HOUSTON CHRONICLE NEWS
Announcement comes as university leaders lay out Legislative wish list
By: Benjamin Wermund
The University of Texas System’s new chancellor may take a page out of the A&M System leader’s playbook and begin searching for administrative fat to cut, he said Monday.
UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven will form a committee to take a “hard look” at the system’s administration, he said Monday, while applauding the work of A&M Chancellor John Sharp, who drew attention — and some criticism — when he set to cutting administrative costs in 2011.
“I want to understand how everybody in the UT system administration supports the individual institutions,” McRaven said. “If we don’t wake up everyday and find out we’re adding value to our individual institutions then I want to go and ask why.”
McRaven talked about his plan to form the committee, which he has not presented to the UT Board of Regents, at a meeting between the chancellors of the state’s six public universities and the Houston Chronicle editorial board.
The chancellors laid out their Legislative wishlist, which includes an increase in funding, approval of tuition revenue bonds for billions in construction projects and more flexibility with financial aid, among other items, all of which would require additional funding from the state.
The conversation turned to what universities have done to keep their costs down, as they’re asking for more money, when McRaven mentioned the committee. He said the committee would be made up of people from the universities and health science centers who can “check my homework.” He said he wants them to tell him what works and what doesn’t.
“Before I jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘Gee we just need to cut this,’ I’m going to take hard look at it,” he said.
Sharp and the A&M system hired consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to seek out administrative bloat there. The former comptroller and state legislator said Monday that the A&M system’s costs have dropped to about $37 million from more than $40 million, in part because the system has cut its 320 employees to about 260. Administrative costs are down to just 3.6 percent of the budget, he said.
“Most businesses don’t even have that,” Sharp said.
The chancellors said higher education in the state faces a crisis if Texas doesn’t invest more into it. At the top of the leaders’ wish list is an increase in formula funding, which gives universities a set amount of money per semester credit hour. That fund, which reached a peak of $62 in 2009, took a big hit in 2011, when the Legislature cut it to less than $54 per semester credit hour. Lawmakers only increased it slightly last session, bringing funding to $54.86 per semester credit hour.
“There’s been an erosion, because of the cuts we’ve had,” said Robert Duncan, the former state senator who now leads the Texas Tech system.
Sharp painted an even more dire picture: “We’re fixing to do irreparable harm if we don’t address it.”
The university leaders also are asking the Legislature to:
— Approve tuition revenue bonds for billions in construction to help universities deal with enrollment growth. Since 2009, statewide higher education enrollment has grown 6 percent to 1.5 million in 2013, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Such bonds haven’t been approved since 2006.
— Continue funding TEXAS Grants, state aid aimed at helping low-income students, and give universities more flexibility in how they dole out the money. Schools could set up milestones, for example — remaining enrolled, increasing GPA, declaring a major — to earn more money.
— Fully fund the Hazlewood Act, which exempts military veterans and their dependents from paying tuition and fees. Universities paid $169.1 million to cover the act in 2014, and the leaders — and Gov.-elect Greg Abbott — want the state to take on that cost.
The chancellors also took time to address a proposal to re-regulate tuition, which has gained support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
While tuition has more than doubled since it was deregulated in 2003, it increased nearly as much in the decade before, they said. In fact, state law had a $2 annual increase built in, which was eliminated when the state handed control over to the universities.