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As UT, A&M Regents Meet, Perry Eyes Tuition

Regents from both the University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems are meeting this week, and most observers will be watching for their votes on tuition increases.

UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell asks the Board to support Chancellor Dr. Franciso Cigarroa at their Austin meeting on May 12, 2011.

When the regents of the state’s two largest university systems assemble this week — the University of Texas System on Wednesday and Thursday and Texas A&M University System on Thursday and Friday — the most anticipated agenda item for both will be setting tuition.

In the months preceding the regents' decision, many groups have weighed in, both for and against raising the rates. (In a bizarre moment, an outside group from Florida even weighed in.) But the loudest megaphone, albeit behind the scenes, may be in the hands of Gov. Rick Perry, who has also made his thoughts on the matter clear to the decision-makers.

In a March email to the UT system chancellor and board chairman, Perry’s chief of staff, Jeff Boyd, said the governor had asked him to pass on his “deep concern over any tuition increase and his conviction that the university should be able to identify efficiencies to fund whatever priorities any increase would be intended to support.”

At Perry’s request, Boyd also sent links to two articles for their consideration: a column by former New School University chancellor David C. Levy titled “Do college professors work hard enough?” that appeared in The Washington Post, and a Wall Street Journal article about online courses called “Watching the Ivory Tower Topple.”

In case the message wasn’t clear, Boyd closed the memo with a reminder: “I do not anticipate that Governor Perry will be supportive of any tuition increase.”

This week, in an interview with The Texas Tribune, Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier reiterated the governor’s general opposition to raising the rates. “He has a concerted interest in this issue,” she said. “He is the governor of Texas. He has a responsibility to the people of Texas to look out for their interests, and he believes that it isn’t in the interest of most Texans for these universities to be continually raising their tuition rates. They need to be looking at alternate ways to meet their needs.”

Many expected that the UT System regents to vote on tuition increases at their April meeting, but the decision was delayed until this week, allowing more time for regents to consider their options.

UT President Bill Powers, with the support of the university’s Tuition Policy Advisory Committee, has requested the maximum rate of increase the regents indicated they might allow — 2.6 percent per year over the next two years (which translates to $127 more in fall 2012 than in fall 2011 and another $131 in fall 2013). The only institution to not request an increase was the University of Texas at Arlington.

Prior to the April meeting, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group of prominent boosters that formed last year in opposition to certain reform efforts promoted by the governor and others, made clear its support of allowing tuition increases at the University of Texas at Austin, the system’s flagship campus.

In an official statement, the group asserted that “at a time when state funding has plummeted to a historic low of just 14 percent, UT Austin must have the resources it needs to remain a world class institution with Tier One status, and to continue to attract talented faculty, students and lucrative R&D dollars to our state.”

According to the request submitted by Powers, the revenue from tuition increases would go to supporting student financial aid and efforts to boost student success, such as adding technology in classrooms, expanding course offerings and enhancing advising and career placement services.

The coalition said the regents should defer to the universities’ processes for determining appropriate levels of tuition. In its statement, it said, “The Board’s decisions should be based on maintaining and improving the highest standards of quality and excellence, not based on providing political talking points during an election year.”

Texas A&M University in College Station, the flagship campus of the A&M System, is not expected to see a rise in tuition. R. Bowen Loftin, the president of A&M, declined to request one, despite the fact that the university’s tuition and fee advisory council had recommended a nearly 4 percent increase.

Representatives from both UT and A&M declined to comment for this story.

The University of Houston’s flagship campus will also be keeping tuition steady this fall, though its regents approved a $100 fee increase. While only two of the University of Houston System’s four campuses will see tuition increases this fall, they will all have increased student fees.

The regents for the Texas Tech University and University of North Texas systems have already approved tuition increases for all of their campuses.

Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.

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