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Born Out of Controversy, New Higher Ed Committee Gets to Work

Today brings the latest step in the state's ongoing higher education debate: the inaugural hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency.

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Before today's inaugural hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, one of the co-chairs — state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo — said it was important to remember why the group was formed in the first place.

"It was created because there was a controversy," she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

That was back in May, when a number of legislators were concerned about the direction the regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry — who had promoted a controversial set of "seven breakthrough solutions" for higher education published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation — might take the state's university systems. The uproar has quieted down somewhat in the intervening months.

"Though the controversy is not roiling at this point, we want to ensure that something like that will not happen again," Zaffirini said. She hopes the much-anticipated hearing will set a "constructive and optimistic" tone.

The proceedings will have a decidedly national flavor. Those invited to give testimony include Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, an organization of the top 61 public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada. It was Rawlings' predecessor who denounced the "breakthrough solutions" in a letter to former Texas A&M University System Chancellor Mike McKinney.

Also on the docket are experts from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Association of Governing Boards, and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

The other co-chair, state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said in a statement that the goal was to help the committee members — as well as other legislators that are expected to attend — "gain a broad perspective on higher education governance models at universities across the country."

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Chairman Fred Heldenfels will also be on hand to provide an overview of the current higher ed governing structures in the state and outline their productivity-boosting initiatives.

They are expected to provide details on a new statewide group — the Council for Continuous Improvement and Innovation in Texas Higher Education — being formed by the coordinating board and comprised of business and higher education leaders. The council will identify the best practices for, and evaluate the state's progress toward, becoming an international higher education leader. A spokesman for the coordinating board indicated on Tuesday that the council members had yet to be finalized.

The similarly named Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of prominent higher education backers that formed during the controversy to push back on what they viewed as misguided reform efforts, will likely be making its presence felt during the public testimony portion. Jenifer Sarver, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said members had been encouraged to attend and participate. "We think it's an important hearing," she said. "It's a critical issue that's not going away, and we need to keep an eye on the ball."

A spokesman for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which played a key role in stirring up the debate, declined to comment in advance of the hearing, which its representatives will also attend. In advance of the event, however, the group issued a report by policy analyst Heather Williams on the governing boards of universities in the state. "Is it 'micromanagement' to ensure that the university's mission of educating students is fulfilled?" she asks in it, adding, "An engaged board is a responsible board."

Freshman state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, who is on the joint committee, said in an interview that this is a crucial time for such questions. "Our committee, and all those who care about the future of Texas, must focus on making a college education affordable and accessible to as many Texans as possible, and that is what I intend to do" he said.

Zaffirini said more hearings of the joint oversight committee are being organized for later in the fall. "What we want to do is be very responsible and thorough and carry out our charge," she said.

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Higher education State government Eric Johnson Judith Zaffirini Texas Legislature