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New Presidents, Old Statues and Guns: The Year in Higher Education

College campuses always seem to attract controversy, but in 2015 Texas universities seemed to have more than their normal share.

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College campuses always seem to attract controversy, but in 2015 Texas universities generated more than their normal share. Old fights on the University of Texas System Board of Regents persisted, while new ones related to guns, tuition and race popped up across the state. Here are the year's top 10 higher education stories:

1. Campus carry

Scores of students, parents and gun rights activists filled meeting rooms in the state Capitol to debate Senate Bill 11, which sought to allow people with concealed handgun licenses to pack heat in campus buildings. The bill passed, but only after a compromise that allowed private schools to opt out and empowered university administrators to set their own rules and declare some parts of campus "gun free zones." That only prolonged the controversy, as professors across the state urged their administrators to ban guns in classrooms. Final campus-by-campus rules won't be adopted until next year, but it looks like the protests have largely failed. Guns will most likely be allowed in classrooms across the state when the law goes into effect Aug. 1. Meanwhile, most major private universities in the state are opting out. 

2. New UT-Austin and A&M presidents

With the departures of Bill Powers at the University of Texas and Bowen Loftin at Texas A&M, both of Texas' flagship universities had big holes to fill. A&M went with a splashy outside hire, stealing away Michael K. Young from the University of Washington. UT-Austin stayed within its ranks by promoting Provost Greg Fenves. 

3. Affirmative action on trial, again

Sometimes, 2015 had a retro feel. At no time was that more true than on Dec. 9, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case — again. The future of affirmative action at the Austin campus and across the country was at stake. But you'd be forgiven if the fight seemed familiar. After all, the Supreme Court had already reviewed the case once — in 2012 — before remanding it to a lower court. As Justice Anthony Kennedy said during oral arguments, "We are just re-litigating the same case." A decision is expected next year.

4. The Wallace Hall/admissions saga continues

In another repeat performance, University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall continued to clash with system leadership. In February, Hall was somewhat vindicated when an outside investigation criticized apparent favoritism in UT-Austin admissions. Hall had been asking questions about that for years. But that wasn't the end. Hall asked for the documents used to compile the report. UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven refused, saying he needed to protect student privacy. And a long, drawn-out fight ensued. Hall and McRaven traded public and private verbal jabs. Hall eventually sued McRaven for access to the records, but a judge dismissed the case this month. Hall is appealing the ruling, so the fight will continue into 2016. 

5. Hazlewood worries grow

What started as a well-intentioned benefit for veterans and their families turned into a major drag on colleges' finances in 2015 when a federal judge ruled that the Hazlewood program wasn't just available to Texans. The program promised free tuition to Texas veterans and gave those veterans the right to pass on their unused benefits to dependent children. In January, a judge ruled that the University of Houston couldn't deny those benefits to a Georgia veteran even though the law was written only for Texans. To make matters worse, the costs of the "legacy" provision of Hazlewood were spiraling out of control. By 2019, the program is expected to cost schools about $380 million. Lawmakers rallied around a plan to cut those costs, but taking benefits away from veterans proved to be too difficult a task. The bill, authored by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, himself a veteran, died in the final days of the Legislature. 

6. Tuition going up

Hazlewood aside, universities mostly praised legislators in 2015 for funding their needs. Still, many colleges are poised to raise tuition for 2016-17 school year. The Texas A&M University System bumped its tuition system-wide by 2 percent. UT-Austin proposed a 3.1 percent increase. Other universities are expected to follow suit, possibly inviting the ire of legislators in 2017. 

7. In-state tuition for undocumented students survives

Once again, conservatives in the Legislature rallied around a plan to eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented students. Once again, those students and their supporters packed the Capitol to protest the idea. And once again, the idea failed to make its way through the Legislature. Similar bills are sure to pop up again in 2017. 

8. Renewed focus on sexual assault on campus

Amid growing national attention to the issue, universities and the Legislature adopted new measures to prevent sexual assault on campus. But three Texas schools — A&M, the University of Houston and Trinity University — became the focus of federal probes into how they handle cases of sexual violence. And Baylor attracted national scrutiny for how it handled a rape case involving a football player. The A&M case was a bit unusual, though, and highlighted the difficulty schools face in fairly handling the issue for everyone involved. 

9. Texas turf battles

State universities presented a united front during the legislative session but began bickering as the year came to an end. The UT System announced plans to open some kind of campus in Houston, which prompted anger from the University of Houston and Houston-area legislators. Meanwhile, A&M and Texas Tech appeared to be setting up a competition for West Texas veterinary students. Tech announced that it wants to open a veterinary school in Amarillo. Soon after, A&M expressed disapproval and hinted that it may want to open its own training facility in the area. 

10. Davis conquered again 

The fatal shooting of nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church prompted a nationwide reconsideration of Confederate monuments in the South. UT-Austin joined in, deciding to remove a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its south mall. The Sons of Confederate Veterans unsuccessfully sued to block the move. The plan is to eventually move the statue to an on-campus history museum. 

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston and Texas Tech University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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