November 11, 2008
A blue-ribbon panel would be established to help navigate the politically dicey question of which Texas universities should be elevated to top-tier status, under legislation introduced Monday by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Texas has three top-tier institutions: the public University of Texas and Texas A&M University and the private Rice University. In contrast, California has nine schools in the big leagues, New York has seven, and Pennsylvania has four. Such schools, which emphasize research as well as teaching, are powerful engines of economic and intellectual advancement.
“My priority list starts with higher education,” Watson said in a speech to leaders of real estate, environmental, business and other groups.
In the legislative session beginning in January, the senator also will push for measures intended to boost economic development, make Texas a leader in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and reduce emissions of so-called greenhouse gases linked to global warming, he said.
He called on fellow lawmakers to be more open to legislative proposals that might increase spending in the short term, noting that such proposals sometimes save money in the long run. For example, he said, the state has failed to adequately fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, under which the federal government provides $2.60 for every state dollar.
In the past six years, Texas has left hundreds of millions in federal money on the table.
Watson spoke at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, a location apparently chosen to emphasize his frequent references to how past leaders invested wisely in higher education institutions, transportation networks and other infrastructure of modern life. By contrast, he said, current power brokers aren’t doing enough to ensure sufficient opportunity for future generations.
He cited higher education as a case in point. Many elected officials say Texas needs more top-tier, or flagship, schools, but a consensus has been elusive on which campuses merit the steady infusions of cash that would be needed for a decade or two to reach that level. Such schools generally conduct at least $100 million in research annually, and they compete nationally for students and faculty members.
Watson’s higher education measure, Senate Bill 185 , is a variation of a proposal he offered last year that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed, saying the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board already had authority to deal with the matter.
The proposal would create a 20-member commission charged with recommending to the Legislature which schools should become flagships.
Members of the panel would come from various university systems, community colleges, private colleges, the businesses and other sectors — a cross-section of interests that Watson hopes would work to suppress politics and give the panel clout along the lines of that enjoyed by a federal commission that decided which military bases should be closed.