor, he established a Special Commission on 21st Century Colleges and Universities “to take a long-term look at improving higher education — its mission, its role in the new economy, and its accessibility and its affordability.”

The next year, worried about the quality of Texas’ higher education system and that it was lagging too far behind the country’s leaders, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which monitors the implementation of the state’s higher ed policy, launched a 15-year initiative to bring the state up to a level of parity. Encouraged by the governor, it has seen success in some areas. But headed into the final four-year homestretch, challenges remain.

“Texas has done a much better job on access,” observes Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. “Now we need to turn the directions toward completions.”

While Texas students are heading to college in greater number (and Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes anticipates they will reach the 2015 enrollment goal), they still struggle to come out of the system with a degree or certificate. As Mark Miner, the governor’s spokesman, noted in a recent press release calling on universities to “join the reform efforts,” the statewide four-year graduation rate is about 28.6 percent compared to a national average closer to 40 percent. Degrees conferred in science, technology, engineering and math fields are particularly behind in reaching the state’s goals, as are teacher certifications.

Hammond says the long-term workforce implications of such success rates should be of more concern than rising tuition. “It’s higher than anyone would like it to be, and that’s a hindrance,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s the issue.” For one thing, Hammond points out, before the cuts made in the just-ended legislative session, funds going toward financial aid had been increasing. Also, tuition in Texas remains relatively low — in the case of community colleges, extremely so.

Average tuition at a public two-year institution in Texas is $1,796, which is 45th among all the states. With an average tuition cost of $5,623, Texas’ public four-year institutions rank 28th. According to recently released U.S. Department of Education statistics, South Texas College in McAllen and the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg are the two most affordable colleges in the country.

And not everyone is troubled by recent trends. Randy Diehl, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, concedes that tuition increases have outpaced inflation, but argues that the average yearly increase in tuition since deregulation is less than average yearly increases in the decade preceding it.

Also, he says, if tuition were lowered, in order to maintain access, the portion of tuition that is currently set aside for financial aid would have to be replaced with increased funding from regressive sales taxes. “So in terms of what’s fair, socially and economically,” he says, “I would trade a higher tuition for a lower state contribution any day.”

In his State of the State address this year and in subsequent public remarks, Perry called for three things for higher education: a funding system that rewards outcomes, a four-year tuition freeze and the creation of a $10,000 bachelor’s degree — books included. But the proposals that have ended up getting the most attention are “seven breakthrough solutions” for higher education that Perry has been promoting behind the scenes for the last three years.

The proposals — which focus on the widely agreed upon goals of emphasizing quality teaching, efficiency and productivity —  were written by Jeff Sandefer, a wealthy oil investor and founder of a private business school in Austin. He was one of the initial members of Lt. Gov. Perry’s special commission. After Sandefer’s proposals were unveiled at a summit in 2008, Perry made it clear that regents would be judged by what they did with the suggestions, and his office later emphasized that the initiatives — which have been deeply unpopular in academic circles — should be “regent driven."

The chief source of influence the governor has at a university stems from his power to appoint the members of the boards of regents, who are charged with the oversight of university systems including matters such as tuition increases and the hiring and firing of administrators.

Perry’s appointees haven’t always voted his way, one famous example being the most recent selection of the chancellor for the University of Texas System in 2009. Perry wanted former state Sen. John Montford, but the regents went with Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, who holds the post to this day. Scott Caven, who was the chairman of the UT board at the time, said it was the only issue he ever heard from Perry about while he served in that role. And even then, Caven recalls, Perry only said he was disappointed in the outcome.

“There was never any direct retribution on me,” Caven says, though that may not be true for others. A public dressing-down of UT regent Bob Rowling, the wealthy founder of TRT Holdings, by members of the Senate Finance Committee at a 2009 hearing, ostensibly about bonuses paid to employees of the UT System’s investment management company of which Rowling was serving as chairman, was widely viewed as his comeuppance for either supporting Cigarroa, or U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, in what was then an upcoming run at Perry’s seat, or both.

Perry’s influence has been detected by many in other administrative moves, such as the ousting of Elsa Murano as Texas A&M University president in 2009 and — though the current regent leaders deny it — the recent departure of A&M System Chancellor Mike McKinney, a former chief of staff to Perry who, perhaps ironically, as chancellor played a significant role in pushing Murano out.

McKinney and the A&M board of regents were the most active in implementing Sandefer’s “solutions,” though the few steps they did make did not meet with Sandefer’s approval — or the approval of the academic community. A spreadsheet of all the system’s faculty members that illustrated which ones brought in money and which didn’t drew a rebuke from the American Association of Universities, a prestigious group of research institutions. A program that gave cash awards to professors based solely on evaluations met with disapproval, and its termination was announced earlier this month.

The Texas Tech University System, which has thus far remained largely untouched by the back-and-forth, drafted a report similar to A&M’s in response to the proposals, but it did not delve into the specifics of individual faculty. Under pressure, the UT System published a massive spreadsheet of its faculty “productivity” earlier this year. As the implementation has progressed, especially at UT, so has the controversy.

Other proposals, such as the separation of teaching and research budgets, have been called “anti-research,” though Perry staffers are quick to point out that he has encouraged the commercialization of research. Though academics point out that much research cannot and is not meant to be commercialized. In 2009, Perry signed a landmark bill by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, that dedicated money to the creation of more public tier-one research universities (of which Texas only has two) throughout the state.

Branch is now a co-chairman, along with Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, of a new Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency, which was created by the legislative leadership out of concern for the direction recently appointed regents — which many view to be more proactive than the governor’s previous selections — might take with regard to the “solutions.”

Some former regents, including Caven, who was at the initial rollout of the “seven breakthrough solutions” (at the time, his impression was that they were optional), helped with the creation of a new Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a bipartisan group of prominent Texans who oppose Sandefer’s “solutions" (as the group's detractors point out, a number of the members also opposed the governor in during his re-election bid).

How the governor and his appointed regents handle the new legislative committee, which was created against Perry’s will, and the debate between the various outside organizations that are now focusing on the issue remains to be seen. As rising student debt becomes a national issue, the push for belt-tightening and lower tuition may strike a chord, even while the specific steps taken may be questioned.

“I certainly don’t think Rick Perry is the anti-education governor,” Caven says. “I just think that the of the proposals he and some of his appointees are suggesting seem to be overly simplistic solutions to very complex issues.”

Frazier, Perry’s spokeswoman, says that while the governor supports the goals of the “seven solutions,” he believes universities should find approaches to those goals that work best for their respective institutions. “The governor has always worked with lawmakers on all these issues. His focus right now is working with all of these respective parties to promote the goals of accessibility, affordability and transparency to bring tuition down and improve graduation rates.”

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