Gov. John Connally warned 50 years ago that excessive expansion of higher education in Texas would be a prescription for mediocrity, with the legislative funding pie sliced into ever-smaller pieces. Raymund Paredes, the state’s commissioner of higher education, delivered the same message to state senators Wednesday.
The Senate Higher Education Committee is examining the question of whether legislative and regulatory restrictions ought to be imposed on public universities’ ambitions to expand into new geographic areas. It was assigned to do so by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Paredes, chief executive of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, left little doubt during his testimony before the panel as to where he stood, asserting that too many higher education sites risks a decline in quality as state funding per student and per campus goes down. And as to whether that sort of competition in higher education is good, he said, “Not if you’re playing with house money.”
Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo who chairs the Higher Education Committee, authored a measure last year that would have required public college and university governing boards to obtain permission from the coordinating board before acquiring property for an off-campus academic or research site, or to acquire or construct a building at such a site. The measure, Senate Bill 828, passed the upper chamber but never got a hearing in the House.
Seliger’s bill was in part a response to the University of Texas System’s surprise announcement that it had spent more than $200 million to buy about 300 acres in Houston as part of a vague plan for a research and education site. UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven eventually scuttled the plan amid opposition from some lawmakers and even some members of the system’s Board of Regents.
Seliger told the American-Statesman after Monday’s hearing that he likely will file the same bill when the Legislature meets next year. “It came as a recommendation of the coordinating board,” he said. “I think it’s a good one.”
The senator noted that new higher education sites cost public money not just for property acquisition and construction, but also in so-called formula funding, the tax dollars parceled out to each campus based on enrollment. With overall higher education funding by the Legislature failing to keep up with inflation and enrollment growth, that means each campus gets a smaller share of the funding pie.
The scenario is most damaging to smaller colleges and universities, which don’t get much in the way of research grants and charitable donations and rely heavily on legislative appropriations.
Paredes is just as concerned about expansion of major academic programs, citing medicine as a case in point. The University of Houston wants to establish a medical school, as does the University of North Texas System in conjunction with Texas Christian University. And Sam Houston State University wants to open a school of osteopathic medicine.
“The question is, can we (afford) to do all three or any portion of that number?” Paredes said.
Texas has established three new medical schools in recent years, including the Dell Medical School at UT-Austin, and some state leaders have suggested that the focus should now be on expanding the number of residency slots for graduates of the state’s medical schools.
Meanwhile, the Texas Tech University System hopes to establish a veterinary school in Amarillo; Texas A&M University, which has the state’s only such school, is opposed.
Asked for his view on the medical and veterinary proposals, Seliger said: “Those issues need to play out.”