The chancellors of Texas’ top university systems defended their ambitious expansion plans to lawmakers Wednesday and some pushed back against the idea of more oversight of their growth.
But the chancellors also told members of the Texas House Higher Education Committee that they aren't ignoring input from state officials who worry that the schools are growing irresponsibly.
“Any time you can deliver more high-quality education? I think we ought to do that,” said Bill McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, which has sparked controversy for its plan to build a campus in Houston.
Critics have blasted the proposal as an encroachment on the University of Houston.
Other universities are hearing similar concerns. The Texas A&M University System wants to teach veterinary medicine at facilities belonging to Tarleton State, Prairie View A&M and West Texas A&M, while Texas Tech University wants a veterinary school of its own. And several schools hope to open new medical schools soon. Many state leaders have publicly worried that the state is building too many medical schools when there aren't enough residencies to keep graduates working in the state.
The chancellors were called before the committee as lawmakers grapple with whether a clearer oversight process is needed. For the most part, the chancellors said they don’t need stricter regulation.
“I don’t think you are prepared to fund a full challenge review to pick winners in higher education,” said Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System.
The chancellors said their plans are designed to improve their universities and meet education needs in Texas. For instance, University of Houston System Chancellor Renu Khator said that her flagship university’s proposed medical school would fulfill a dire need for inner-city Houston, even if lawmakers aren't so sure.
“We are not looking at this thing as a badge of honor for the university to get our research numbers up,” she said. “We are looking at this as a way to serve the community.”
The most pointed questions were reserved for McRaven. Many lawmakers said they learned about the Houston campus in the media. And some Houston legislators have expressed opposition.
"I have concerns about over-saturating in Houston," said Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, at Wednesday's hearing.
McRaven defended the plan while emphasizing that it's in its infancy. He said he’ll be appointing a committee of Houston leaders to come up with a vision for the campus. The system is still years from breaking ground on the project, he said.
But Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said there needs to be more coordination to make sure universities are efficiently addressing the state’s needs.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which Paredes oversees, approves new academic programs, but Paredes said some schools have shown a tendency to begin aggressively pursuing expansion before consulting the board. By the time plans reach the board, pressure is high to approve them since the universities have already spent a lot of time and money on them.
Paredes didn’t cite a specific example, but he seemed to be referring at least in part to the UT System’s Houston plans. The system announced the purchase of about 100 acres in southwest Houston last week, even though nothing has been submitted for state approval.
McRaven disagreed with the idea that the process has already gone too far to be stopped, however. The UT System could sell the Houston land tomorrow and make a profit, he said.
Others in the hearing, including some lawmakers, dismissed the argument that the state needs more input on university expansion plans. Money from the Legislature makes up less than one quarter of the budget at some university systems. And many projects are built with money from donors or other revenue sources.
The committee’s vice chairwoman, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, noted, however, that even those decisions have an impact on the state.
A medical school or other academic program funded by donors still does “lock the state budget into getting involved in the financing of those over time without necessarily being involved in the decision in the first place,” she said.
Either way, the chancellors said they take the state's needs into account. A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, for instance, said his system's plans line up with state goals.
"At the end of the day," Sharp said, "we can't do anything that you tell us we shouldn't do."
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and The University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. The University of North Texas was a sponsor in 2014, and the University of Houston was a sponsor in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.