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It cost $9 million to attract a top engineer to A&M. Was that worth it?

The state spent big to recruit professor Thomas Overbye to Texas A&M University. But lawmakers are questioning whether it should devote millions to make similar hires in the future.

Gov. Greg Abbott discusses the Governor's University Research Initiative grant program at the Governor's Mansion during a reception on March 6, 2017.  Renowned electrical engineering professor Tom Overbye (third from the right), who recently joined Texas A&M University, is shown standing behind Abbott.

Professor Thomas Overbye, a star of electrical engineering, never dreamed he would leave the University of Illinois.

But a $4.5 million grant from Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature higher education initiative helped persuade the member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering to move south to Texas A&M University.

"I was surprised — no one was more surprised than myself," he said. "Texas A&M was the only position that I seriously considered during my time at Illinois."

For Abbott, that’s a thrill. Overbye was one of nine leading researchers hired at a public Texas university with the help of the Governor’s University Research Initiative, a $40 million professor recruitment fund created at Abbott’s request. (Two more professors are currently in negotiations.) Overbye's arrival will elevate the profile of A&M’s engineering school and could even improve the resiliency of the state’s electric grid.

But it also highlights the political struggle shaping up around the future of the recruitment fund. A&M had to match the $4.5 million grant, bringing Overbye's total recruitment costs to $9 million. That money won't go into the professor's pocket; it will go toward supporting his research in College Station. But in a world of rising tuition and declining state support for higher education, the money could help pay for a year's tuition for hundreds of low-income Aggies. 

Now after fewer than a dozen hires, the Governor's University Research Initiative's funds have essentially been depleted. Abbott wants the state to replenish it with another $40 million. But to do so, he'll have to convince skeptical lawmakers that professors like Overbye are worth the money. 

"These brilliant minds have put Texas universities on a path to national and international prominence, and we must continue to ensure Texas is on the cutting edge of research and development," Abbott said this week. 

"Rock stars"

Hiring Overbye wasn't easy. Like many other top researchers, he often heard from other schools trying to gauge his interest in making a move. 

“In their world, these guys are kind of like rock stars,” said Jon Mogford, vice chancellor for research at the Texas A&M University System.

It took the perfect situation to persuade Overbye to leave his home of 25 years. When a professor he knew from A&M first reached out to him, he was immediately intrigued.

“The pitch was that we have a strong electric power program and, with you joining us, it will be even stronger,” Overbye said.

He liked the small-town atmosphere of College Station, and he always believed that Texas was a well-run state. He knew engineering professors at A&M, and he knew there would be opportunities to collaborate with them. 

But A&M also offered financial resources that, for a researcher, are hard to turn down. Overbye says he wants to develop a research center that studies how to grow the electric power grid and make it smarter and more efficient. A&M is working with him to make that happen. 

“In doing this sort of research, there are some large capital needs for computer simulation and things like that,” he said.

With his grant from the governor's office, he has already hired another professor and a staff engineer and brought some graduate assistants with him to Texas. Those are the kinds of things that university leaders say they need to offer to attract top talent. With the help of Abbott, A&M has attracted engineers, a geneticist and a physicist; the University of Texas at Austin has hired an engineer and biologist, and the University of Houston has hired two engineers and a geologist. 

The willingness to pursue such grants, A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said, helped make Abbott "one of the finest governors, perhaps the best governor for higher education that we have ever had."

Competing priorities

But lawmakers have been skeptical about whether such spending is the best use of state money for higher education. Tuition has increased by 147 percent at Texas public universities since 2002. Financial aid programs could use more money. And per-student state funding has declined when accounting for inflation.

This year, things could get worse. The Senate’s first crack at at 2018-19 state budget included hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cuts for universities. Some smaller regional schools faced potential reductions of over 50 percent.

In a hearing over the budget for Abbott’s office last month, representatives seemed dumbfounded by the amount spent to hire a handful of professors. 

Meanwhile, there are numerous competing priorities this year. State budget writers are also focused on reforming how K-12 schools are funded, boosting the Child Protective Services system and lowering taxes — all in a session in which there is less money available than there was in 2015.

“I think there are some pretty desperate needs,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, told representatives from Abbott’s office during the hearing. Zerwas suggested that Abbott’s staff parse its budget to suggest ways to free up money for the project.

But the initiative’s supporters say eliminating the program because of money concerns is shortsighted. Overbye, for example, works in a field that is highly important to the nation’s security concerns. His work has the potential to bring the university far more money in federal research grants than what was spent bringing him to Texas.

"We are looking to set up a center that can benefit Texas industry, the people of Texas and the people of the world," Overbye said.

So far, lawmakers see it differently. Preliminary budgets written by the House and Senate don't include any funding for the initiative. Abbott's office will work in the next few weeks to change that. 

He got started at a reception at the Governor's Mansion on Monday. With the professors hired under the program standing behind him, he called the group “just as important to the future of Texas as Sam Houston was to the future of Texas in his time.” Then, he spoke directly to the half-dozen lawmakers in the room. 

“We need to fund [the initiative] another time to ensure that we will be able to double the amount of people standing behind me,” he said.

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

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Higher education State government 85th Legislative Session Governor's Office Greg Abbott Texas A&M University-College Station Texas Legislature