Texas Tribune Festival features speakers on various national issues

Jillian Bliss

The Texas Tribune Festival brought influential speakers from around the world to the UT campus for discussion of critical national issues – including Longhorn football.

Hosted by the Texas Tribune, an online media platform covering topics statewide, the festival addressed topics of race and immigration, health and human services, public and higher education as well as energy and the environment. UT President Bill Powers spoke with Tribune editor-in-chief Evan Smith during a higher education colloquy Saturday morning. Smith said UT System Board of Regents member Alex Cranberg was also scheduled to speak, but withdrew his participation in the festival last week after Regents Chairman Eugene Powell told Cranberg no one should speak for the System but the Chairman himself.

“Higher education is the real reason we’re here,” Smith said. “But in the last six months it seems like an internal food fight is going on between UT and the UT System.”

Smith referred to a recent discussion on the role of research at universities within the System, in addition to calls for increased efficiency on each campus.

Powers began the colloquy by tying the future of Longhorn athletics into higher education reform. Powers said the launch of the Longhorn Network will allow UT athletics to remain on “sound footing,” and said the University would not be looking out for its students if officials had not capitalized on the asset.

Powers said despite A&M’s decision to leave the Big 12, the Longhorns have no plans to withdraw but rather have every intention of keeping the conference together.

“We don’t have a beef with A&M,” Powers said. “We are in the Big 12, and that’s where we want to be. We hate to see the Aggies go, but that’s their choice.”

The topic of the A&M’s decision to leave the conference continued into other panels, including a Sunday afternoon energy and environment session with British Petroleum Capital Management Chairman T. Boone Pickens. Pickens said he felt the Aggies would regret their decision to depart from the Big 12.

“It’s just my gut feeling,” Pickens said. “I think when the Aggies sober up and look at where they’re going, [they’ll see] it doesn’t add up.”

During the discussion, Smith told Powers that UT and A&M, in addition to their infamous football rivalry, are also the only two universities in Texas graduating at least 50 percent of students in four years. Graduation rates, Powers said, have a large roll to play in a university’s efficiency.

“College ought to be a roughly four-year experience,” Powers said. “We’re taking people out of their normal life for a period of time so they’ll be better citizens.”

Powers said faculty participation has much to do with graduation rates and praised UT professors for their research and direct impact on students during the discussion. He also said much of the discussion on University research should honor the amount of research done by faculty members, and that institutional research has the power to decrease tuition costs.

UT officials aim to provide at least one-fourth of students with financial aid, Powers said, and though statewide budget cuts may increase tuition rates, he does not want unaffordable costs of attendance to deter potential students from attending.

The forum ended with comments from the audience, which included questions on how eliminating specific majors, including Greek, will actually increase the University’s efficiency. Powers said while eliminating underutilized degrees will not save the University money, it will divert more funding to larger programs.

Printed on Monday September 26, 2011 as: Texas Tribune Festival features discussions of national issues