ALPINE — On the cool desert evening of Oct. 24, a small group of local leaders and concerned citizens in this remote West Texas town assembled on the first floor of the historic Holland Hotel. They were there to consider the merits of severing Sul Ross State University’s longstanding ties to the Texas State University System but had not anticipated how quickly the news would spread.
That morning, more than 400 miles away in his downtown Austin office, Brian McCall, the system’s chancellor, got wind of the gathering. With little time to spare, he hopped on a westbound plane, showing up unannounced and flanked by a well- dressed entourage that included Sul Ross’s president, Ricardo Maestas.
“If people have concern about any of our universities, it’s my job to be there and hear what they have to say,” McCall said later.
As the administrators listened, Rod Ponton, the incoming district attorney, said that the community was anxious about the release of the university’s latest enrollment figures — which showed a decline of nearly 10 percent between 2011 and 2012, following a dip the previous year — and a perceived lack of responsiveness to that troubling trend.
The disheartening numbers, coupled with state leaders’ recent readiness to slash financing and cut unproductive academic programs, have stirred fears over the future of the university — a campus that caters to West Texas students and enrolls higher-than-average rates of Hispanic and first-generation students. Sul Ross is the city’s largest employer and the only four-year institution of higher education in the sparsely populated Big Bend region, with an enrollment that has hovered around 2,000 students for the last decade.
Maestas attributes the recent enrollment slump to students being lured to high-paying jobs in the booming Permian Basin oil fields. But rather than waiting for the job market to change, some local residents have been drumming up support to let another university system — Texas Tech in Lubbock — take over Sul Ross.
“If you cut down programs, you attract fewer students,” Ponton said, noting that state appropriations are largely determined by student head count. “If you attract fewer students, enrollment goes down. It’s a death spiral.”
A week before the Holland Hotel meeting, Ponton sent an e-mail to Kent Hance, the chancellor of the Texas Tech system, to broach the subject of a possible realignment. Hance forwarded the message to his chief of staff, Russell Thomasson, with the message “Let’s talk.”
But when a spokesman for the Tech system was asked about the proposal last week, he declined to comment, saying, “those decisions are driven by the community and the Legislature.”
Belt-tightening at the state level has made the ramifications of low enrollment more noticeable locally.
In 2011, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board surprised many university leaders by putting in effect a rule that put undergraduate degree programs on the chopping block if they failed to graduate 25 students over a five-year period. According to the coordinating board’s rules — intended to save money — unless a school receives special dispensation, a shuttered degree program may not be re-instated for at least 10 years.
From fiscal years 2006 to 2010, according to the coordinating board, 18 degree programs at Sul Ross — including some master’s degrees, which must graduate only 15 students in five years — failed to hit the target. Ten are being phased out. In January, the board will consider increasing the undergraduate degree standard to 40 graduates in five years, a change Maestas fears could threaten another 30 percent of his university’s programs.
Mayor Avinash Rangra of Alpine, who works as a chemistry professor at Sul Ross, supports the effort to move the university into a new system. The chemistry program was one of those recently eliminated, but Rangra said his motivations were not personal.
“The system is not doing anything,” he said. “It is leaving the university to twist a little bit at a time and hang itself.”
David Rogers, the president of a local bank, said, “That kind of talk is just ridiculous.” He said McCall’s attendance at the community meeting with less than one day’s notice “made it very clear that the system values Sul Ross” and is “open to suggestions for improvement.”
It is less clear, Rogers said, whether switching systems would cure what is ailing the school. Coordinating board rules and state financing formulas are applied uniformly across all systems in the state.
“I don’t think you can blame Texas State,” said Emily Urbanosky, an undergraduate in psychology who was disappointed when the master’s degree in her field of study was phased out. “We see that enrollment is down. We see that the parking lot isn’t full. We need to market ourselves better, honestly.”
The last time a community successfully lobbied the Legislature to move a local university into another system was in 2007. Angelo State University in San Angelo was shifted from the Texas State System to the Texas Tech University System. McCall, who was a lawmaker at the time, approved of the move.
“It was a very different deal than what we’re talking about today,” he said on Marfa Public Radio during a follow-up trip to the region six days after his surprise visit.
In the interview, McCall talked about the benefits for Sul Ross of staying in the Texas State system and called the notion that the university’s survival was at risk a “false premise.” From a financing standpoint, he said, Sul Ross’s loss of about 190 students between 2011 and 2012 represented merely one-seventieth of the entire system’s budget.
“Is it important? Yes,” he said. “Is it significantly financially? No. Is it something we believe will be corrected in short order? Of course.”
University and system officials insist that changes are coming, along with new programs, like exotic game ranch management, that could be popular in the region. Maestas said that three years ago when he assumed the presidency at Sul Ross, he was hit by a “perfect storm” of budget cuts, state policy changes and a pressing need to get the institution back on sound footing with its accrediting body.
But earlier this year, he made what he believed was a game-changing hire, bringing on Denise Groves, who oversaw rapid student growth at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, to serve as the new vice president for enrollment. She will overhaul Sul Ross’s “old and archaic” approach, Maestas said.
Groves said her improvements had not yet had a chance to yield results, but that she was expecting a small enrollment increase this spring followed by a sizable boost next fall. “We took an engine apart, and now we’re just to the point of putting it back together,” she said.
McCall said that in addition to continuing the listening tour, which began in earnest late last month, he would keep a close eye on the handiwork of Groves.
“Enrollment solves every problem that we have,” he said.