Higher Ed Chiefs Back New UT Engineering Building

Leaders from the Texas Legislature are voicing their support for UT’s proposed engineering epicenter.

Replacing UT’s aging engineering buildings is a high priority for some key Texas legislators. In an interview Thursday with UT professor Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, Senate higher education chair Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and House chair Dan Branch (R-Dallas) said they view a new engineering center at The University of Texas as a sound investment.

The proposed Engineering Education and Research Center (EERC), a 430,000 square-foot teaching and research space, is meant to create a hub for engineering education. Even the architecture aims to spur undergraduate collaboration across engineering fields. If built, it will replace badly aged classrooms and laboratories built in the 1950s.

In our inaugural UT Advocates podcast, Cockrell School of Engineering dean Gregory Fenves said Texas’ continued growth and prosperity will hinge on the forward thinking education and research breakthroughs he expects from the EERC. Seliger and Branch also framed their comments around the need to sustain and plan for continued growth.

“If we don’t do it,” Branch said, “we’re going to hurt this state, and we’re going to hurt this university.”

Despite support for the EERC, the process of funding it is less clear. Branch and Seliger said tuition revenue bonds—the traditional legislative-funding mechanism used for campus building projects like the EERC—might not be the way to go. Both expressed concerns about the process, which incurs debt that universities pay-off over time. Branch said he would prefer what he called “strategic capital investments.” Seliger said he supports one-time investments for one-time projects.

“I’m in favor of the expenditure,” Seliger said, “and opposed to the debt.”

The University proposed a tuition-revenue bond for the EERC in 2011, but it did not move out of committee for a vote. In fact, the legislature approved no TRBs for campus construction projects in 2011. At a UT System Board of Regents meeting Wednesday, regents approved a new tuition-revenue-bond request that would ask the legislature for $95 million—about a third of the cost of the building.

Both chairmen indicated they see what Branch called a “vetted need” for the EERC, alongside a need to rethink the funding process. Their comments echo similar ones made by Raymund Paredes, chair of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, who told the Texas Exes he thinks the tuition-revenue-bond process is overly politicized.

Also on Thursday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he is optimistic that higher education could see more generous funding this session, including a package of tuition-revenue bonds.

Listen to Dean Fenves discuss the EERC.

Read about National Instruments CEO Jim Truchard’s $10 million gift to the EERC.

Learn more about the EERC and how to support it.

Rendering of the EERC courtesy of the Cockrell School of Engineering.

 

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