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.