UT president: Funding for research universities at ‘critical stage’

Saying that funding is “getting to a critical stage,” University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves embraced a national report Monday that urges state lawmakers, Congress, businesses and philanthropists to boost aid to public universities.

As state aid to U.S. research universities has fallen to an average of 18 percent from 32 percent of their revenue in 2000, many schools have responded with higher and higher tuition, said former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who appeared with Fenves to discuss the report with the media. Just 12 percent of UT’s budget comes from the state, university spokesman Gary Susswein said.

Hutchison, past president of the Texas Exes, is an adviser to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education, a group of leaders in higher education, government and business that has issued a report on public universities and their future.

The report challenges the schools to find new sources of revenue, be more efficient in their spending, form regional alliances with other colleges to do research and partner with businesses. The private sector should promote those partnerships and be advocates of public universities, the report says. States need to reverse cuts, and the federal government needs to offer challenge grants and reform regulations that discourage students from seeking financial aid, the Lincoln Project recommends.

“Tuition cannot keep going up indefinitely at rapid rates,” said Robert Birgeneau, Lincoln Project co-chairman and former chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“This is a lot to ask for, but the resources are out there,” he added. “It’s not a pipe dream.”

UT is raising tuition by $152 a semester in the fall and another $152 per semester in fall 2017.

Those increases will bring academic charges for undergraduates from Texas to $5,207 per semester, up from $4,903 this semester. Susswein said UT had held tuition stable since 2011, mainly by relying on donors.

But the university hasn’t been able to keep up with higher faculty salaries being paid by schools it sees as its top competitors, Fenves told reporters. Lower pay makes it more difficult to attract and retain good faculty members.

“We need to develop a plan and not just let this keep drifting,” he said.

The Statesman reported in February that some senior UT System officials and campus presidents received six-figure pay increases over last year, mainly from bonuses.

Days later, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, and Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, sent scolding letters to all of the public universities in the state, saying they were alarmed to hear of tuition increases and “excessive bonus programs.”

The lawmakers also pointed out that in 2015 the Legislature approved $3.1 billion in construction and renovation bonds for higher education, with nearly a third going to the UT System.

Fenves, Hutchison and Birgeneau said they were sharing the Lincoln Project findings Monday at a meeting with Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican, and others. No other lawmakers attended, Susswein said.

Fenves said that while he sees “strong support for the role of higher education in the Texas Legislature,” he understands lawmakers face pressures to fund other high-cost programs, such as Medicaid. He hopes the Lincoln Project’s message is heard by lawmakers who are new or might not be aware of the aid cuts public universities have faced, he said.

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