There might be no more dangerous place for a university official this year than a Texas Capitol committee room.

On several occasions in recent months, a chancellor, university president or regent has sat down at a hearing and been chewed out by lawmakers who were frustrated about rising tuition rates, expensive land purchases or new programs being pursued against the wishes of elected officials.

But left out of those complaints about schools run amok has been a key detail about how that happened in the first place: Just a few years earlier, the Legislature willingly gave Texas universities more freedom. 

In 2003, lawmakers opted to give schools full control of their tuition — a move that has been frequently discussed and often lamented in recent years. Ten years later, they made a less prominent but still important decision to defang the state agency that had overseen the universities.

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The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had the power to block schools from taking on expensive new construction projects, or force them to get rid of degree programs that the board found wasteful. The Legislature erased those powers in 2013, essentially shifting the board's role from a regulatory agency to a collaborator and data collector.

The idea was that university leaders — and their governing boards of regents — were in the best position to know what's best for their students and institutions.

Now, lawmakers are having second thoughts. A series of bills are making their way through the Legislature that would restore some of the coordinating board's power — or create new powers the board never previously held.

"There have been some situations arise that made us question" those past decisions, said Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, during a recent hearing on one such bill. "We are trying to strike a balance. How do we have some measures in place, some oversight, making sure we are not misusing state money?"

One example of lawmakers’ remorse surfaced in a January hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. In the middle of hours of testimony about university budgets, senators were diverted by a shared frustration. For decades, they said, they’d been urging universities to make it easier for students to transfer from community colleges to four-year schools. But every semester, lawmakers still heard from angry parents and students who found out that some of the courses they had completed wouldn’t be accepted at their new schools.

"I'm growing impatient," said the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. "There has to be a better way."

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Jaws dropped in the room when employees of the coordinating board pointed out one of the things that was holding them back: The Legislature in 2013 prohibited the board from setting statewide transfer policies on its own.

That rule was included in a broader overhaul of the coordinating board through a process known as Sunset, during which the effectiveness and usefulness of a state agency is reviewed. Most agencies go through Sunset every 12 years, and the board’s time came in 2013 when frustration with the board was high.

The year prior, the University of North Texas went to the board for approval of a $128 million overhaul of its student union building. The school had come up with money for the project, obtaining approval through a student election to raise fees. But the board initially rejected the plan due to worries that there wasn’t enough student buy-in.

In a Sunset Advisory Commission report, the commission’s staff warned of an atmosphere of “tension and distrust” between the board and the state’s universities. In the end, the Legislature opted to eliminate the board’s ability to approve capital projects at universities and eliminate low-performing degree programs.

But in the past year or two, the universities’ actions and the turf-battle tensions that followed — have left some lawmakers wishing that the schools had more checks on their ambitions:

  • The University of Texas System spent more than $200 million on land in Houston with vague plans to operate some kind of research and collaboration campus there — a move that sparked outrage from Houston-area lawmakers and supporters of the nearby University of Houston.
  • Texas A&M University announced plans to develop a branch campus in McAllen not far from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
  • Texas Tech University declared that it wanted to open a veterinary school in Amarillo — an idea that A&M strongly opposes.
  • And the University of North Texas announced a partnership to open a medical school with Texas Christian University, even though state leaders say Texas might already have too many of those schools. (The University of Houston and Sam Houston State are also eying a medical school and school of osteopathic medicine, respectively.)

The universities’ supporters say they are filling specific needs for their schools or the communities they are expanding into, while also aiming to grow their own stature. That, the schools say, seemed to be what state leaders wanted when the Legislature called for an increase in the number of Tier One research universities in Texas.

“The Tier One public higher education institutions are such economic drivers and they are educating tens of thousands of students annually,” said Daniel Becka, who oversees UT Advocates, an alumni group that supports UT-Austin in the Legislature.

But Raymund Paredes, the coordinating board’s commissioner, has been sounding the alarm that the schools might be stretching themselves too thin. The Legislature has proven unwilling or unable to fund those aspirations in recent years. Continuing to pursue expansion, he said, would put Texas universities at risk of pursuing mediocrity, he said.

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“It is pretty clear that the state has a limited capacity to support expansion in higher education,” he said.

Both Democrats and Republicans have filed bills to restore, to one degree or another, the coordinating board's authority. The most controversial is Senate Bill 19 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. It would require schools to meet a series of metrics set by the board before they could raise tuition. The Senate approved that bill earlier this month.

Other bills are still in the early stages of the legislative process but have faced little overt opposition thus far. Those include proposals to give the board a bigger role in the student transfer process, require board approval before universities make major land purchases and require board approval before schools develop new programs outside the range of their main campuses. Universities have stayed silent on those proposals. 

Paredes said the coordinating board is open to taking on those responsibilities. He said it has learned from its earlier struggles how to conduct “negotiated rule making,” in which more input from universities and other stakeholders is taken into consideration.

“We need some oversight,” he said, “and I think the coordinating board was intended to fill that role.”

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Disclosure: The University of Texas, the University of Texas System, Texas A&M University, the University of North Texas, the University of Houston, Texas Tech University, Sam Houston State University, Texas Christian University and Raymund Paredes have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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