At a time of strain between President William Powers Jr. and members of the UT System Board of Regents, Texas lawmakers defended Powers’ record and heaped praise upon him at a ceremony on the floor of the Texas Senate on Monday.
State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, filed a Senate resolution honoring Powers, joining two more resolutions filed in the House by state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. All three passed.
Eltife, a UT alumnus, said: “I see a man [in Powers] who shares the love for the University that so many of the current students and former students have for this great institution. I see a man who always puts the university first someone who stands up for what he believes even if it may not be politically popular.”
The resolutions came after regents intensely questioned Powers during their Feb. 13 meeting. The majority of the questions came primarily from three regents: Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall and Brenda Pejovich, each appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011, which marked the beginning of a more public opposition to Powers by the regents.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he believed regents are undermining Power’s authority at the University.
“I believe in reform and I know Bill Powers believes in reform,” Dewhurst said. “That’s why I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents go around this man. I see them trying to micromanage the system.”
The Feb. 13 meeting was not the first time Powers and the regents butted heads. Last year, the regents rejected Powers’ request for a 2.6 percent in-state undergraduate tuition increase and chose to freeze tuition. Afterward, Powers sent an email to faculty, staff and students expressing disappointment with the regents’ decision.
Shortly after, rumors originating from a blog post by Paul Burka, senior executive editor for Texas Monthly, stated that board chairman Gene Powell directed UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to fire Powers. Cigarroa denied the allegations.
In a joint statement Monday, Powell and Cigarroa said they were grateful to Texas legislators for recognizing Powers’ leadership at the University.
“We are glad to partner with President Powers in building and protecting a university of the first class for the state of Texas,” Powell and Cigarroa said in the joint statement.
On Monday, several senators gave testimony recognizing Powers’ leadership and achievements during his tenure.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a recent ranking naming UT the 25th greatest university in the world could be attributed to Powers’ administration.
“That is a direct result of leadership from Bill Powers,” Watson said.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said despite many senators’ reverential tone when making their remarks, the ceremony did not constitute a “eulogy.”
“We’re singing accolades to you today, but it’s only because we respect you, we love you, we want you to keep doing the great job you’re doing for my university, the University of Texas,” Ellis said.
During its second meeting day on Thursday, the Board of Regents officially approved a motion directing each UT System institution to establish a four-year guaranteed tuition option for undergraduate students by fall 2014.
The decision came after the board’s Academic Affairs Committee approved the measure during its meeting Wednesday.
Of the nine UT System academic campuses, only two currently offer fixed rate tuition programs. UT-Dallas established a mandatory guaranteed tuition program for students who entered in fall 2008 or later, while UT-El Paso has offered an optional guaranteed tuition program for students since fall 2006.
UT-El Paso President Diana Natalicio said in a presentation Wednesday that for some students, the financial security that comes with fixed-rate tuition is a major benefit. She said that for students who take less-traditional paths to a degree, the higher price that accompanies a fixed-tuition bill is not always feasible.
Mary Knight, University associate vice president and budget director, said in an interview Tuesday that offering a fixed-rate option means universities must engage in a considerable amount of budget forecasting, in case there are unexpected drops in enrollment, state financial aid or any other factors.
“There are so many factors involved in determining a budget forecast, in order to make sure we can meet our budget needs,” Knight said. “There is a lot to consider in this process.”
At the meeting, the board also approved officially naming the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program the Russell A. Steindam Army ROTC Program, recognizing a new history and policy center as the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft, and naming the Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences Building after UT donor Peter O’Donnell Jr.
While members of the Texas Legislature continue to butt heads over undergraduate graduation priorities and the role of research, graduate students are seeing shifts in their enrollment, employment and fellowship opportunities at the University.
Starting this year, the University has decentralized its graduate fellowship award decisions and will make tuition benefits for teaching assistants (TA) and assistant instructors (AI) tax-free this fall in hopes of offsetting the coming decline in tuition benefits next semester.
Although undergraduate enrollment at UT has grown incrementally over the past decade, graduate enrollment fell 4.3 percent from its fall 2009 peak. Currently, there are 11,123 graduate students at UT, not including students at the School of Law.
The changes in cohort sizes and fellowship awards have been part of a University push to ensure that graduate students continue to receive financial support that remains competitive with peer institutions, while also granting flexibility to individual departments to allocate resources as they see fit.
Shrinking funds, growing needs
The benefit received by TAs and AIs, the largest source of financial support for the graduate student body according to the Office of Graduate Studies, will decline back to $3,784 per student next fall, after temporarily being boosted to $4,000 during this academic year to keep pace with the 3.6 percent increase in graduate tuition. This will be the first time a decline has occurred since the inception of benefits in fall 1997.
Also for the first time, the students receiving the benefit next semester will not have to pay taxes on it. After consulting with the Internal Revenue Service, the University has discovered that the amount of funding provided to graduate students through tuition benefits is enough to qualify for tax-exempt status, said John Dalton, assistant dean of the Office of Graduate Studies. The benefit, along with in-state residency status, is part of the financial compensation awarded to TAs and AIs.
“When tuition assistance was set up, the compensation for those positions was fairly low, and the benefit was part of that compensation,” Dalton said. “Over the years we have increased the stipend we pay, and it has increased to be of acceptable compensation for a [tax-exempt] benefit.”
Necessary for teaching undergraduate seminars, the number of graduate TAs and AIs employed by the University has changed only slightly from 3,089 in spring 2009 to 3,068 in fall 2012, meaning nearly 27.6 percent of graduate students in fall 2012 worked as TAs or AIs.
Esther Raizen, associate dean for research at the College of Liberal Arts, said state funding reductions mean the amount of tuition benefit paid to TAs and AIs will not keep pace with the rising cost of graduate student tuition over time. As part of the TA or AI benefit, graduate students receive resident status and earned $4,000 a semester toward tuition this year if they worked for 20 or more hours a week. The average cost of full-time tuition this year was $5,370 a semester for residents and $10,264 for non-residents.
“The tuition benefit is a way of funding partial support,” Raizen said. “It’s not dramatic, but it’s still a difference. And we can’t reduce the number of TAs or AIs. In the absence of additional funding, reduced student cohorts are the only means by which we can increase our student support and remain competitive.”
Individual colleges and schools managed a little more than half of the $14 million in graduate fellowships at the University for the first time this year, a role previously overseen by the Office of Graduate Studies. Fellowship funding derives from a variety of funds and endowments and was decentralized according to the requirements of each fellowship.
According to the Office of Graduate Studies, the amount of University-funded fellowship awards for graduate students has continued to rise in recent years and reached an all-time high this school year. But these funds only account for slightly less than 5 percent of all funds used to support graduate students, said Marvin Hackert, associate dean of the Office of Graduate Studies.
A joint committee of Faculty Council and the Graduate Assembly last year also found that fellowship grants after decentralization were much more irregular in amounts granted because of communication breakdowns in individual departments.
Alan Friedman, English professor and co-chairman of the committee, said colleges were unsure how to offer fellowship funding because individual deans had less experience and could not manage over-offers or under-offers across the University the way the Office of Graduate Studies could.
“When fellowships were centralized, they could offer more money than they had, because experience taught them that the students were not always going to be accepted,” Friedman said. “Nobody took a chance of offering more than it had. And it’s tougher to do if you’re giving out at a smaller unit. When centralized, you could make up the offers in the other departments if you fell short in one area.”
Since gaining the power to allocate its fellowships, the College of Liberal Arts has overhauled its awards to be competitive in funding with peer institutions. Beginning in fall 2013, the college will award fewer, but more valuable fellowships that provide a minimum of $20,000 per academic year, including tuition and student health insurance.
Raizen said this was done to keep pace with the rising cost of living in Austin and paying graduate tuition at UT, which is estimated by International Student & Scholar Services to be $25,370 a year for residents, and $34,310 for non-residents. An average of $5,370 of that cost goes to tuition.
As University resources are focused on meeting four-year graduation rates and undergraduate priorities, graduate student budgets have been targeted for reduction, said Michael Redding, president of the Graduate Student Assembly and a Texas Student Media contract employee.
“The colleges are looking and saying, ‘We don’t want to give just a little bit of money to a lot of people,’” Redding said. “As much as it pains me to see graduate support getting cut, most graduate students would admit that they need to keep the funding that they have.”
In fall 2012, only 9.5 percent of undergraduates were non-residents, but 56.9 percent of graduate students at UT were out-of-state or international students.
“In this Legislature, the primary focus is on undergraduates,” Redding said. “That’s who their constituents are. But graduates are out-of-state and international and not voting, so the graduate experience is left out of the mix.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said in a statement to The Daily Texan that graduate student issues deserve more attention from the Legislature.
“The Legislature must stop starving universities to the point that some administrators are tempted to undermine graduate programs, or other critical higher education necessities, to preserve other resources and offerings on a campus,” Watson said. “Higher education should be treated as a vital investment, not a zero-sum game.”
As of press time, there had been more than 2,500 bills filed in the current legislative session — and only one bill with “graduate” in the title has been filed for graduate students at public universities in Texas.
A bill to consolidate three UT System institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one university will be the first piece of legislation considered by the Texas House Higher Education Committee during this session.
Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature would combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, currently assessed at $1.3 billion for the 2014-15 biennium, allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.
State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and committee chairman, said Wednesday that he promised members of the South Texas delegation to hear the bill at the committee’s meeting next week.
“It’s very, very exciting news,” Branch said.
The UT System Board of Regents approved spending $100 million of its own funds over 10 years to transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university. The System will also seek $10 million per year in state funds to assist the consolidation.
UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said System officials will give testimony on the bill.
“We are very pleased that Chairman Branch has recognized the importance of this legislation to the UT System, the region and the entire state of Texas by agreeing to set it as the first bill to come become the House Higher Education Committee,” LaCoste-Caputo said.
Same sex couples would have access to many of the benefits and legal protections afforded to heterosexual married couples if a bill and several resolutions filed in the Texas Legislature gain approval.
The bill, filed by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, would partially repeal the Texas Defense of Marriage Act of 2003, which prevents Texas from recognizing same sex unions.
In a statement, Hinojosa cited a 2012 public opinion poll conducted by UT and The Texas Tribune showing that a majority of Texas voters favored some legal recognition of same-sex couples.
"Texans are now realizing the importance of providing same-gender couples the same protections that married couples receive," Hinojosa said.
The bill would provide same sex couples certain legal protections including property rights, adoption rights and worker compensation benefits.
One of the three constitutional amendments proposed last week by state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, or state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, must pass in both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority vote and then approved by Texas voters in order for Hinojosa’s bill to take effect in 2014.
The proposed constitutional amendment would repeal the 2005 Texas Marriage Amendment to the Texas Constitution, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman and prohibits recognition of civil unions.
Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, an organization that lobbies for gay and transgender rights, said in a statement that Hinojosa’s legislation is the first step on a path toward recognizing rights for same-sex couples in Texas.
"We believe that every Texas family should be able to take care of those they love," Smith said.