In 2013, for the third straight year, the Texas higher education story that bogarted the limelight was the ongoing tension swirling around the University of Texas System. But there are reasons to believe that won't be the case in 2014.
The UT System and its board of regents have been at loggerheads with the University of Texas at Austin since 2011 for a handful of related reasons: the board's inclination toward implementing controversial reforms; its regents' efforts to conduct extensive investigations into the university's administration; and something far more simple, clashing personalities.
As a result, the system has found itself at odds with lawmakers, who have accused some regents of being on a "witch hunt" to oust UT-Austin President Bill Powers. Over the course of the year, the Legislature sent the system many not-so-subtle messages to knock it off, such as tweaking the board's spending authority in the budget and conducting a months-long investigation into whether one of the regents — Wallace Hall of Dallas — should be impeached.
As 2013 ends, though, there's a glimmer of optimism. A new board chairman, Paul Foster of El Paso, took the reins this year and signaled a desire to get beyond the controversy. Newly appointed regents pledged that they are of a similar mind. At a December meeting at which Powers' employment could have been put to a vote, he was allowed to keep his job but was encouraged to be more cooperative. If that happens, 2014 could be peaceful indeed.
But there's more to Texas higher education than the University of Texas.
Perhaps the most surprising news of the year, the effects of which will be felt statewide, was the Legislature's failure to pass a package of tuition revenue bonds, which would have funded campus construction projects around the state. Last-ditch efforts to save the legislation — the likes of which lawmakers haven't passed since 2006 — were unsuccessful, forcing many projects to be put on hold.
The legislative session will be remembered for the passage of a bill that allowed the University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American to merge into a new institution, one that will include a medical school and will be known as the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
Lawmakers did not approve a proposed bill to allow people with concealed handgun licenses to carry their weapons into public university buildings. They also did not approve outcomes-based funding for universities, which would have provided financial rewards based on graduations as opposed to attendance. But lawmakers did open the door for new performance funding models for the state's two-year institutions. Such changes have been encouraged by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, an agency legislators stripped much authority from in the 2013 session.
Texas A&M University experienced significant changes in the last year, including the acquisition of a law school, the announcement of a planned campus in Israel and the departure of President R. Bowen Loftin, which precipitated a spat between Gov. Rick Perry and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp. There were also major personnel changes announced at other university systems, including the impending departure of Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance.
One thing Texas did not get in 2013 was a final decision in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case, which challenges the notion of affirmative action and has admissions officers around the country on edge. The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court.
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