Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency

“Ruffled feathers are good — they make us all better.”

These were ending words of sorts, delivered by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, at Friday’s hearing held by the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency. This was the last hearing dealing with the first term — governance — of the committee’s verbose name and, in many ways, the most urgent issue.

The creation of the committee in May, as well as the first three hearings spread over each of the last three months, did a great deal to slow down the seemingly frantic pace of misguided reform by scrutinizing a group of governor-appointed, accountability-free regents.

And, though not often highlighted, the hearings brought the Legislature, along with the media exposure it brings with it, back into the higher education game.

Intuitively, it seems as though the Legislature has a controlling interest in the state’s higher education institutions. However, several members noted throughout the hearings that since tuition deregulation in 2003 took tuition-setting power from the hands of the Capitol and put it into the hands of the Boards of Regents, the connection between universities and legislators slowly shifted into a biennial update.

Texas’ public universities have always had a love-hate relationship with the men and women down the street, often striving for a balance between state control and institutional independence.

For now, the hearings are simply an exchange of words and ideas. But when 2013 ushers in the era of action, legislators will need to make decisions that go beyond the routine appropriations — while being careful not to ruffle some feathers of their own.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, appeared on campus Wednesday as the first speaker for the Texas Politics Speaker Series. While dabbling in issues from the start of his political career to his plans for ushering in a medical school to Austin, a part of his talk was dedicated to speaking about his involvement in the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency.

The committee formed amid the peak of the state’s higher education controversy earlier this year, and its first two hearings focused on improving oversight of boards of regents for all of the public university systems.

Watson said he feels the committee brought greater exposure to the higher education debate, which resulted in more public attention on the matter and consequently will help prevent regent-driven higher education fiascos in the future.

In addtition, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, spoke favorably of the committee in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Monday.

Watson and Straus both have reason to be optimistic about the greater awareness of higher education, ranging from increased media coverage to blocs of support such as the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education.

At the same time, much of the explosion of the controversy can be attributed to the regents’ inability to anticipate the consequences of their actions. For example, Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, made the unfortunate procedural error of discussing the creation of Rick O’Donnell’s special adviser position and plans of increasing UT’s student body by 10 percent every year through email, which made them susceptible to open records. If those issues were discussed by phone, there would be no records and far less backlash.

With several of the more divisive regents busy running with Rick around the country, the prospect of another Texas-born controversy is unlikely at the present time. But state legislators and higher education proponents alike need to be aware that a regent-driven attack is not out of the question — and next time, it could be a lot worse.