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Senate's New Higher Ed Chair Aims to Take On Post With Open Mind

The higher education background of state Sen. Kel Seliger, the new Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, is pretty thin, particularly when compared with that of his predecessor. But he says he's "learning a lot very rapidly."

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, meets with his chief of staff, Ginger Averitt, at their Capitol office on October 16, 2012.

Since it was created in 2009, the Senate Higher Education Committee has been led by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. But this month, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst replaced the chairwoman with state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who got the post, according to a statement from Dewhurst's office, because of “his ability to work well with all members.”

Beyond his eight years as a senator in a district that has six community colleges and two universities, Seliger’s background in higher education policy is thin, particularly when compared with that of his predecessor. Still, with major higher education issues on the table for the 2013 legislative session, including potential changes to how the state finances institutions, some observers say they have faith in his ability to learn on the job.

“I think he’ll be a quick study,” said state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “I’m sure we’ll have some differences. I had differences with the previous chair, and we always found a way to work together.”

At his Capitol office this week, Seliger, 59, an alumnus of Dartmouth, said, “I’m going into it all with an open mind and a seriously, seriously open door.” He said his personal lack of alumni affiliation with a Texas university — his wife and two sons attended the University of Texas at Austin — would help him to be impartial.

On some issues, though, his mind is made up. His view remains unchanged on the state’s program of guaranteed admission to public universities for students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class, which he tried to eliminate in 2007. “I’ve got a problem with members of the government presuming to run things like college admissions,” Seliger said.

The policy has been in the spotlight as result of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, though Seliger said he did not believe the ultimate ruling would necessarily require a legislative response.

He said he was still developing a position on a bill that is likely to be introduced ending in-state tuition rates for some illegal immigrants. “One shouldn’t dismiss this as mean-spiritedness,” he said, “but we have to make sure that mean-spiritedness stays out of the discussion and look at what’s best for the state of Texas in the long term.”

Seliger said he would take a somewhat hands-off approach as chairman, conveying appropriate goals and allowing colleges and universities to determine how to meet them.

He hopes, for example, that institutions can develop satisfactory performance metrics by which legislators are comfortable appropriating money, allowing the state to move away from enrollment-based financing and toward an approach that considers student outcomes like graduations — a change Zaffirini had been cautious about.

The most substantive education experience on Seliger’s legislative résumé is his service on a higher education oversight committee created in 2011 amid a statewide controversy over the governance of higher education.

The mood is decidedly calmer now, but Seliger said that because the debate was driven by ideology, it could flare up again.

“If I can play a role of keeping things contained and people focused on what we do right and key areas of improvement,” he said, “people are going to find much more common ground than maybe they thought last year.”

Higher education was not Seliger’s first choice of committees to lead. After a contentious session chairing the now-defunct Senate Redistricting Committee, Seliger threw his name in the hat to run the committee on public education.

“Am I disappointed in not getting that chair? Maybe a little,” Seliger said. “Am I disappointed by the chair I got? Not in the least.”

Texas State University System Chancellor Brian McCall, who previously served as a Republican state representative, spoke highly of Seliger’s style. “He’s not afraid to tell you what you don’t want to hear, and he doesn’t play games, which I appreciate,” McCall said.

Seliger has come under criticism from far-right activists, in particular Michael Quinn Sullivan of the Austin-based advocacy group Empower Texans, who perceived his approach as insufficiently conservative.

But even Sullivan said he was hopeful about Seliger's new post. “If nothing else, it’s a good thing from the perspective that he’s going to literally bring a different set of eyes to the state’s higher education policy opportunities and challenges,” he said.

“I don’t spend a lot of time trying to identify where I am on the spectrum,” Seliger said. “I try to identify the work that must be done and try to do it as productively as possible, realizing that we all need to work well with others. It’s one of those kindergarten lessons, and its importance never changes.”

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