Competing higher ed systems focus on future
By Laura de Leon and Jacob Beltran
System chancellors from the two largest higher education systems Texas—University of Texas and Texas A&M—agree the future success of the two systems will impact jobs and economy in Texas, and that well-educated students are the state’s most important resource and asset.
The “Broadening the Pathway to Higher Education in Texas” forum, held at Texas A&M-San Antonio’s Main Campus March 26, was sponsored by this university, Texas Monthly and the Texas A&M System, and was moderated by senior executive editor Brian Sweany.
Texas Monthly hosted seven administrators from Texas’ competing higher education systems including chancellors John Sharp of the A&M System and Francisco Cigarroa of the UT System.
Also present were Maria Hernandez Ferrier, A&M-San Antonio’s president; John Frederick, UTSA provost and vice president for academic affairs; David Gardner, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board deputy commissioner; and Eugene “Gene” Powell, University of Texas system board of regents chairman.
Sweany’s questions for members of the UT and A&M higher education systems ranged from economic challenges, their approaches to offering a quality education, college readiness, whether the systems have adequate resources to meet students’ needs, and their response to education budget cuts during the 2011 Legislative season.
The two chancellors carried the weight of the discussion, including challenges facing higher education today, including limited budgets, and testing standards in the lower grades.
The first half of the conversation focused mainly on the vision and growth of San Antonio’s two public higher education universities. The second half gave the chancellors a chance to talk about challenges in the state’s competing university systems.
“If A&M and UT fail, Texas fails,” Sharp said.
‘Great economic challenges’
While the majority of panelists forecast that San Antonio’s two growing public universities would be the “bellwethers for the state” of Texas, UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa balanced Tuesday’s showcase of camaraderie and optimism between the two competing systems by emphasising the great economic and educational challenges that lay ahead.
“We are facing a state emergency in the sense of how we are going to help our students,” Cigarroa said. “We need clarity and purpose,” he added, telling the crowd of about 75 that “we are facing difficult problems.”
Citing Texas as the fastest growing state in the U.S.,” Cigarroa said that “rapid growth means we have a profound responsibility to educate a pipeline of students.”
Asked by Sweany how to accommodate for students with limited resources, Cigarroa said innovation is key, which includes blending online learning and retention programs to improve graduation rates.
Cigarroa also called on the need for support — the systems’ board of regents, he said, are needed to support chancellors and presidents to make positive changes.
The discussion then diverged to UT-Austin’s president William Powers and reports of an ongoing conflict between UT’s board of regents and the university’s president .
‘The future is brainpower’
Sharp focused on students as the state’s most important asset.
“The greatest public health initiative is to educate our children,” he said. And educating students, he argued will continue to revitalize Texas’ economy.
“If (Texas students) are the largest number of 18-21 year olds and they are the best educated on the planet, we will create particularly in these two universities, the biggest economic boom this state has ever seen,” Sharp said.
Statistics on higher education were offered throughout the forum.
“We have 500,000 more students now than we had a decade ago,” Gardner said in regards to Texas’ educational system.
In response to whether students are college ready, he said students in Texas “are better prepared than they were 10 years ago.”
Asked his greatest point of pride, Sharp said that he is most proud that we are educating our teachers.
Ferrier nodded in agreement with Sharp that “the transfer of knowledge to a new generation of students is important to these two university systems.”
San Antonio’s land grant universities
Sweany asked Frederick and Ferrier, both graduates of Jefferson High School, to discuss how the city’s two public land grant universities, located on opposite sides of the city, are differentiating from one another.
“I feel that we could really work together to raise the entire city,” Ferrier said adding that UTSA President Ricardo Romo is a good friend of hers and they speak often on the subject.
She said that A&M-San Antonio aims to be the second largest school in the A&M System and will meet regional needs with statewide impact.
Describing A&M-San Antonio as a teaching university, she then reviewed a list of the university’s priorities and achievements, repeating testimony she gave to state legislators at the Senate Finance Committee for Higher Education earlier this term.
The university, she said, will focus on and embrace its unique features that include teacher preparation, a cyber security center, 112 acres dedicated to a water conservation and technology center, a master’s program in counseling that will offer experience and extended knowledge with military families, and applied arts and science programs.
From their offerings, Ferrier said the university’s goal is to provide programs that lead to jobs and not contribute to the 50 percent of college graduates who can’t find a job.
Ferrier said they want “to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
She later clarified, after Frederick’s emphasis on UTSA’s Tier 1 research status, that A&M-San Antonio is more than a teaching university—it’s also focused on research, she said.
Frederick outlined a few of UTSA’s major areas of emphasis: health-related fields; cyber and disease security, and energy and the environment. He said they are working with San Antonio Water System and City Public Service energy to provide research opportunities for students that will ultimately benefit the city.
Lessons from the North Side
Frederick said that the growth of UTSA will be an example to A&M on the South Side. By comparing UTSA’s developmental stages to A&M-San Antonio’s current status, he explained UTSA’s main campus began construction in a rural area with little surrounding development.
He predicted that there will be increased development south of downtown and the university will bring vitality to the city. UTSA is now 40 years old and has an estimated enrollment of 30,000 students.
Making do with less
As the Legislative season winds down in May, the question remains: Will this Legislative season be kinder on K-12 and higher education than it was in 2011?
None of the candidates went into detail on predictions for the Legislative season, with the exception of a brief discussion on the goals of HB 5, which passed the Texas House last week, and will limit high school testing requirements.
The administrators agreed that state dollars earmarked for education will be allocated toward the continued education and retention of faculty.
If the money is there, Sharp posed, the A&M System will be prepared to invest in faculty to send the message: “we value you and want you to stay.”
Texas Monthly: Broadening the Pathway to Higher Education in Texas
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