Texas' top university officials bristle at cuts to higher education

Hundreds of Texas students will be denied financial aid and will be unable to attend college if the Legislature proceeds with 20 to 25 percent cuts in state aid to higher education in coming years, leaders of the state's top public universities told the Texas Senate Finance Committee in Austin on Wednesday.

"The most vulnerable [student] populations will be impacted," said Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System.

Overall, cuts proposed in Senate Bill 1 would reduce university research, force the layoff of faculty members and eliminate hundreds of classes at public universities throughout the state, the committee was told.

The bill "is going to adversely impact access, affordability and excellence," Cigarroa said at Wednesday's hearing at the Capitol.

Finance Committee members talked about some measures that could provide more revenue for colleges, such as tuition revenue bonds and bonds for cancer research. Others spoke of revamping funding formulas to better meet current needs.

However, members also questioned university officials about enrollment issues and seemed skeptical at times about some spending decisions.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said that enrollment growth can trigger more funding for a campus. However, growth at the flagship University of Texas at Austin has been flat. "Are there schools that have chosen for one reason or another to stop enrollment growth?" she asked.

Cigarroa responded: "It only proves that one size doesn't fit all. The challenge of UT-Austin is similar to the challenge other mature institutions have."

Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, told Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso, that a top concern of lawmakers is the number of Mexican immigrant children who graduated from Texas high schools to attend public universities.

"It's one of the issues that we're wrestling with this session," Ogden said.

UT-San Antonio President Ricardo Romo said 61 percent of students at his campus, one of the fastest-growing in the state, need financial aid. "We worry about our ability to close the gap," he told lawmakers.

But he was questioned about the university's football program. "Isn't it expensive?" said state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen. "I don't think the whole student population benefits from a football team."

Romo said that students wanted the program and voted to support it with fees and that alumni stepped up with money to kick off the program. "There's great enthusiasm for football," he said.

"These priorities [were made] five years ago, before the recession," Romo added.

During the daylong session, other university officials, detailing how budget cuts would affect programs, bristled at specific ideas for cuts in state aid.

Robert Nelsen, president of the University of Texas-Pan American, said the current proposal would cut enrollment at his school by 2,005. At least a few dozen faculty members would lose their jobs, and hundreds of classes would be eliminated, he said.

"That concerns me tremendously," Nelsen said.

He also told the committee that he's concerned about hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts to the K-12 outreach program by colleges. "We do not have the money. ... We can't even nibble around the edges to replace [financial aid] grants," Nelsen said.

Natalicio argued against limiting state research incentives to a small number of public universities. Such a move would hurt the momentum at universities that have embarked on ambitious research efforts, she said. Natalicio also said fewer at-risk students would earn degrees if the Legislature ends incentive programs that reward institutions helping those students to graduate.

"It has been a powerful incentive," she said.

David Watts, president of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, called the budget proposal "severe" and particularly troublesome for smaller institutions. The university hopes to begin a nursing program, but reductions would make it a "difficult challenge," he said.

The university officials also urged legislators to reduce regulatory burdens and give them more flexibility to set staff salaries and determine the need for furloughs.

More flexibility would "mitigate the effects of the cuts," Cigarroa said. "We will be willing to look at any model that you suggest again to be part of the solution. ... We suggest flexibility. I'd love to work with you more on that."

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7505