Higher education’s ruffled feathers

“Ruffled feathers are good — they make us all better.”

These were ending words of sorts, delivered by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, at Friday’s hearing held by the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency. This was the last hearing dealing with the first term — governance — of the committee’s verbose name and, in many ways, the most urgent issue.

The creation of the committee in May, as well as the first three hearings spread over each of the last three months, did a great deal to slow down the seemingly frantic pace of misguided reform by scrutinizing a group of governor-appointed, accountability-free regents.

And, though not often highlighted, the hearings brought the Legislature, along with the media exposure it brings with it, back into the higher education game.

Intuitively, it seems as though the Legislature has a controlling interest in the state’s higher education institutions. However, several members noted throughout the hearings that since tuition deregulation in 2003 took tuition-setting power from the hands of the Capitol and put it into the hands of the Boards of Regents, the connection between universities and legislators slowly shifted into a biennial update.

Texas’ public universities have always had a love-hate relationship with the men and women down the street, often striving for a balance between state control and institutional independence.

For now, the hearings are simply an exchange of words and ideas. But when 2013 ushers in the era of action, legislators will need to make decisions that go beyond the routine appropriations — while being careful not to ruffle some feathers of their own.