Q&A: Sen. Kel Seliger looks forward

Editor’s Note: Kel Seliger is a Republican Senator in the Texas State Senate from the 31st District which includes the panhandle and Permian Basin. This spring Seliger will replace Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) as head of the Senate Higher Education Committee, a position she held since the committee’s creation in 2009. Daily Texan Associate Editor Pete Stroud talked to Seliger about UT’s outlook in the upcoming session and skyrocketing tuition.

Daily Texan: What’s the outlook for UT and other public universities in the upcoming legislative session? What’s on the schedule to consider this spring?

Kel Seliger: It depends on what the expectations are. If the expectation is for huge amounts of additional money, well, gosh, I don’t think people are going to be very happy. If it is an opportunity to set the groundwork for ongoing mission completion of universities in the state of Texas for the future, then I think that I’m very optimistic. I’m looking forward to a very productive dialogue with both community colleges and universities and . . . some of those graduates as well as the general public who pay taxes. 

DT: What do you think about UT going to Travis County taxpayers for funding for the new medical school? And do you foresee the Legislature reacting to that plan given that it was executed in large part due to the unpredictability of funding from the Capitol?

Seliger: It’s not up to me to determine what’s appropriate for the taxpayers in Travis County; they’ve chosen to go forward. It does not necessarily obligate the state of Texas further — this was a purely local initiative, not a statewide one. And so once again, as we near session all of the various interested parties will get together and we will see legislation, we will see dialogue or discussion in the finance committee where all this goes ahead. For people who think this doesn’t cost the state anything, they’re mistaken because these institutions then go into the formula funding matrix as they should and they do cost. And those costs matter. At the same time, the state has needs when it comes to both health care and medical education.

DT: So you think the new medical school is going to require a bunch of funding coming from the state?

Seliger: Sure, because it gets formula funding like other medical school in the state, and this one wouldn’t be any different.

DT: What do you foresee happening to the TEXAS Grant? The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has recommended that the Legislature drop the amount granted to eligible students from $5,000 to $3,000. Do you support such a decrease, and do you anticipate the Legislature going through with it?

Seliger: I don’t necessarily support it or oppose it, but at the same time the universities in some cases would like to have the discretion to award more grants, in competitive situations as they seek to get the best student body and diverse student body as possible. I’m one of those people who believes in less state control and more discretion as long as it is productive. And so we’ll see where that goes.

DT: The Director of Student Financial Services at UT, Tom Melecki, commented that “if the state’s objective is to make [it so] no student from a really low-income family can afford to come to UT-Austin, dropping the TEXAS Grant down is the surest way to do it.” Do you agree with that statement?

Seliger: I don’t know, he’s an expert and I respect that. Most certainly that will spread the money around to the greatest degree, but once again there are also people at UT who would like the discretion to offer some of those TEXAS Grants that are larger than that. And I think that we ought to have the flexibility in there so that UT can determine what its goals are through admission and not stand in the way, if they are worthwhile goals and are systematically applied.

DT: What effect, if any, do the recent elections have on the Legislature’s goals for higher education? Are any of the newly elected lawmakers specifically going to make a difference?

Seliger: All of the newly elected lawmakers have the potential to make a difference. What they want to make a difference in and what they want to address is not for me to answer or determine.

DT: Do you anticipate any big changes?

Seliger: From these elections? Oh, I can’t tell you that, it’s way too early.

DT: You’ve consistently stated your opposition to the Top 10 Percent Law. Please explain why you object.

Seliger: I don’t believe that the Legislature should run the admissions department of any university. At the same time, the universities themselves say that it’s helped increase diversity. The question then becomes, has it increased diversity to the extent that it would justify the Legislature determining what 70, 80, 100 percent of the class will be, and there I think the Top 10 Percent [Law] runs out of steam and relevance, and that’s what we need to address.

DT: What would you like to see done about it?

Seliger: I don’t know. I think it’s a discussion we need to have with the people who have been the staunchest supporters of Top 10 Percent, and the University of Texas and Texas A&M where it applies and see whatever agreement we can reach. At one time I thought Top 10 Percent ought to be completely wiped out, but the universities themselves are telling me it’s not completely worthless in terms of reaching the goal of diversity, which I think is a very important goal.

DT: What are your hopes for the outcome of Fisher v. UT and why do you hope for that outcome?

Seliger: For Fisher vs. UT, who knows what’s going to happen. But I think regardless of what happens, whatever the outcome, I think that it is the intention of the University to increase diversity, and I applaud that goal and hope that there is some way that we can help them realize it. I think that they’re very, very serious about it, and I think that’s good.

DT: Do you want to see the DREAM Act passed, and if not, what specifically would you propose to address the issue it does?

Seliger: At this point I don’t propose an answer. I believe we’re a nation of laws and we need to enforce all of the laws. When it comes to the DREAM Act specifically, we’ll address the issues, the provisions of it specifically as they come up related to higher education.

DT: How do you feel about Gov. Rick Perry’s support for in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants? Do you share his views? Why or why not?

Seliger: Well, as chairman of the committee, I think we’re going to see legislation that deals with that. And I think it’s important that that legislation gets a full and complete hearing, because once again, we are a nation of laws. At the same time, what’s best for the University of Texas? In depriving in-state tuition to certain people, do we under-educate a population that then costs the state of Texas? And at the same time, if we educate all of those people and they are as productive as education can possibly make them, then is the overarching advantage to the University of Texas? Those are the questions that have to be answered; it’s not just simple “is it good, or is it bad.” What does it do, what does it accomplish, what do we need, all of those things. Clearly, if we have a population that’s not going anywhere, they’re not leaving — they’re not going to be deported, obviously. Where do we want them to go? Do we want them to have more education, do we want them to have some less education? I don’t know that I have the answers — my job’s going to be to see to it that legislation dealing with those issues gets a fair hearing … We all have a personal stake in it. I haven’t determined what sort of legislative initiative I’m going to support, but we all have a stake in higher education and having an educated populace.

DT: So you don’t have a personal stake in the outcome?

KS: We all have a personal stake in it. I haven’t determined what sort of legislative initiative I’m going to support, but we all have a stake in higher education and having an educated populace.

DT: Your appointment to the chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee was somewhat controversial, as your predecessor Sen. Judith Zaffirini had more experience in the realm of higher education than you do. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he appointed you based on your “ability to work well with all members.” What makes you better suited to “work with all members” than your predecessor?

KS: Nothing necessarily — those are choices that the lieutenant governor makes. And I appreciate his faith in my ability. Sen. Zaffirini and I have spent a lot of time discussing higher education; so far as I know she is very happily in my mind going to stay on that committee where she will continue to have, I think, a real impact. She and I are not rivals here.

DT: Do you approve of the UT System’s recent expenditures? For example, the $5 million investment in EdX (UT’s online course platform in partnership with Harvard, MIT and Berkeley), or the $10 million investment in myEdu (an online course rating and planning service)?

Seliger: I’m convinced that a good deal of the future of education is online. What platforms are going to be the best and most productive, I couldn’t begin to tell you. It’s important that this system and all systems think outside the box and think about the future, and they are clearly doing so. If there are better ways to go about it, I think they’ll adapt, and if I have any more questions, it’s more about the purchase of a radio station than it is online facilities.

DT: Skyrocketing tuition is a problem faced by all college students, and there’s a pretty direct correlation between state legislative budget cuts and rising tuition costs for students.

For example, in 1985, state appropriations for UT-Austin accounted for 47 percent of the University’s budget. Tuition and fees accounted for no more than five percent. Now, tuition and fees provide a quarter of UT’s budget while state funding has dwindled to a mere 13 percent. That, combined with the fact that 10 years ago the state Legislature started allowing the universities to set their own tuition rates, has led to an increase in tuition costs. Most of us are going to graduate with a ton of debt, which certainly hurts students, but also hurts the economy we’re entering. What does the Legislature plan to do about this issue?

KS: I can’t tell you. I don’t know what the Legislature’s going to do in March, April or May. But in that period of time, keep in mind, we have far more four-year universities and we have more health education facilities that also impinge on the budget, and so the pie gets cut up some more. We don’t want students to graduate with a bunch of debt, but we have to keep a sense of proportion about that debt, because anybody who uses a credit card, quite frankly, is not being all that picky about the debt that they incur. So we shouldn’t focus necessarily on that particular element. When we look at the debt that probably will yield the most value over a person’s lifetime, it is that that they incur for their higher education. Everybody in the Legislature wants to make college education as affordable as is possible, but the cost of education and tuition are still going to be subject to the same pressures of the economy as every other good or service.

DT: Is there anything that you personally hope to accomplish with regards to that?

KS: No, I look forward to working with all of the parties, my colleagues in the Legislature, the universities and other interested parties to take a step forward so that we continue the job that’s been done, which has been a great job of developing first-class universities and first-class opportunities for education and see to it that we continue to do that in the future. I don’t have a big broad personal agenda.

DT: And I assume that goes not only for rising tuition, but also for most issues related to higher education?

KS: Sure it does. There are policies used all the time and things that come up, but the important thing is that — I’m a small government advocate, so the Legislature should not be running institutions. I think as time goes by we’re going to need to distill just what the role of the Higher Education Coordinating Board is. Is it there to run the universities or coordinate the efforts in higher education — and what does that mean?

DT: Who are five people off the top of your head with whom you plan to be most in touch with regularly to stay informed about higher education’s critical issues in Texas?

Seliger: First and foremost, I’m sorry to throw this at you, but one person has to be the seven members of the committee. They’re the ones who are going to get things done, pass stuff or stop stuff in committee. There is not just a group of people, because I think I’ve made it clear to the chancellors and presidents that I will be accessible to all of them with no bias. A lot of people have a lot of feeling about higher education and things like that. I look forward to the opportunity to talk to the people in and out of higher education who want higher education to progress as our state grows.

DT: Is there anything you’d like to say to students in advance of the upcoming legislative session and your tenure as chairman of the Higher Education Committee?

KS: Watch what goes on, watch how it affects your education. Your education affects your future, so be part of the process.