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On Abbott's Watch, the Fight for the Soul of Texas Universities Has Cooled

Since Gov. Greg Abbott took office, the fight over former Gov. Rick Perry's "seven solutions" for higher education in Texas has faded.

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledges the crowd of business leaders and educators following his speech Sept. 19, 2016 to the Texas...

The moment is now infamous among professors in the state: At a 2008 conference in Austin, then-Gov. Rick Perry and his handpicked experts gathered Texas' university regents and told them the higher education system was in trouble. Costs were too high, they said. Professors focused too much on useless research instead of teaching. Students' needs were being treated as secondary. 

The experts presented a fix — "seven breakthrough solutions" — that many took as a direct challenge to academic traditions and freedom. The ideas outraged faculty. Some administrators who resisted the changes lost their jobs. The president of the University of Texas at Austin called the debate that ensued a fight for the soul of his university.

Eight years later, that fight has reached a detente. Gov. Greg Abbott took office at the start of 2015 with a far different approach to higher education, and since then calm has returned to the governance of Texas' top colleges. Worries about painful changes ordered from the top of state government have all but disappeared. 

“The pendulum has swung back,” said Ray Bowen, former president of Texas A&M University. “Everybody, I think, is more comfortable now.”

The new reality was clear earlier this week, when Abbott gave his own talk to education leaders at a conference in Austin. Days after a documentary on the fight over university governance in Texas and beyond opened nationwide, Abbott didn't call for a major shakeup. Instead, he talked about raising the profile of Texas' top schools and boosting research statewide — ideas many of Perry's old critics in higher education happily support. 

A changing cast

The calls for change during Perry's time came largely from conservative academics and businessmen who have now faded into the background. Take Jeff Sandefer, a former entrepreneurship teacher at UT-Austin and founder of the Acton School of Business who authored the list of the "seven solutions" that so many faculty members opposed.

His ideas included dividing university budgets for research and teaching, giving students more control over how state funding is allocated and shaking up the tenure system. Sandefer said he was working to save public universities, but many professors believed he wanted to de-emphasize their research and treat them like cogs in a machine.

Now, Sandefer is a full-time middle school and high school teacher, and he said in an email that he has no involvement in higher education policy. No one has replaced him as the major voice calling for university disruption in the state.

Meanwhile, Wallace Hall, the most divisive University of Texas System regent in recent memory, remains in his post, but his influence has waned. 

Regents like Hall oversee public universities by approving budgets, hiring presidents and setting tuition. Traditionally, they have taken hands-off roles. But under Perry, critics argued that many became too closely involved in how their schools were run. No one drew that complaint more than Hall, who frequently requested meetings and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from UT System staff.

Hall called it doing his due diligence as a member of the system's oversight board. His digging helped unearth a scandal at UT-Austin in which it was revealed that students with poor grades but powerful connections had been admitted. But opponents called his efforts a witch hunt to bring down a university president who opposed his reforms. 

Last year, Hall sued UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven to gain access to confidential student admissions records. Last week, an appeals court upheld a lower court's decision to dismiss the case. That might have brought an end to his fight. Hall could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, but his term expires in February and he soon won't have much claim to the files. 

Either way, Hall has been largely isolated on the board this year. He often votes in the minority on contentious issues, and he no longer seems to be driving the agenda. For better or worse, the UT System board has entered a period of relative tranquility. The same is true across the state, multiple people said. 

“I think it has completely gone away,” said Raymund Paredes, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, of the broader tension in higher education.

Like Hall, half of the remaining university regents appointed by Perry will see their terms expire early next year. That means Abbott appointees will soon make up the majority of each university's governing board. And so far, there have been few, if any, complaints about Abbott appointees meddling. 

“A good regent can multiply the governor’s efforts and not inappropriately get into the internal affairs of the university,” said Bowen, who was an outspoken critic of some of Perry’s efforts. “The initial set of appointments [Abbott] has made really look like he understands that.”

Research focused

Perry’s supporters dismiss his detractors’ idea that the acrimony was his fault. The seven solutions were merely ideas to get the conversation started, they say, and the faculty on many campuses overreacted to them.

The ideas lead to some good results, said Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that promoted the solutions. The UT System took steps to improve teaching and graduation rates on its campuses, he said. The A&M System, meanwhile, acted on Perry’s urging and adopted degree plans at some of its smaller schools that only cost students $10,000.

The relative calm, Lindsay said, is the result of a growing consensus that colleges need to rein in their costs.

“It is a good sign that there is growing bipartisan recognition of these issues,” he said.

Some points of contention remain. Schools have faced increased pressure from the Legislature over the cost of a college degree. But while Abbott has also raised concern about the rising cost of college, he hasn’t been as confrontational as others.

At this week’s conference, a task force convened by Abbott presented recommendations for “advancing education and workforce goals” in Texas. Most of the college affordability ideas pertained to getting students through college more quickly rather than criticizing schools for their price tags. 

And in public comments and speeches, the governor has stuck with a handful of main ideas. He wants Texas schools to climb into the top 10 public universities in the country. He wants to see statewide enrollment increase. And he wants the state to become a research powerhouse.

His signature higher education accomplishment so far as governor was establishing the Governor’s Research Initiative, which replaced Perry’s Emerging Technology Fund. 

The initiative was overwhelmingly approved by the Texas Legislature in 2015. In June, Abbott announced its first disbursement. The state spent $34.3 million to lure 10 researchers to UT-Austin, A&M and the University of Houston.

“This strategic investment in higher education will further elevate future generations of students and faculty at Texas universities while spearheading new breakthroughs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, all of which are crucial to the long-term success of the Texas economy,” Abbott said at the time.

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Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System, the University of Texas System and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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