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Texas higher ed leaders optimistic about funding

Students on the Texas State University campus in San Marcos in 2018. Funding and how race is taught in public institutions are likely to dominate the debate around higher education in Texas during this year’s legislative session.
Laura Skelding
The Texas Tribune
Students on the Texas State University campus in San Marcos in 2018. Funding and how race is taught in public institutions are likely to dominate the debate around higher education in Texas during this year’s legislative session.

Community colleges want a funding overhaul this legislative session, and four-year universities are hoping for a boost in research funds. Meanwhile, faculty are bracing for a potential threat to tenure and limits to conversations about race.

When the Texas Legislature convened in January 2021 amid a global pandemic, higher education officials came to Austin and braced for budget cuts as the state grappled with how to make sure it could withstand an economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Two years later, the tone kicking off the 2023 session is very different.

That’s mostly because Texas is projected to have $188.2 billion available in general revenue to fund the business of the state over next two years — an unprecedented 26% increase from the last budget cycle.

Despite the competing demands from entities across the state to access some of the surplus dollars, higher education leaders and advocates are optimistic that the state will use some of that money to invest in its public universities and community colleges.

“It feels like we have some good momentum going into this legislative session,” Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller told The Texas Tribune.

Six of the four-year university systems have already pitched to lawmakers a proposition to freeze undergraduate tuition for two years in exchange for nearly $1 billion in additional funding to help stave off the cost of running their campuses amid rising inflation.

Meanwhile, two-year community college advocates are rooting for legislation that would completely overhaul how they fund their operations. Last fall, a state-appointed committee released a set of recommendations to revamp the state’s community college funding model. The proposed changes have garnered national attention within the higher education space.

“A lot of eyes are on Texas to see if Texas can set the tone, set the pace for the rest of the nation on how funding can happen,” said Kenyatta Lovett, managing director of higher education for the nonprofit Educate Texas.

Here are a few of the big topics in higher education to watch out for this session.

A makeover for community college financing

Texas funds its community colleges through a mix of state funding, local property taxes and student tuition. But the state’s contribution has not kept pace, accounting for less than 25% of overall funding. Lawmakers determine how much money will go into that pot before funding is distributed to schools based on factors like enrollment and courses taught — essentially pitting them against one another to get funding.

The schools’ budgets also depend on regional economics, enrollment trends and the property values in their districts. Growth is the driving force behind each of those factors, and uneven demographic trends across the state mean funding for each community college can be very different from one region to another.

Tasked with examining these issues, the Texas Commission on Community College Finance recommended last fall that the state create a system that determines community college funding based on how many students earn a degree or credential and how many students transfer to a four-year university to continue their studies. Under such a system, colleges would be competing against themselves to determine how much funding they receive from the state every two years. The committee also called for more need-based financial aid for students and suggested that colleges receive more money if they are educating more students who are considered at risk of not completing their degree.

The proposed changes, which have received broad support from community college leaders, come with an estimated price tag of more than $600 million for the next biennium. Lawmakers will have to decide whether to redesign the colleges’ funding formulas and what that new funding system would look like.

“It feels like we have good traction and excitement around those recommendations, strong support from the community colleges themselves, from the chambers,” Keller said, adding that it would be “historic” if lawmakers approve the proposed funding system.

Endowments for Texas Tech and the University of Houston

The Texas Constitution gives the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System access to an endowment known as the Permanent University Fund, a nearly $32 billion endowment of assets that come from oil and gas revenues generated on 2.1 million acres of state land in West Texas.

For years, some lawmakers and officials at the University of Houston and Texas Tech — some of the largest schools not in the UT or A&M systems — have argued that other universities’ inability to tap into the PUF has hampered those schools’ capacity to rise in the national rankings and improve their prestige and stature.

Calls to find additional funding streams for these universities resurfaced when UT-Austin announced it was leaving the Big 12 Conference. Since Texas Tech can’t access the PUF, angry Tech fans grew concerned that UT-Austin’s departure would affect lucrative television contracts, access to conference championships and the broader Lubbock community, whose economic wellbeing is intrinsically tied to the university.

In response, two West Texas lawmakers filed legislation during the second special session in 2021 that would amend the PUF and reallocate some funding to emerging research institutions and other universities. The bill didn’t pass, but Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said they would support creating a separate fund for Tech and UH. Abbott has floated an annual $1 billion fund for each school.

“We want all of our schools to be great,” Patrick said in November when he laid out the idea as one of his legislative priorities. “We need to help everyone,” adding that he believes UT and Texas A&M could “pitch in and help us help those other schools,” though he did not say how he thinks they could do it.

Texas Tech University President Lawrence Schovanec said any recurring fund would allow the university to better educate students, recruit faculty and generate additional research dollars, but he didn’t want to restrict the conversation to the idea of a new $1 billion endowment.

“This is not about advancing one or two institutions; it is creating more institutions statewide that are in that preeminent class, so that we get our fair share of federal [research and development funding] obligations,” he said.

Critical race theory fight might reach universities

In 2021, Texas lawmakers restricted how public school teachers could discuss current eventsand America’s history of racism in the classroom. Last year, Patrick said on Twitter that he planned to expand that restriction to higher education.

“I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory,” Patrick wrote on Twitter. “We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed.”

Critical race theory is an academic discipline that studies the ways race and racism have impacted America’s legal and social systems, but the term has become a rallying cry among conservatives across the country who have used it as a shorthand to describe conversations about race that they deem inappropriate for schools.

While such bans have been more common in K-12 public schools, other states have enacted restrictions in colleges, too. Those bans mostly prohibit the discussion of certain ideas related to race or sex in orientations or seminars, rather than in classrooms and curriculums, according to a list of such legislation from PEN America, a nonprofit that defends free expression.

In Florida, Gov. Rick DeSantis signed one of the strictest anti-CRT laws in the country. It limits the types of conversations that can occur in public universities, including how university professors present curriculum and discuss race in the college classroom. In November, a federal judge temporarily blocked the part of the law pertaining to higher education.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who sponsored legislation in the Senate last session to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools, said he expects similar bills to be brought forward that will focus on limiting these topics in higher education, but he said it was too early to share specifics.

Faculty prepare for a battle over tenure

As Patrick called for an end to critical race theory in higher education early last year, he turned heads across the country when he also said he wanted to eliminate tenure for new faculty hires as a way to combat the teaching of the academic discipline in public colleges and universities.

The proposal received swift condemnation from national faculty groups and raised concerns among instructors statewide.

Patrick has been more muted about his specific plans for tenure ever since, though he did include reforming the practice in his list of priorities during a press conference in late November.

Faculty groups are ready to fight any proposal that would affect tenure at the university level, according to Pat Heintzelman, president of the Texas Faculty Association.

Heintzelman said she and others have been working hard to educate lawmakers about the intricacies of tenure and how eliminating it would raise major questions about academic freedom, hurt universities rankings and make it difficult to recruit faculty.

“Tenure is what provides the avenue for freedom of research, for academic freedom without concern of being terminated just because you have new ideas or you allow ideas to be discussed in the classroom,” she said.

Heintzelman also noted that tenured faculty are routinely held accountable through other avenues, like annual evaluations, tenure review and research requirements.

UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell has defended tenure in the past. In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Schovanec of Texas Tech said he believes state budget leaders are interested in elevating the national reputation of all of Texas’ universities, and faculty recruitment is key to that goal.

“We’ve all recognized that our ability to recruit world-class faculty is dependent on having an environment that is attractive to them, and that includes tenure,” he said.

Yet the perception among some conservatives of universities as bastions of liberal indoctrination has prompted lawmakers to file other bills targeting higher education initiatives that seek to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. State Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, filed a bill that would require public universities to create policies that “demonstrate a commitment to intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” and prevent them from funding diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

“The cost of college has been skyrocketing, and parents of state university students don’t want their money spent on political indoctrination or party politics or reverse-racism,” Tepper said in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman. “They want their child to graduate with skills for a better future.”

State faculty leaders have slammed the legislation.

“This bill is apocalyptic in terms of academic freedom and essentially makes it career-ending to lecture, research, or write about race, class, gender identity, sexuality or engage in any critical history or analysis of religious ideas,” Heitzelman said. “This would kill the liberal arts.”