• Bill would allow concealed firearms on campus

    A bill filed in the Texas Senate Thursday would allow concealed firearms on university campuses.

    The bill, co-authored by 14 senators including state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would allow concealed carry license holders to carry concealed handguns while on campus and would prevent universities from establishing rules prohibiting concealed carry.

    A similar bill was proposed during the previous legislative session but did not pass.

    President William Powers Jr. opposed the previous bill and will oppose the bill filed Thursday, UT spokesperson Gary Susswein said.

    "He continues to oppose the idea of guns on campus," Susswein said. "His position has not changed."

  • Texas budget proposals would cut funds from higher education

    Higher education institutions would face a 2 percent funding decrease during the 2014-15 biennium if the Texas Legislature passes preliminary budget proposals filed Tuesday. 

    However, funding may change before the Legislature approves the final budget later in the session – as it has in the last few sessions.

    The proposal filed by the Texas House of Representatives allocates $14.8 billion in state revenue to higher education from a proposed $187.7 billion budget while the Senate proposal allocates $14.9 billion to higher education of a proposed $186.8 billion budget. The current higher education budget is $15.1 billion. 

    State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and member of the Senate Finance Committee, said the proposals do not indicate what the final budget passed toward the end of the session will be but, rather, serve as a starting point for budgetary discussions. He said the Finance Committee will examine proposed higher education funds along with the rest of the budget when it begins meeting later this month. 

    “We have to get to the starting point,” Seliger said. “We now have those numbers to start the conversation.”

    In 2011, the House initially proposed allocating $13.6 billion to higher education for the 2012-13 biennium and the Senate proposed allocating $14.1 billion, according to proposals published in January 2011 on the Texas Legislative Budget Board’s website. The Legislature allocated $15.1 billion for that biennium. 

    Seliger said he is interested in examining funds for the TEXAS Grant Program, a program that supplies grants to college students with financial need. Funds for the program remain unchanged from the levels approved by the Legislature during the previous session. The House and Senate proposals allocate $325.2 million to the program for fiscal year 2014 and $234.4 million for fiscal year 2015. The Legislature previously allocated $352.2 million to the program for fiscal year 2012 and $234.4 million for fiscal year 2013. 

    Don Baylor, a policy analyst who specializes in higher education at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said state financial support for higher education is decreasing while the Legislature seeks to enact legislation guaranteeing students fixed tuition during four years and tying a percentage of state funding to student performance. 

    “The irony is they want to have lower financial input but have greater policy input,” Baylor said.

    Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the Legislature has shown an adequate funding commitment to higher education and that higher educational institutions must face cuts along with other areas of state government. 

    “Everyone is having to learn to do more with less and higher education is no exception,” Lindsay said.

  • UT study finds large increase in water used for fracking, but still a small proportion of state's water use

    The amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, more than doubled in Texas between 2008 and 2011, according to an updated study released by the University.

    The original study, led by research scientist Jean-Philippe Nicot, examined past water usage to make projections for regional water plans. Nicot updated the study to detail the changes in the use of water for mining, which has increased because of fracking. Although the Texas Oil and Gas Association funded the study, the Texas Water Development Board circulated it among regional authorities.

    “The main change in the update was that I included the recycling and amount of brackish water,” Nicot said. “I removed that from the total water use of fresh water.”

    Fracking is a process by which water and fluids are pumped into the ground at high speeds to extract previously inaccessible
    natural gas.

    Despite the dramatic increase, both Nicot and senior research scientist Bridget Scanlon said that because water used for fracking is about 1 percent of the state’s overall water use, it will not create a water shortage at a statewide level, although Scanlon said problems could arise locally. 

    “Anytime you have demand exceeding supply, you have a problem,”
    Scanlon said. 

    According to Nicot, the amount of water used for mining, which includes water used for fracking, is too small to endanger aquifers. 

    “In terms of strictly water quantity, and I’m not talking about water contamination, the bottom line is that the water used for fracking is not a threat for aquifers,” Nicot said. 

    Fred Beach, a research associate with the Webber Energy Group at UT, said many of the concerns about fracking arise because of “a lack of familiarity with and understanding of the process,” and that all forms of energy production
    carry risks.

    “Similarly, most forms of energy production entail some level of water consumption,” Beach said. “In time of drought and concern over water scarcity these uses raise to a higher level of visibility.”

    Nicot said under drought conditions, companies use brackish water unsuitable for municipal use and recycle water when possible. 

    “If you treat that water efficiently, you could reuse it,” Nicot said. 

    In the meantime, Nicot said companies are pursuing ways to use fracking more efficiently. 

    “To stimulate the process, you add chemicals to help the water flow faster,” Nicot said. “If you use brackish water, it doesn’t usually work as well, so they use additives. They’re also developing greener additives that are

    Because fracking has become a commonly used technique in the oil industry, Beach said revisiting regulations for the process is necessary.

    “This means that rules and regulations with regards to safe and environmentally responsible use of hydraulic fracturing and other drilling methods and procedures need to be reviewed and updated,”
    Beach said.

    Nicot’s study is the first released by UT about fracking following a publication last year by former UT professor Charles Groat that found no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking. However, Groat resigned from his position at the University after a review found that he failed to disclose a conflict of interest before publishing the study.

  • Gathering higher education data on student veterans proves difficult

    As part of recent efforts to gather better data on higher education experiences of veterans, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) asked universities to track their graduation rates. But before UT can provide those statistics, the school will need to figure out how many student veterans there are.

    “We have a ballpark figure, but no precise number,” Marc Hamlin, vice president of UT’s Student Veteran Association, said. “The Office of the Registrar only sees people who are pulling veteran benefits, which includes dependents and spouses, and they don’t classify people as veteran or non-veteran.”

    Gary Romriell, a veteran who served in Baghdad and now works in the Student Veteran Services (SVS) office, said the SVS knows of roughly 650 student veterans at UT.

    “But that estimate changes depending on who you’re talking to,” Romriell said. “There are also veterans who are undeclared, who pay for their tuition and don’t necessarily inform us of their presence, and that makes it hard to get a figure.”

    While UT doesn’t have complete information about its student veterans, Hamlin said student veterans are often equally uninformed. According to data gathered from the 2010 National Survey of Veterans released by the VA, there is a widespread lack of knowledge among veterans about the various federal and state benefits they are afforded.

    Roughly 40 percent of veterans reported they knew little to nothing about veterans benefits. Additionally, 36 percent of veterans who had not taken advantage of VA education benefits said it was because they were not aware of them.

    “It’s not a very good system,” Hamlin said.

    Romriell, who served one tour in Baghdad before being medically discharged, said the lack of transparency in the VA’s bureaucratic system makes the search for benefits complicated. 

    “The department isn’t known for customer service, and they receive funding based on how much they can save, rather than how many veterans they can help,” Romriell said. “A lot of us are wandering in the dark.”

    Veterans are typically eligible for a variety of education benefits, including those resulting from the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which Congress passed in 2008. The bill pays veteran tuitions directly to institutions for up to 36 months, while providing a monthly allowance for housing and books. For Texan veterans, the Hazlewood Act provides up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at in-state public schools. 

    Another impediment to tracking statistics about veteran students is that they face different challenges than non-veterans. Hamlin, who graduated from high school in 2004, said many of the students he works with support themselves financially and have different priorities than many students who come to UT straight from high school.

    “Veterans are typically older than most of their classmates, and we’ve already had a lot of life experience,” Hamlin said. “We’re taking a break from supporting ourselves to go to school.”

    Romriell said the SVS is working to develop programs, including a mentoring initiative and a faculty sensitivity training campaign, to help student veterans find support at UT.

    “We’re nontraditional students,” Romriell said. “There are different challenges that we have to confront.”