Legislators worry for future of research in public higher education


Legislators want to ensure transparency and impartiality in university boards of regents with a new committee after learning officials were meeting with Gov. Rick Perry behind closed doors, said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to The Daily Texan.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, formed the Texas Joint Committee for Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency last month to discuss higher education policy decisions openly and protect the high quality of Texas universities. In recent months, Perry and interest groups such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation have pushed for separation between research and academic funding, which legislators said could harm universities’ goals.

“We must do all that we can to ensure that these public institutions operate transparently and with world-class leadership,” Straus said in a press release. “The talented members that we are appointing understand that effective university governing systems enable our students to compete on the global stage.”

Zaffirini, a UT alumna and chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, was appointed co-chair of the committee and said various universities’ alumni, faculty members and administrators reached out to legislators directly regarding Perry’s approach to governing higher education and the direction of their boards of regents.

Various emails media outlets acquired through the Texas Public Information Act show Perry has been personally urging regents to adopt an agenda set forth by Jeff Sandefer, a member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Zaffirini said Sandefer has single-handedly tried to change higher education in the state by separating research from university funding.

“Texas Public Policy [Foundation] thought tax payer’s money should not be used for research and recommended that universities go under Sunset Review,” Zaffirini said. “It was an outrageous recommendation.”

Zaffirini said teaching and learning happen at colleges, while teaching, learning and research happen at universities — a crucial distinction between the two.

“The goal of the committee will be to make things transparent and focus on doing some back finding while hearing testimonies regarding the direction of higher education,” said co-committee chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.
The committee also plans to monitor all university systems’ boards of regents and ensure they all go through a proper orientation and training process.

“A regent is not a CEO but an appointed official responsible for policy,” Zaffirini said. “Every regent should understand the concept of shared governance and must support their universities’ presidents and chancellors and not have personal or political agendas. Change must be the result of thoughtful collaboration.”

Zaffirini said emails have been released that indicate Sandefer had been meeting with UT regents before they were appointed and that Sandefer personally recommended a few regents to Perry who now serve.

UT System spokesman Matt Flores said he was not allowed to comment on the future of the joint committee, but confirmed it is the regents’ job to set policy, while it is the chancellor’s job to implement it.

Zaffirini said she had a problem with how Perry was pursuing higher education initiatives. Zaffirini said she hopes many voices will participate in the conversation about molding higher education in the months to come.

The new committee will release its initial report by January 2013, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will compile a better practice report to examine the actions of other higher education institutions around the country.
Zaffirini said she believes university faculty and administrations will uphold academic standards while the committee works to resolve differences between regents’ goals and those of legislators and educators.

“We will work with the lieutenant governor and committee members to turn this negative into a positive,” Zaffirini said. “The committee will come up with positive solutions to the problem while allowing everyone to participate in
the process.”