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Brian's Song: Where's the Love for Texas State?

When UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa unveiled his action plan last week, it was national news. Not so when Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, did the exact same thing — a week earlier.

Chancellor Brian McCall of the Texas State University System speaks with Tribune reporter Reeve Hamilton on Aug. 5, 2010.

When University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa unveiled his nine-point action plan for the system's future last week, it was national news. Local lawmakers came to hear him deliver the speech. Numerous outside groups, and even Gov. Rick Perry, praised it.

None of that happened when Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, did almost the exact same thing — a week before Cigarroa.

It's a prime illustration of the uphill battle for attention faced by a public university in Texas that has neither the Longhorns nor the Aggies as a mascot.

In his vision statement, delivered at an Aug. 19 regents meeting and titled "Picking Up the Pace," McCall laid out a compelling case for why more attention might be due his way: Texas State is the fastest-growing university system in the state. In the last 10 years it has seen a 22 percent increase in six-year graduation rates and a 81 percent boost in the number of degrees it awards. And it's a lean operation: The average per-student appropriation is the lowest in the state.

McCall's plan calls for the vice chancellor of academic affairs to work with university provosts and presidents to develop approaches to reach eight goals, including increasing graduation rates in all programs, requiring merit evaluation systems for faculty and staff, assuring that all assets are being optimally utilized, increasing collaboration across the system, and commercializing technologies developed by the system.

Compare that with Cigarroa's plan for academic presidents and the executive vice chancellor of academic affairs to develop and execute ways to carry out actions such as increasing the number of degrees conferred, strengthening annual performance evaluations and utilizing incentive-based compensation strategies, reviewing and implementing effective space utilization, bolstering shared services initiatives, and augmenting technology transfer and commercialization.

The much-hyped UT plan is the product of intense work by numerous stakeholders since May, when Cigarroa initially laid out the framework that informs his action plan. McCall says his approach is the product of one year and four months — since he assumed the chancellorship — of talking to presidents and other administrators at the system's eight institutions.

Cigarroa's more comprehensive plan includes elements that McCall's doesn't, including dates at which benchmarks are expected to be reached. It also comes with major health care initiatives and an investment in infrastructure in South Texas. Some of the ambitions couldn't apply to both systems. For example, Cigarroa is hoping to provide added support to the system's four "emerging research universities" that are vying for tier-one status. None of the institutions in the Texas State University System have received "emerging research" classification from the state, not even its largest institution, Texas State University.

"We spend more on research than some of the institutions that have been so named and are a part of it," McCall told the Tribune, saying he had spoken with legislators about the university's desire to join the tier-one race. "We have a compelling case as to why we should be included, and we hope at some point we will be."

Of course, many eyes are on the UT regents right now because of the role they have played in a tumultuous debate about, among other things, the role of teaching and research in public higher education — a debate that has noticeably skirted institutions other than the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. 

"We've stayed out the line of fire because we're doing our mission. We're teaching at a 25 percent higher rate than other systems," McCall said of his faculty. Though, he noted that there are some problems he'd like to see addressed. "Our professors are paid at the 75th percentile of their peers, as are a lot of our administrators and system office staff. I'm not proud of that. It needs to be put right."

McCall, like most of the state's university systems (Cigarroa and University of Houston System Chancellor Renu Khator being the exceptions), is a former legislator and knows that the politics of higher education can take time to navigate. In the meantime, he pledged that, no matter who is or is not paying attention, his system will be working to improve.

"We just want to stay at task and get the job done," he said, "albeit better than we've done so far."

Here's McCall's vision statement:

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