We have liveblogged each of the sesions from The 2013 Texas Tribune Festival's Higher Education track. The sessions included panel discussions on the future of higher education in the state, what's happening at non-flagship universities, governance and the role of regents, and the fight over paying student-athletes.
Featured speakers included University of Houston System Chancellor Rhenu Khator, Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman (and gubernatorial candidate) Tom Pauken, University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall, state Sens. Kel Seliger and Kirk Watson, and former University of Texas at Austin women's basketball coach Jody Conradt.
Look below for highlights of the sessions, which were held on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
With: Renu Khator, Ray Martinez, Raymund Paredes, Tom Pauken, Kel Seliger and Brian Sweany (mod.)
Seliger says the state Legislature has been a good partner to higher education, though he is concerned about alignment between higher education and K-12, so everyone in public schools knows where students need to be going into college. He says the community college system in Texas helps to compensate for that.
Pauken says he would like to see more opportunities for technical education in public and post-secondary education, as there is a shortage of skilled workers out there and those can be lucrative jobs.
"I just think we can't get trapped in the idea that a higher education solution is right for everything, and I think that there is too much of that elitist mind-set that is said," Pauken said.
Seliger says a technical track in public education used to be considered a "failure track," but that needs to change.
Martinez says his university is a solution to high dropout rates in Texas.
"Right now in Texas, we have at least 3 1/2 million adults who started a degree and never completed a credential whatsoever ... we have to do something about that," Martinez said.
Paredes says he would like to see Texas have the best college attendance rates of any state in the county, along with the highest completion rates.
Paredes says getting there will require a higher cooperation between K-12 and higher education, more professional development for public education teachers and more clarity in public education for teachers on what students need to be learning.
Khator, says universities need to focus more on graduation rates.
"If we do everything else but cannot get students across the line, I think we have failed in our core mission," Khator said.
Khator says a flight of talent is leaving the U.S. and the question of how long it will take the federal government to notice it "keeps me up at night."
Seliger says keeping talent in the U.S. has consistently been an issue.
Pauken says better tax rates for companies is a solution, as that will keep jobs in the U.S. and education follows.
Martinez says that growing up, there was a lot of pressure to help support his family financially, and while that is not a unique issue for the Hispanic community, it is prevalent.
Martinez says his online university helps with that, as it adds increased flexibility.
Sweany asks Martinez about the digital divide.
Martinez says it is an issue that Texas needs to work to overcome.
Seliger says "educational questions are social questions at the same time," so the question is important not just to educational institutions, but to society.
Sweany says he wants to shift the rest of the panel to the future effect of online education, brings up massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
Paredes says higher education will change a lot as a result of advancing technology, but how is not yet known.
"We know that higher education is going to be very different, but precisely how is still up in the air."
Seliger says the market will do a lot to steer the future of technology in higher education.
"It's not a question of which is going to be most predominant, it is a question of which system will adapt best to the future," Seliger said.
Pauken says employers want employees who can think critically.
Khator says a new business model for MOOCs will be needed, as the institutions offering them are currently paying for them. She says the market and government will play a big role in changing that model.
"The market will take care of a lot of it, and public policy will take care of a lot of it," Khator said.
Martinez says his university is not a MOOC, but it delivers flexible, credible content.
Sweany opens the panel up for questions.
A UT-Austin academic adviser asks about the "skyrocketing cost of tuition" and the issue of coming up with better financial aid packages.
Seliger asks him what a college education should cost.
The advisor says it depends. Seliger responds: "It's not a complicated question" and offers to answer it.
Seliger says the question of what higher eduction should cost is up for debate. He says the state Legislature should help with costs by applying pressure, rather than setting prices.
Pauken says tuition rates should be frozen for a period.
"I just think that we're pricing a lot of the middle-class kids out of the university," Pauken said.
Pauken goes on to say tuition deregulation has gone too far. Seliger concurs, saying it went too far when it surpassed inflation.
An audience member says the ability of online higher education students to communicate is a concern for employers, asks how that can be addressed
Martinez said that students have shown concern about that when coming into Western Governors University and that the university is working to make the content more interactive. He says it has a 95 percent employment rate.
An audience member asks about the future of doctorate degrees.
Khator says the doctorate degree will get more practical.
With: Phil Castille, Dana Gibson, Robert Nelsen, George Wright and James Henson (mod.)
George Wright, president of Prairie View A&M University, says there are more non-flagships in Texas than flagships, but the Legislature tends to look at being a non-flagship as a negative thing. Wright says non-flagships play a very important role in Texas, as do two-year institutions.
Robert Nelsen, President of The University of Texas-Pan American, says he is from the Rio Grande Valley and was the first in his family to go to college. He says education is needed to bridge the current economic gap.
"They can go into the military, or they can go to college," Nelsen said, referring to the options that students there in lower economic situations have for rising up.
Phil Castille, president of University of Houston-Victoria, says he prefers calling "non-flagshps" "public regional institutions." He says that as the Texas population grows, non-flagships will increasingly be the universities meeting the educational needs of the state.
Castille says there are performance-based measures in Texas higher education and the question is what to do with them, specifically whether to expand them.
"The main performance-based funding criteria in the state of Texas right now is the number of degrees awarded," Castille said. "Guess what? Who's going to win that every year? ... I don't mind performance-based standards, but give me something relevant."
Castille says other milestones should be implemented to reward public institutions that take students who aren't at the top of their class and have economic problems. He suggests students meeting their core requirements as one such standard. Castille says the current "degrees awarded" standard is favoring elite universities.
Wright says he thinks the current performance-based measures are fair. He says the Legislature is looking at the "special things" that non-flagships are doing and still funding them, showing the system is working. He says that he is not happy with cuts to Prairie View A&M University in the last legislative session, however.
Dana Gibson, president of Sam Houston State University, says the Legislature prioritizes higher education and worked hard on tuition revenue bonds in the last legislative session. She says that when it comes to academic buildings, there is a desperate need at her campus and overall. She says there is not adequate funding for the academic buildings required for science, technology, engineering and mathematic facilities.
Nelsen says the state has a "moral responsibility" not to cap enrollment. He says the state has to find a way to do that, has to have the facilities to do that. He says failure to pass tuition revenue bond legislation in the past legislation was one of the biggest failures of the Legislature in the session.
"At Pan American, we have one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to graduate students," Nelsen said.
Henson shifts the conversation to online education.
Castille says there might be a place for MOOCs and SMOCs (synchronous massive online courses) at non-flagship universities.
"It turns out that the students who do best at MOOCS, who knew, are the students who work the hardest and put the most into them," Castille said.
He said those kinds of students tend to be older people who already have college degrees, the kind of students more likely to attend a non-flagship university.
Gibson said new students, especially first-generation students, need one-on-one interaction. She said many students at Sam Houston State University who took online courses there said it was the hardest thing they did throughout their college careers. Gibson says accreditation for MOOCs and SMOCs is something still being evaluated, and things like their high dropout rates make that difficult. She said how MOOCs and SMOCs will play into a student's degree requirements is something still being figured out.
Nelsen said The University of Texas-Pan American wants to set a goal that every student take one online class each year. He said even though the university hasn't gotten a new academic building since 2001, it is increasing enrollment, having just broken the 20,000-student mark. He said online initiatives can help with increasing enrollment despite not having additional academic buildings.
What to call non-flagships has been a topic of debate throughout the panel. Henson jokes, "We'll just call them something else."
An audience member says he runs a program for at-risk youths, and while a lot of them go off to college, they end up dropping out. He said he wants to know what can be done to increase success rates for the most at-risk students.
Castille said efforts are being taken to increase success. He said freshman experience classes at University of Houston-Victoria are one example of that, as social skills needed in college are taught there.
Wright said cost issues other than tuition are arising. He mentioned textbook costs, students having children and other issues.
"There's other reasons students don't always do well in your class," Wright said, referring to faculty thinking that students aren't doing well in class due to a lack of effort.
Nelsen said undocumented students work the hardest at The University of Texas-Pan American.
"These students are brilliant," Nelsen said.
A student asks how House Bill 5, which changes public education standardized testing standards, will affect the types of students coming into non-flagships in terms of diversity and skill.
Gibson and Nelsen say strong partnerships between public education and higher education will be necessary to make sure students graduate high school ready for college.
Henson thanks the panel and audience, and the panel comes to an end.
With: Wallace Hall, Kirk Watson and Reeve Hamilton (mod.)
Watson said there has been tension between UT-Austin, the regents and the Legislature. Some of the Legislature feel the UT regents have not paid attention to the Legislature when it comes to governing the university, Watson said. "The board in my view is there as a shared responsibility," Watson said. Hall said people have the impression that the board is going to do terrible things to UT-Austin, but there is no proof to that.
Watson said the power to govern universities lies in the board, which is made of nine individuals, not the individual regent. Hall is under investigation for, among other things, demanding massive open records request from UT-Austin. Hamilton asks Hall about a March email from Gov. Rick Perry that says the war against the "charlatans and peacocks" is being won. Hall said he does his job because he cares about education. "There is no war," he said.
Hall said the conflict between the regents and the Legislature has been driven by a small group of politicians. He said it is counterproductive and distracts the other regents from doing their job. Hall said Watson is not part of this group. Hall is currently under investigation by the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations. The regent said he is concerned not about impeachment, but about how valid the charges of impeachment are. "I don't know how impeaching me is going to protect the public."
Watson is now talking about Hall's investigative tendencies. Hall's lawyer recently came out and said the regent's investigation has found issues of favoritism in admissions at UT-Austin. Watson said there is nothing wrong with the board looking into campus admissions and other issues, but it is troublesome when an individual regent does this because the process loses transparency.
Watson said just considering impeachment is a big deal. If impeached, Hall would be the first regent to be ousted. Watson said the impeachment process is not easy and does require some figuring out as they go along. The senator said he hopes people do not attack the process to affect the outcome. Hall said the joint oversight committee never called him and asked him about his actions. "If Sen. Watson or Chairman Branch called me, I would take the call," Hall said. He adds that he had to make private open records requests because his requests as a UT regent were denied.
Hamilton now steers the conversation to the panelists' philosophy on education. Watson said he does not think the state is doing everything it can to reap the most benefits from higher education. Watson said he now understands that increasing and decreasing tuition is necessary because of the Legislature's capabilities in funding. He said regents should take the recommendations of university presidents for tuition increases if necessary. UT-Austin President Bill Powers recommended a modest tuition increase a few years ago but was shot down by the UT System Board of Regents, who froze tuition for some students.
An audience member asks what training regents receive for their job and who they report to. Watson said the Legislature has been concerned that university governing boards believe they are only loyal to the governor, who appoints them. Hall said there is an online course UT regents have to take for their job. The regent said the board understands their responsibility is not only to the governor, but to students, faculty and staff.
Hall refuses to share how he thinks UT-Austin President Bill Powers has performed in his role as president. Many higher education stakeholders and state officials have suspected the UT System Board of Regents is trying to oust Powers because he sometimes opposes the board. Hall said he had to defer the question to UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. Powers cannot be fired without the recommendation of the chancellor.
Earlier, Hall and Watson said the focus has been on UT-Austin for many reasons, such as it being the flagship university. A student from UT-San Antonio asks whether the panelists believe in the success of UT-Austin or the UT System. Watson said he is for the success of the UT System because not everyone will want to go to Austin. Hall said many UT System schools look to UT-Austin as an example and thus, the regents focus on UT-Austin to develop standards by which to evaluate other schools.
Hamilton wraps up the conversation by asking Hall and Watson again about the role of the regents. Hall said the Texas Constitution has strict rules on the duties of regents. Watson said regents cannot do whatever they want by saying they are doing their fiduciary duty. Hall said that is not what he is doing.
With: Jody Conradt, Kent Hance, Patrick Hruby, Dan Neil and Spencer Hall (mod.)
Three panelists are present at the panel: (1) Jody Conradt, former UT women’s basketball coach, (2) Patrick Hruby, writer for Sports on Earth and contributing writer for The Atlantic online and Washingtonian magazine, and (3) Kent Hance, chancellor of the Texas Tech University System and former Texas U.S. House representative.
Hall asks the panelists if student athletes are employees. Conradt says they are not and are working to pursue opportunities. Hruby says they absolutely are, as they are doing work for compensation in the form of scholarships. Hance says that they are not employees, but students and athletes who get a free education.
Hall says the panelists agree that student athletes are given something other students are not, in the form of athletic scholarships. He asks the panelists if athletes are fairly compensated for what they do. Hruby says the issue is that they are not able to bargain for their compensation as individual players, as universities are governed under NCAA rules. Hance says the system is fair and most student athletes would still do it even if there was no scholarship. He says they love what they do and get fair treatment. Conradt says that the system needs to be tweaked and that everyone agrees on that. She says more may need to do be done for the athletes, but she has a real problem with "pay for play," as the current system forces students to maintain certain academic standards to play. "Nobody gets anything for nothing," Conradt said.
Hance said other things can be done for student athletes, including paying for them to travel home over Christmas. Hruby said student athletes are being denied basic human rights by not being allowed to be paid. Hruby said the question should be if student athletes are allowed to be paid, not what they should be paid, and no one-size-fits-all payment solution will work.
Conradt points out the conversation is being dominated by football and asks about women's sports. She gets a round of applause from the audience. Hall says women's sports are on the agenda.
Conradt asked how a coach can motivate a team where some players are being compensated more than others. Hruby said that is the way it is in professional sports and it is working. He called Conradt's argument "crazy." "Morally, that makes no sense to me." Hruby said.
Conradt told Hruby that student athletes do have rights: “You keep talking about rights. You have the right not to come to the University of Texas. You have the right to never put on a uniform and play…..You need the University of Texas. We do not need you,” Conradt said. Hruby responded by saying the University of Texas and other universities should not have the right to “collude” student athletes.
Conradt said some rules don't make sense, like the NBA rule that you must spend one year in college before going into the NBA. She said when you take away rules like that, it becomes a very clear choice, as students could go play as an amateur or go pro. She said there aren't minor league opportunities right now for students to break into some sports, so college is the only option, but by striking rules like that, those leagues could develop.
Hruby said that when you join an organization, you generally have the right to bargain. He cited the NFL as an example, saying that players can bargain their contracts. Conradt said athletes have the option of trying to go into the NFL, so they are not being denied that opportunity.
Hruby said that making it legal to pay student athletes wouldn't mean schools would have to pay them. He said the market would set rates. Hall said one proposed model is allowing student-athletes to sell their images. Hance said that presents an issue, as it could create jealousy within teams. Conradt said there are better plans, like creating a fund and compensating people after their eligibility.
An audience member said it is a free market for everyone but the student-athlete, and if the student-athlete is the one "risking life and limb," "Why should everyone else be able to be compensated financially?" Hruby said he has yet to hear a good argument for why there should be a payment exception for student-athletes. Hance said student athletes are better off not being paid. Conradt said being a student-athlete gives a student the opportunity to get a degree and go on to have a better life.
Conradt said the NCAA is ineffective in punishing for violations of its rules, including subpoena power, meaning someone must basically confess for action to be taken. Conradt said she does not believe the University of Texas or any other university will pay players for play, but more expects universities to tell students to go into the pros if they want to be paid. She said schools can better compensate student athletes for living costs.
An audience member asked what would happen if student-athletes were paid. Conradt said that is not going to happen. “There’s not going to be consensus that we are going to pay student-athletes,” Conradt said. Hruby said court proceedings could change that. He said payment might not come from players though, but boosters would more likely pay players. He said boosters already pay players under the table. He said his problem is not that student-athletes are paid under the table, but that they are paid and not forced to pay taxes on that money. Hance said the system is fine as is. “If something ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” Hance said.
Hruby said college sports are a good business for schools, and schools are trying to get more and more into them. He said if schools are not allowed to “collude” student-athletes anymore, they won’t get out of the business. He said they more likely will detract funds from elsewhere, like coaching salaries.