Jaime Grunlan

Cost. Affordability. Four-year graduation rates. These buzzwords continue to fly around in the state higher education debate. One group is looking to turn focus to another buzzword ­— excellence.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education met for its first in-person meeting Friday. The group formed in June as a response to the higher education debate and to critics like The Texas Public Policy Foundation.

TPPF is a conservative think tank that has criticized the importance of research at state universities and emphasized the importance of teaching in efforts to get students through the University at a faster rate. This debate has alarmed some faculty and administrators at universities like UT Austin and Texas A&M, who worry about maintaining tier-one research status.

Jaime Grunlan, Texas A&M mechanical engineering associate professor, spoke at the members-only coalition meeting and with The Daily Texan afterward.

At the meeting Grunlan talked about his concerns with TPPF’s influence, including what he calls the privatization of public education. He said TPPF puts value on the profits more than the quality of the education.

“Their goal is pushing people through — a diploma mill,” Grunlan said. “It’s as if they’re saying we want all the benefit that you create as a university, but we don’t want to pay for any of it.”

Grunlan said the state workforce would also suffer with more TPPF influence on UT Austin and Texas A&M because companies would leave Texas in search of recent graduates who are better prepared.

About 100 of the total 323 coalition members attended the meeting that included multiple university leaders who addressed the coalition.

“I was very impressed by the commitment by leadership at UT,” Grunlan said. “I was disappointed by the lack of support by the leadership at A&M.”

He said TPPF has a great influence on the Board of Regents at both the UT System and the Texas A&M University System. UT System Regent Brenda Pejovich serves on TPPF’s board of directors.

“They own the regents,” Grunlan said. “It’s a complete conflict of interest, but it’s legal.”

Grunlan said the coalition wants requirements for regents before they are appointed by the Governor to reduce these conflicts of interest.

“We don’t want people who are part of an organization who have one agenda,” Grunlan said. “This is a very dictator-like regime.”

Tom Lindsay, TPPF’s center for higher education director, said the foundation wants to improve four-year graduation rates and lower tuition. Lindsay said the concern about diploma-mills is valid, but said he does not know anyone who would dilute educational standards to increase graduation rates. Lindsay said questions about quality would be resolved with an external evaluation that tests students at the beginning and end of their college career.

“How much value have our public universities given our students?” Lindsay said. “Universities need to stop complaining that people are asking them questions and they need to start addressing the needs of their students.”

Lindsay said TPPF’s concern is not whether universities should or should not do research, but whether the education is competitive in the global marketplace.

“Research and teaching are both essential at a tier-one university, but I think no matter what university, teaching has got to come first,” Lindsay said.

Student Government President Natalie Butler spoke at the coalition meeting about the affects of the higher education debate on the next generation. Butler said she thinks the general student population is informed of the debate, but is not engaged. She said the biggest issues for students align with the concerns of the coalition and include the cost, value and excellence of higher education.

“This group of people really loves the universities that they came from and they want to protect their legacies,” Butler said. “We need to realize that higher education is an investment in our state’s future.”