UT System administration

The Texas House of Representatives’ chief budget writer said Wednesday he intends to keep amendments to the proposed state budget limiting the spending power of the UT System Board of Regents and UT System administration. 

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairs the House Appropriations Committee and attached the amendments to the Senate’s budget bill in response to the board’s March 20 decision to conduct an external investigation of the UT Law School Foundation and UT School of Law. 

Lawmakers interpreted the investigation as a political move intended to oust University President William Powers Jr. and advised the board to allow the Texas Attorney General’s Office to conduct another investigation in order to avoid spending additional tax dollars.

Regents have since decided to follow that advice, but Pitts said he would keep the amendments while the budget conference committee meets.

“My fear is, if we take that out, that once we leave here, the board will continue acting the way did prior to the session,” Pitts said. “It’s really my intention to keep a watchful eye on the UT Board of Regents.”

One of Pitts’ amendments would allocate the $23.9 million originally intended to fund the UT System Administration during the 2014-15 biennium to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Doing such would require the coordinating board to transfer those funds to the System with permission from the Texas Legislative Budget Board and the governor’s office. 

The System could not use those funds to investigate its individual institutions or the administration of those institutions, or to request records from those bodies.

Under another amendment, the administration would not receive its share of the Available University Fund, a state endowment that funds institutions within the UT and A&M University systems.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the System intends to continue discussions with Pitts in the hope that “a positive resolution can be reached.”

“However, were the amendments to remain in the bill, there is no doubt that the impact would be significant,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “Specific details would have to be determined if we come to that point.”

In addition to the amendments, legislators have sought to realign the board with what they consider the board’s proper governance role.

The Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency was relaunched to investigate the ongoing conflict between the board and UT-Austin, but has not met since an organizational meeting in March.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, co-chairs the committee with state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. 

Branch said committee members have been reviewing information they requested from the System. He said the committee may schedule a meeting within the next few weeks, but could continue its work while the legislature is not in session.

Lawmakers have also sought to limit regents through legislation.

A bill filed by Seliger, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, would limit regents from “interfering” in the daily operations of universities under their purview. It would also prohibit regents who are appointed when the legislature is not in session from voting until regents have appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee. Gov. Rick Perry has appointed all sitting regents.

The House Higher Education Committee left the bill pending Wednesday. The Senate approved the bill 29-2.

Branch said he is unsure if Perry will sign the bill or if the House will pass it.

Branch said the bill would help quell conflicts between boards and university administrations statewide, although the bill was filed in response to controversy at the UT System.

“To me, while an incident often brings into focus what the statutory and constitutional and regental rules are, which is what this has done, we’re trying to step back and think broadly and make sure we’re doing something that’s good for all of Texas higher education going forward,” Branch said.

A state senator said the UT System chancellor did not defend UT-Austin during last spring’s higher education controversy in which faculty productivity came under fire. President William Powers Jr. suggested the UT System Board of Regents should stick to policy-making instead of micro-managing campuses.

The state Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency met with the presidents and chancellors of the state university systems for its third meeting on Friday. The committee formed this spring following controversy surrounding a conservative think tank’s Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education.

Part of the controversy included questions surrounding Rick O’Donnell, the former UT System special adviser whose job was terminated shortly after being hired. Public criticism increased about O’Donnell’s productivity objectives and the creation of his job position, which appeared to undermine the role of the UT System Chancellor.

President Powers said the UT System approached productivity goals in a manner that unnecessarily criticized University faculty and made faculties across the country feel under attack. He said the UT System should have asked faculty to help in efforts to improve productivity.

“The rhetoric and literature was putting the blame on faculty, lazy faculty and we know these people — they’re hardworking,” Powers said.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, committee co-chair, commended Powers for defending UT-Austin’s faculty throughout the course of the controversy even though it was rumored that he might be fired.

“You were criticized,” Zaffirini said. “Anytime you open your mouth, it seems you are criticized.”

Zaffirini turned her questions to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, whose job was also rumored to be at-risk during the height of controversy.

“You didn’t defend UT,” Zaffirini said. “Why not?”

Cigarroa said he decided not to voice as much concern after talking to the regents’ chairman who originally hired O’Donnell. Individual board members requested productivity information about faculty at each of the UT campuses.

Cigarroa said productivity information did not go through his office and instead went directly through the regents’ office, which caused him difficulties in carrying out his job.

Cigarroa said he personally spoke at the regents’ meetings about his concerns, that they were “leaning towards micromanaging.”

“In my voice, I spoke out to the best of my abilities,” Cigarroa said.

Cigarroa said since he presented his Framework for Excellence Action Plan at the end of August, he has been more vocal about his goals for the UT institutions.

“I’ve actually been encouraged by the chairman to write op-eds,” Cigarroa said.

Powers said big policy decisions, like the productivity information requests, should be made by the entire Board of Regents and not individual board members. Powers said the System should promote bottom-up innovation so campus faculty actively improve teaching and research goals instead of UT System administrators.

“Innovation very rarely comes from the top,” Powers said.

Powers said as Texas higher education moves past the controversy, it is important that UT-Austin faculty is not pitted against the UT System administration.

He said the UT System administration should give clearer academic goals to each of the UT campuses instead of a multitude of ever-changing goals.

“Zigging and zagging is a real obstacle to improvements on campuses,” Powers said.

The UT System wants to improve four-year graduation rates and faculty productivity, but the System has not decided what measurements the campuses should use to measure these broad goals. Powers said the measurements in Cigarroa’s Framework for Excellence Action Plan are not adequate measurements of UT-Austin faculty because it leaves out significant achievements like becoming a member of the National Science Foundation.

Powers said as the UT System bases more policy on productivity measurements they should follow the method of tailors and “measure twice, cut once.”

Printed on Monday, November 21, 2011 as: Committee addresses productivity controversy