Twice in the last 14 months, Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, has called a hearing about universities leaving the Big 12 Conference, and twice he has had to cancel it because the timing was off. The most recent hearing was to have been in mid-August, to head off Texas A&M's rumored departure to the Southeastern Conference, but then the SEC declined to offer A&M an invitation — for the time being.
Today, Texas A&M University officially made the much anticipated signal of its intention to leave the Big 12. But no legislative hearings preceded it, and none are planned. During a higher education hearing on separate matters this morning, Branch said he hoped the relevant questions about possible conference changes could be asked and answered in the public arena over time "and there won't be a need for any hearings."
Branch had been criticized by some groups for attempting to call hearings in the first place. Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the conservative fiscal watchdog group Empower Texans, called it "hypocrisy," in part because of Branch's hands-off approach to the creation of the Longhorn Network, which reportedly played no small role in inspiring A&M's wandering eye.
"Rather than meddling in football schedules, Texas legislators should use their time to move the ball forward on substantive policy reforms that will improve affordability and accessibility in our public colleges and universities," Sullivan wrote at the time.
"It is not this chairman's intent to meddle in those types of decisions," Branch said today. However, he noted, in previous instances, that when impending actions caught them off guard and there was "concern that there could be harm done to a conference that would ultimately cause damage to major public institutions of this state," lawmakers needed to have their questions answered.
"It's really important, in my view, that when we're talking about hundred-year traditions and major, major public institutions that have not only great economic but cultural and political value to our state, that we do so with prudence," he said.
Branch said that Texas A&M officials have been in constant contact with both him and Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, over the last three weeks and complimented them on their level of communication. He told his colleagues that A&M President R. Bowen Loftin had indicated that "when it was timely," he would be willing to come and talk to committee members.
"Ultimately, these changes are sought in a way to advance the various institutions and their brands and their economics, with the student athlete at the top of the interest, we hope," Branch said.
Of the Big 12, he said, "We have gained a sense that the current conference our other institutions are in — namely University of Texas, Texas Tech University and Baylor University — that conference, at least at the present, seems to be solid."