Senate Higher Education Committee

The Senate Higher Education Committee voted 4-1 Wednesday to move a bill before the Texas Senate that would limit the power of university boards of regents over individual institutions within a system.

The bill, filed by committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would prevent regents from voting on personnel and budgetary matters without first undergoing ethics training and being confirmed by the Senate. It would also amend state law to delegate all powers not specifically prescribed to boards of regents to individual institutions.

State Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, were not present for the vote.

Seliger filed the bill in response to ongoing tension between the UT System Board of Regents and President William Powers Jr. Legislators have alleged regents are micromanaging the University. 

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, cast the lone dissenting vote, citing concerns that legislators are revamping laws that affect boards of regents statewide to handle one conflict related to one system.

“I tried to look at this through the 30,000-foot view of how we are structurally changing the relationship between boards of regents and universities,” Birdwell said after the meeting. “You’re widening that moat that essentially makes it more difficult for the people to express their desires of how our institutions and systems that are public are governed from those executing that governance.”

The committee adopted two amendments to the bill.

One would require regents to receive training regarding the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA. The law is intended to give students the right to privacy of information regarding enrollment, grade performance and billing information unless they give permission to institutions to release that information.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the vast amount of vague information requests regents have made of the University may inadvertently include information regarding students, which may violate the act and would result in repercussions from law enforcement officials.

Another amendment would prevent regents from voting before they are confirmed by the Senate Nominations Committee. If the committee does not meet within 45 days, regents will be allowed to vote if they have completed training required by law.

As of now, the committee has not yet scheduled a hearing for newly appointed Regents Jeff Hildebrand and Ernest Aliseda. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Hildebrand and Aliseda in February. The governor also reappointed Paul Foster, the board’s vice chairman.

Regents are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate and serve six-year terms. Perry appointed all nine of the current regents sitting on the UT System board.

Bill to limit boards of regents approved by committee, moves to full Senate

The Senate Higher Education Committee voted 4-1 to move a bill before the Texas Senate that would limit the power of university boards of regents over individual institutions within a system.

The bill, filed by committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would prevent regents from voting on personnel and budgetary matters without first undergoing ethics training and being confirmed by the Senate. It would also amend state law to delegate all powers not specifically prescribed to boards of regents to individual institutions.

State Sens. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, were not present for the vote.

Seliger filed the bill in response to ongoing tension between the UT System Board of Regents and President William Powers Jr. Legislators have alleged that regents are micromanaging the University. 

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, cast the lone dissenting vote, citing concerns that legislators are acting to handle one conflict.

“I tried to look at this through the 30,000-foot view of how we are structurally changing the relationship between boards of regents and universities,” Birdwell said after the meeting. “You’re widening that moat that essentially makes it more difficult for the people to express their desires of how our institutions and systems that are public are governed from those executing that governance.”

Regents are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate and serve six-year terms. Gov. Rick Perry appointed all nine of the current regents sitting on the UT System board.

The committee adopted two amendments to the bill.

One would require regents to receive training regarding the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA. The law is intended to give students the right to privacy of information regarding enrollment, grade performance and billing information unless they give permission to institutions to release that information.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the vast amount of "vague" information requests regents have made of the University may inadvertently include information regarding students, which may violate the act and would result repercussions from law enforcement officials.

Another amendment would prevent regents from voting before they are confirmed by the Senate Nominations Committee. If the committee does not meet within 45 days, regents will be allowed to vote if they have completed training required by law. As of now, the committee has not yet scheduled a hearing for newly appointed Regents Jeff Hildebrand and Ernest Aliseda. Perry appointed Hildebrand and Aliseda in February, along with reappointing Paul Foster, who serves as the board's vice chairman.

Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, discusses his intentions in authoring a bill that, if passed, would increase the influence of individual institutions over that of the university board of regents. 

Photo Credit: Pearce Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office should conduct a “duplicative investigation” of the UT Law School Foundation’s relationship with UT.

“I share the concerns of many Texas senators with the UT System Board of Regents voting to spend up to $500,000 or more to hire an outside law firm to conduct a duplicative investigation,” Dewhurst said. “With two prior audits revealing shortcomings that, I have been told, have since been fully corrected, spending an additional $500,000 of taxpayer and university money appears to many of our senators as a pretext to criticize the UT-Austin leadership.”

In 2011, President William Powers Jr. instructed Larry Sager, then dean of the School of Law and current faculty member, to resign as dean after Sager received a forgivable loan of $500,000 from the foundation. Last week, the regents voted 4-3 to conduct an additional external review of the foundation. 

An internal audit of the foundation conducted by Barry Burgdorf, UT System general counsel who resigned earlier this month, found the loan was awarded inappropriately. The attorney general’s office largely concurred with the report’s findings.

A letter signed by 18 senators sent to Board Chairman Gene Powell on Tuesday asked the board to seek the attorney general’s assistance if regents insisted on continuing what the senators called “an unnecessary probe.”

“We have deep concerns about the Board of Regents’ decision to needlessly engage in yet another investigation relating to The University of Texas Law School Foundation,” the letter stated. “This duplicative review, which targets [UT-Austin] for the obvious purpose of attempting to discredit its president, will be the fourth review of this matter.”

Powell responded in a letter Wednesday and said the board’s General Counsel Francie Frederick informed the attorney general’s office of the board’s possible actions prior to last week’s meeting. He said Frederick would brief Abbott and his first assistant Daniel Hodge if the board decided to investigate the foundation further.

“Please be assured that no decisions will be made on proceeding with this issue until this previously planned briefing of and discussion with the Attorney General occurs,” Powell said.

Dewhurst’s statement came after the Senate Higher Education Committee heard testimony Wednesday regarding a bill that would limit the powers of university boards of regents statewide.

Speaking to the committee, Michael Morton, Senate of College Councils president, said the board has interfered in University affairs through extensive open records requests that impede the University’s ability to conduct its regular business and by continuing the investigation. He said this climate drives away potential faculty and administrators.

“I’ve seen our University lose and struggle to recruit top-notch faculty members and administrators because of the political turmoil between our system’s board of regents and our institutions,” Morton said. “I’ve seen our student and alumni networks join together to support our university and our president against attacks from the group that, by the Texas Education Code, is supposed to preserve institutional independence and enhance the public image of each institution under its governance. Our Board of Regents has failed to uphold both of those roles.”

The bill, filed by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, would amend state law to give all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards to individual institutions within that system.

The bill would also prohibit regents from voting on personnel and budgetary matters until they undergo ethics training offered annually by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The committee took no action on the bill but will continue discussion next week.

One regent has extended their scrutiny of UT to institutions affiliated with but not governed by the University.

University Texas Exes CEO Leslie Cedar said an unnamed regent has repeatedly expressed displeasure through in-person conversations, emails and phone calls with how the alumni association has openly supported Powers and criticized regents. Cedar said she does not believe regents’ scrutiny regarding the association’s contracts with the University result from that criticism.

“The role of the alumni association is to champion the University, and we support administrators who line up directly with the mission of the University,” Cedar said. “So, we feel like it is our duty to speak up for and on behalf of the mission of the University.”

The Legislature is waiting to confirm Gov. Rick Perry’s three appointees to the board as it examines the board’s responsibilities.

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who chairs the Senate Nominations Committee, said his committee will hold nomination hearings sometime after mid-April when scheduling conflicts with appointees clear up and if ongoing legislative discussion regarding regents subside. 

Members of UT community: UT System Board of Regents' behavior harming UT

The UT System Board of Regents is engaging in behavior that could potentially diminish the reputation of its flagship institution, members of the UT community and Texas Exes told Texas lawmakers Wednesday.

Testifying to the Senate Higher Education Committee in favor of a bill that would limit the powers of university boards of regents statewide, Michael Morton, Senate of College Councils president, said the University has faced increased micromanagement from the board. The Senate of College Councils is a student legislative organization that focuses on academic issues at the University.

Morton said the board has interfered through extensive open records requests that have made it more difficult for the University to conduct its regular business and by continuing an investigation into the UT Law School Foundation’s relationship with UT. He said this climate is driving away potential faculty and administrators.

“I’ve seen our university lose and struggle to recruit top-notch faculty members and administrators because of the political turmoil between our system’s board of regents and our institutions,” Morton said. “I’ve seen our student and alumni networks join together to support our university and our president against attacks from the group that, by the Texas Education Code, is supposed to preserve institutional independence and enhance the public image of each institution under its governance. Our Board of Regents has failed to uphold both of those roles.”

The bill, filed by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo and committee chairman, is in response to ongoing tension between the regents and President William Powers Jr. It would amend state laws to allocate all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards to the individual institutions of that system. The committee took no action on the bill, but will take it up again next week.

The bill would also prohibit regents from voting on personnel and budgetary matters until they undergo ethics training offered annually by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Texas Exes CEO Leslie Cedar said an unnamed regent has repeatedly expressed displeasure through emails and phone calls with how the alumni association has openly supported Powers and criticized regents. Cedar said she does not believe regents’ scrutiny regarding the association’s contracts with the University result from that criticism.

“The role of the alumni association is to champion the University, and we support administrators who line up directly with the mission of the University, so we feel like it is our duty to speak up for and on behalf of the mission of the University,” Cedar said.

The testimony came a week after the regents voted 4-3 to conduct a new external review of the UT Law School Foundation’s relationship with UT as part of an ongoing investigation of the foundation. In 2011, Powers instructed Larry Sager, then dean of the School of Law and current faculty member, to resign as dean after Sager received a forgivable loan of $500,000 from the foundation.

An internal audit of the foundation conducted by Barry Burgdorf, UT System general counsel who resigned earlier this month, found the loan was conducted in an inappropriate manner. The Texas Attorney General’s Office largely concurred with the report’s findings.

A letter signed by 18 senators sent to board Chairman Gene Powell on Tuesday implored the board to seek the assistance of the Office of the Texas Attorney General if regents insisted on continuing what the senators called “an unnecessary probe.”

Powell responded in a letter Wednesday and said the board’s General Counsel Francie Frederick informed the attorney general’s office of the board’s possible actions prior to last week’s meeting. He said Frederick would brief Attorney General Greg Abbott and his first assistant Daniel Hodge if the board decided to investigate the foundation further.

“Please be assured that no decisions will be made on proceeding with this issue until this previously planned briefing of and discussion with the attorney general occurs,” Powell said.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst named the seven members of the Senate Higher Education Committee, which is expected to deal with topics that will directly impact the University.

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said the University will keep an eye on the committee, which consists of four Republicans and three Democrats. He said the University expects the committee to address a fixed tuition bill, which would require universities to offer students fixed-rate tuitions over a four-year period. The bill proposing fixed tuition has been filed in the Texas House of Representatives.

“We look forward to working with them this semester on issues that are important to the University,” Susswein said.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, replaced state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, as chair in October 2012. Zaffirini, who chaired the committee since its inception in 2009, will serve on the committee as a member.

Jenifer Sarver, spokeswoman for the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, said she believes Zaffirini will continue to advocate for higher education and said she views Seliger as a friend of UT.

“Under [Seliger’s] leadership, we hope the Legislature will restore funding for higher education, stand for quality, good governance and transparency from our governing boards, and stand against ideological meddling and untested ‘reform’ efforts on our campuses,” Sarver said.

Seliger has not filed any bills related to higher education during this session. However, he has expressed interest in examining funds for the TEXAS Grant Program, which supplies grants to college students with financial need. Funds for the program remain unchanged from the levels approved by the Legislature during the previous session.

Seliger has also expressed opposition to the state’s Top 10 Percent Law, which requires public universities to automatically admit students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. The Legislature modified the automatic admission program for UT in 2009, allowing it to automatically admit enough students to fill 75 percent of its total admitted students under the Top 10 Percent Law instead of any top 10 percent graduate. For the current crop of graduating high school students, UT will likely admit about the top 7 percent of seniors.

During this session, Zaffirini filed a series of bills related to higher education, including a bill that would revamp the B-On-Time Loan program, which provides zero-interest student loans that may be forgiven if students complete their degrees within four years for a four-year degree and five years for a five-year degree, maintain a 3.0 grade point average and do not exceed their degree plan by more than six credit hours.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, will serve as vice-chair. Last year, Watson led a citywide campaign to pass Proposition 1, a ballot initiative that raised property taxes collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, to help fund the establishment of a UT medical school and teaching hospital.

State Senators Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, Dan Patrick, R-Houston and Royce West, D-Dallas, will also serve on the committee.

Last week, Birdwell filed a bill that would allow concealed carry license holders to carry concealed handguns while on university campuses and would prevent universities from establishing rules prohibiting concealed carry. President Powers came out against the bill the same day.

Duncan, Patrick, Seliger, West and Zaffirini will also serve on the Senate Finance Committee, which will analyze proposals for the state’s higher education budget for the 2014-15 biennium when it begins to meet Wednesday.

Published on January 23, 2013 as "Seven senators named to education committee". 

Editor’s Note: Kel Seliger is a Republican Senator in the Texas State Senate from the 31st District which includes the panhandle and Permian Basin. This spring Seliger will replace Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) as head of the Senate Higher Education Committee, a position she held since the committee’s creation in 2009. Daily Texan Associate Editor Pete Stroud talked to Seliger about UT’s outlook in the upcoming session and skyrocketing tuition.

Daily Texan: What’s the outlook for UT and other public universities in the upcoming legislative session? What’s on the schedule to consider this spring?

Kel Seliger: It depends on what the expectations are. If the expectation is for huge amounts of additional money, well, gosh, I don’t think people are going to be very happy. If it is an opportunity to set the groundwork for ongoing mission completion of universities in the state of Texas for the future, then I think that I’m very optimistic. I’m looking forward to a very productive dialogue with both community colleges and universities and . . . some of those graduates as well as the general public who pay taxes. 

DT: What do you think about UT going to Travis County taxpayers for funding for the new medical school? And do you foresee the Legislature reacting to that plan given that it was executed in large part due to the unpredictability of funding from the Capitol?

Seliger: It’s not up to me to determine what’s appropriate for the taxpayers in Travis County; they’ve chosen to go forward. It does not necessarily obligate the state of Texas further — this was a purely local initiative, not a statewide one. And so once again, as we near session all of the various interested parties will get together and we will see legislation, we will see dialogue or discussion in the finance committee where all this goes ahead. For people who think this doesn’t cost the state anything, they’re mistaken because these institutions then go into the formula funding matrix as they should and they do cost. And those costs matter. At the same time, the state has needs when it comes to both health care and medical education.

DT: So you think the new medical school is going to require a bunch of funding coming from the state?

Seliger: Sure, because it gets formula funding like other medical school in the state, and this one wouldn’t be any different.

DT: What do you foresee happening to the TEXAS Grant? The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has recommended that the Legislature drop the amount granted to eligible students from $5,000 to $3,000. Do you support such a decrease, and do you anticipate the Legislature going through with it?

Seliger: I don’t necessarily support it or oppose it, but at the same time the universities in some cases would like to have the discretion to award more grants, in competitive situations as they seek to get the best student body and diverse student body as possible. I’m one of those people who believes in less state control and more discretion as long as it is productive. And so we’ll see where that goes.

DT: The Director of Student Financial Services at UT, Tom Melecki, commented that “if the state’s objective is to make [it so] no student from a really low-income family can afford to come to UT-Austin, dropping the TEXAS Grant down is the surest way to do it.” Do you agree with that statement?

Seliger: I don’t know, he’s an expert and I respect that. Most certainly that will spread the money around to the greatest degree, but once again there are also people at UT who would like the discretion to offer some of those TEXAS Grants that are larger than that. And I think that we ought to have the flexibility in there so that UT can determine what its goals are through admission and not stand in the way, if they are worthwhile goals and are systematically applied.

DT: What effect, if any, do the recent elections have on the Legislature’s goals for higher education? Are any of the newly elected lawmakers specifically going to make a difference?

Seliger: All of the newly elected lawmakers have the potential to make a difference. What they want to make a difference in and what they want to address is not for me to answer or determine.

DT: Do you anticipate any big changes?

Seliger: From these elections? Oh, I can’t tell you that, it’s way too early.

DT: You’ve consistently stated your opposition to the Top 10 Percent Law. Please explain why you object.

Seliger: I don’t believe that the Legislature should run the admissions department of any university. At the same time, the universities themselves say that it’s helped increase diversity. The question then becomes, has it increased diversity to the extent that it would justify the Legislature determining what 70, 80, 100 percent of the class will be, and there I think the Top 10 Percent [Law] runs out of steam and relevance, and that’s what we need to address.

DT: What would you like to see done about it?

Seliger: I don’t know. I think it’s a discussion we need to have with the people who have been the staunchest supporters of Top 10 Percent, and the University of Texas and Texas A&M where it applies and see whatever agreement we can reach. At one time I thought Top 10 Percent ought to be completely wiped out, but the universities themselves are telling me it’s not completely worthless in terms of reaching the goal of diversity, which I think is a very important goal.

DT: What are your hopes for the outcome of Fisher v. UT and why do you hope for that outcome?

Seliger: For Fisher vs. UT, who knows what’s going to happen. But I think regardless of what happens, whatever the outcome, I think that it is the intention of the University to increase diversity, and I applaud that goal and hope that there is some way that we can help them realize it. I think that they’re very, very serious about it, and I think that’s good.

DT: Do you want to see the DREAM Act passed, and if not, what specifically would you propose to address the issue it does?

Seliger: At this point I don’t propose an answer. I believe we’re a nation of laws and we need to enforce all of the laws. When it comes to the DREAM Act specifically, we’ll address the issues, the provisions of it specifically as they come up related to higher education.

DT: How do you feel about Gov. Rick Perry’s support for in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants? Do you share his views? Why or why not?

Seliger: Well, as chairman of the committee, I think we’re going to see legislation that deals with that. And I think it’s important that that legislation gets a full and complete hearing, because once again, we are a nation of laws. At the same time, what’s best for the University of Texas? In depriving in-state tuition to certain people, do we under-educate a population that then costs the state of Texas? And at the same time, if we educate all of those people and they are as productive as education can possibly make them, then is the overarching advantage to the University of Texas? Those are the questions that have to be answered; it’s not just simple “is it good, or is it bad.” What does it do, what does it accomplish, what do we need, all of those things. Clearly, if we have a population that’s not going anywhere, they’re not leaving — they’re not going to be deported, obviously. Where do we want them to go? Do we want them to have more education, do we want them to have some less education? I don’t know that I have the answers — my job’s going to be to see to it that legislation dealing with those issues gets a fair hearing ... We all have a personal stake in it. I haven’t determined what sort of legislative initiative I’m going to support, but we all have a stake in higher education and having an educated populace.


DT: So you don’t have a personal stake in the outcome?

KS: We all have a personal stake in it. I haven’t determined what sort of legislative initiative I’m going to support, but we all have a stake in higher education and having an educated populace.

DT: Your appointment to the chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee was somewhat controversial, as your predecessor Sen. Judith Zaffirini had more experience in the realm of higher education than you do. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he appointed you based on your “ability to work well with all members.” What makes you better suited to “work with all members” than your predecessor?

KS: Nothing necessarily — those are choices that the lieutenant governor makes. And I appreciate his faith in my ability. Sen. Zaffirini and I have spent a lot of time discussing higher education; so far as I know she is very happily in my mind going to stay on that committee where she will continue to have, I think, a real impact. She and I are not rivals here.

DT: Do you approve of the UT System’s recent expenditures? For example, the $5 million investment in EdX (UT’s online course platform in partnership with Harvard, MIT and Berkeley), or the $10 million investment in myEdu (an online course rating and planning service)?

Seliger: I’m convinced that a good deal of the future of education is online. What platforms are going to be the best and most productive, I couldn’t begin to tell you. It’s important that this system and all systems think outside the box and think about the future, and they are clearly doing so. If there are better ways to go about it, I think they’ll adapt, and if I have any more questions, it’s more about the purchase of a radio station than it is online facilities.

DT: Skyrocketing tuition is a problem faced by all college students, and there’s a pretty direct correlation between state legislative budget cuts and rising tuition costs for students.

For example, in 1985, state appropriations for UT-Austin accounted for 47 percent of the University’s budget. Tuition and fees accounted for no more than five percent. Now, tuition and fees provide a quarter of UT’s budget while state funding has dwindled to a mere 13 percent. That, combined with the fact that 10 years ago the state Legislature started allowing the universities to set their own tuition rates, has led to an increase in tuition costs. Most of us are going to graduate with a ton of debt, which certainly hurts students, but also hurts the economy we’re entering. What does the Legislature plan to do about this issue?

KS: I can’t tell you. I don’t know what the Legislature’s going to do in March, April or May. But in that period of time, keep in mind, we have far more four-year universities and we have more health education facilities that also impinge on the budget, and so the pie gets cut up some more. We don’t want students to graduate with a bunch of debt, but we have to keep a sense of proportion about that debt, because anybody who uses a credit card, quite frankly, is not being all that picky about the debt that they incur. So we shouldn’t focus necessarily on that particular element. When we look at the debt that probably will yield the most value over a person’s lifetime, it is that that they incur for their higher education. Everybody in the Legislature wants to make college education as affordable as is possible, but the cost of education and tuition are still going to be subject to the same pressures of the economy as every other good or service.

DT: Is there anything that you personally hope to accomplish with regards to that?

KS: No, I look forward to working with all of the parties, my colleagues in the Legislature, the universities and other interested parties to take a step forward so that we continue the job that’s been done, which has been a great job of developing first-class universities and first-class opportunities for education and see to it that we continue to do that in the future. I don’t have a big broad personal agenda.

DT: And I assume that goes not only for rising tuition, but also for most issues related to higher education?

KS: Sure it does. There are policies used all the time and things that come up, but the important thing is that — I’m a small government advocate, so the Legislature should not be running institutions. I think as time goes by we’re going to need to distill just what the role of the Higher Education Coordinating Board is. Is it there to run the universities or coordinate the efforts in higher education — and what does that mean?

DT: Who are five people off the top of your head with whom you plan to be most in touch with regularly to stay informed about higher education’s critical issues in Texas?

Seliger: First and foremost, I’m sorry to throw this at you, but one person has to be the seven members of the committee. They’re the ones who are going to get things done, pass stuff or stop stuff in committee. There is not just a group of people, because I think I’ve made it clear to the chancellors and presidents that I will be accessible to all of them with no bias. A lot of people have a lot of feeling about higher education and things like that. I look forward to the opportunity to talk to the people in and out of higher education who want higher education to progress as our state grows.

DT: Is there anything you’d like to say to students in advance of the upcoming legislative session and your tenure as chairman of the Higher Education Committee?

KS: Watch what goes on, watch how it affects your education. Your education affects your future, so be part of the process.

UT alumna and Texas State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) speaks at a ceremony held in her honor on Oct. 30, 2012. Her son, UT alumnus Carlos Zaffirini, named a scholarship after her to help fund future students’ educations.
Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, former chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, expressed support Tuesday for a Nov. 6 ballot initiative that would increase property taxes in order to help fund a proposed UT medical school and teaching hospital.

Zaffirini, a UT alumni whose district encompasses a portion of Travis County, told The Daily Texan that although she will not be voting in Travis County, she hopes her constituents will vote in favor of the ballot initiative. She said the proposed medical school would aid the University’s mission of providing comprehensive education and serving Texas citizens.

Proposition 1 would increase property taxes collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, from 7.89 cents to 12.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The increase would contribute $35 million toward operations at the teaching hospital and purchase medical services from students and faculty of the medical school for the general public.

“This is an opportunity to enhance education at UT in a new arena,” Zaffirini said.

She said she hopes those who oppose Proposition 1 will consider how establishing a UT medical school will improve medical services in Travis County.

Zaffirini served as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee from its establishment in 2009 until October, when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst replaced her with State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. Zaffirini currently serves as a member of the committee with State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who has worked with the University for the past six years to establish a medical school.

In a phone interview, Watson said he is not surprised by Zaffirini’s endorsement because of her advocacy for higher education.

“It’s wonderful to have someone with her level of expertise supporting Proposition 1,” Watson said.

He said the University will not be able to establish a medical school without the revenue generated by the property tax increase.

“Without Prop. 1’s passage, UT will lose out on the ability to [establish a medical school],” Watson said.

During a press conference Tuesday, UT President William Powers Jr. said the University does not have an alternate stream of revenue to fund the medical school, making the passage of Proposition 1 essential to establishing the school.

“If there are other ways to get that done, we’re open to that,” Powers said.

If voters approve Proposition 1, it will not take effect until a U.S. district court conducts a hearing regarding the legality of the proposition’s ballot language. Last week Travis County Taxpayers Union, a political action committee that opposes Proposition 1, sued Central Health, alleging that the proposition’s ballot language violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 by misleading voters and expressing advocacy for the proposition. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 14.

Zaffirini supports Prop 1

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, former chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, expressed support Tuesday for a ballot initiative that would increase property taxes in order to help fund a proposed UT medical school and teaching hospital.

Zaffirini, a UT alum whose district encompasses a portion of Travis County, said although she will not be voting in Travis County, she hopes her constituents will vote in favor of the ballot initiative. She said the proposed medical school would aid the University's mission of providing comprehensive education and serving Texas citizens.

Proposition 1 would increase property taxes collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, from 7.89 cents to 12.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The increase would contribute $35 million toward operations at the teaching hospital and purchase medical services there.

"This is an opportunity to enhance education at UT in a new arena," Zaffirini said.

She said she hopes those who oppose Proposition 1 will consider how establishing a UT medical school will improve medical services in Travis County.

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.”