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Fred Heldenfels: The TT Interview

The chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on recent criticism of the agency, its relationship with Texas community colleges and the future of higher education in the state.

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Recent reviews of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees statewide implementation of higher ed policy and financial aid programs, have been mixed. 

The Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews state agencies as lawmakers prepare to determine their fate, concluded that the THECB serves a necessary role — but found that it had an ill-defined mission and that the relationship between the board and Texas universities "often appears to be one of tension and distrust rather than openness and collaboration."

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems was recently commissioned to study what kind of setup would be most effective for a statewide administration for community colleges — a role that typically would fall to the THECB. It found that "important constituents have lost faith in the agency's ability to play the role."

In the wake of the latter report, Fred Heldenfels, chairman of the THECB, issued a letter calling the assertions "misplaced," alleging that the authors had failed to interview enough higher ed policy leaders in the state. He said the response was borne more out of disappointment than anger.

"I think the media sees more fire there than we do," he told the Tribune, noting that the board did not take umbrage with the Sunset report but received it as constructive criticism.

With the 2013 legislative session approaching, there is a lot on the THECB's plate. For the third session in a row, the board will attempt to convince legislators to tie a portion of state funding for colleges and universities to outcomes, like graduation rates. They will also try to prevent further cuts to student financial aid.

The board is also in the process of developing a new state plan to replace Closing the Gaps by 2015, the guide that has influenced policy for the last dozen years. The goal of that plan was to bring the state to parity with other large states. The plan for 2030 will look to surpass those states in terms of higher education excellence. Heldenfels indicated that the goals will require a boost in collaboration with the K-12 sector and particular attention to community colleges.

In the meantime, the board has already gotten to work addressing the issues raised by both of the recent reports. "It really boils down to communication and that we can’t be complacent about the perception," Heldenfels said.

The chairman recently sat down with the Tribune for a wide-ranging discussion about the recent criticism, higher education funding and other ongoing issues. The following video is an abbreviated version of that conversation:

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