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Remade Higher Ed Board Reaching Out to Universities

After surviving a difficult sunset review process, a somewhat remade Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is reaching out to improve its relationships with the state's university systems.

At all levels, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board officials are reaching out to their counterparts at public university systems in an effort to salvage those relationships after the airing of dirty laundry during the regular session.

The coordinating board knew it would be critiqued as the organization underwent the legislative sunset process, which calls for the evaluation and reform of state agencies, during the regular session. But the extent of the changes, culminating in the removal of a significant chunk of the coordinating board’s authority, went further than some expected.

Much of lawmakers’ public comments about the higher education board during the regular session were informed by the experiences of the state’s public universities — and they were not positive. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, noted that the board’s approach to decision-making was “isolated.” State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, bemoaned that it was “now regulating more than it is coordinating.” State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said he had repeatedly heard one concern: “We do not trust the coordinating board.”

Senate Bill 215 went into effect at the beginning of September and the board is significantly changed as a result. “The Legislature has redefined the coordinating board’s role from an agency that authorizes and regulates to one that advises and recommends — a more strategic partnership with our boards of regents that we embrace,” Fred Heldenfels, the former chairman of the board, said in a statement.

And they've set out to get to know these partners a little better.

“We’ve been sitting down and having pretty frank conversations about how we move forward,” said Dominic Chavez, senior director of external relations at the coordinating board. “We’re obviously all pointed in the same direction in terms of what we’re trying to achieve for our state. It’s just on policy issues, how do we work more collaboratively and get away from the conflicts of the past?”

University representatives who have had initial meetings with the board to begin the healing process have indicating that the interactions have been positive. That is promising, since they will be working much more closely as many major decisions that previously rested with the coordinating board are now left to boards of regents and others require more university input.

The agency no longer has the authority to approve capital projects on university campuses. It will no longer be called upon to approve the mission statements of higher education institutions. If a university has a degree program that is only producing a very small number of graduates, the coordinating board cannot shut it down. The list does not stop there.

Using the particularly contentious issue of shuttering of low-performing degree programs as an example, Chavez noted that legislators' move to hand decision-making to regents does not necessarily mean the coordinating board was on the wrong track. The board is still required to notify institutions when their programs are not performing up to state standards; it just can’t decide what to do with that information.

“They accepted the rationale,” Chavez said of lawmakers. “They accepted the practice. They accepted that this is an important thing for Texas to do. But they decided it should be more localized."

In order to make rule or policy changes regarding admission policies, allocation or distribution of funds, institutional data requests, or other key areas, the coordinating board now must engage institutions in “negotiated rule-making,” a more collaborative process that begins long before a proposed rule is approved or rejected.

Chavez said the board is also making internal changes to foster a “more rich communication environment,” including meeting with university officials prior to board meetings to explain the agency’s thought processes and establish a feedback loop that previously did not exist.

The sunset review was not solely negative, and the board continues to be a major factor in state higher education policy.

The approval of SB 215 allows the agency to continue for at least another 12 years without another review, the maximum allowed by law. And it will continue to collect and analyze massive amounts of data, administer financial aid programs, and develop and monitor the state’s long-range master plan.

"We’re going to support the boards of regents with good data and good analysis, because that’s what we do best,” Chavez said.

In fact, the board is currently working on the state’s next 15-year plan, since its Closing the Gaps plan, launched in 2000 in an effort to bring Texas' higher education outcomes up to par with those in other large states, is in its final year. Coordinating board officials were hopeful that the heightened levels of transparency and interactivity poised to become their new normal could yield positive results as the state’s higher education community transitions into this next phase.

Lest there be any confusion, Heldenfels noted: “The high expectations for excellence, productivity, and affordability in higher education are stronger now than ever. I am confident that our regents will execute these responsibilities with the very best interests of tuition-payers and taxpayers in mind as we continue to improve student access and success."

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