Lawmakers, Regents, and—Aliens?: The Higher Ed Week in Review

Lawmakers, Regents, and—Aliens?: The Higher Ed Week in Review

The sometimes tense relationship between legislators and the UT System Board of Regents continued this week, as regents rebuked a request from a pair of lawmakers who previously investigated UT regent Wallace Hall, legislators’ letters of recommendations were made public, and Aggie administrators announced a new project that reads like a sci-fi novel.

Invitation Only

UT regents met in a special telephone meeting Monday to determine whether two state representatives could sit in on the System’s investigation of potential favoritism in UT admissions. Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer  and Lyle Larson both serve on the Texas House government transparency committee, which previously voted to censure Hall.

The Dallas Morning News reports on the regents’ decision to deny them access:

“To include one or more members of the Legislature in these interviews would compromise the independence and integrity of the interviews and of the investigation,” UT Regent Eugene Powell said. He added that it would represent “unprecedented legislative intrusion into a core executive branch function.”

Last week, Reps. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, and Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, sent UT Regent Chairman Paul Foster a letter making clear their intent to sit in on all admission investigation meetings.

The independent investigation was prompted by allegations of favoritism for candidates who receive recommendation letters from lawmakers and other influential people.

Scarlet Letters?

The crux of that investigation—those letters from legislators and others—made even more headlines this week when some were publicly released. The Texas Tribune has the letters and the lowdown:

The transmission of such letters is currently a bit of a touchy subject in the UT community. Communications between lawmakers and UT-Austin President Bill Powers have drawn particular scrutiny from system officials, and allegations of political influence in the university’s admissions process are currently under investigation.

After UT System Regent Wallace Hall found two instances of lawmakers contacting Powers directly about the admissions issue, the system launched a limited review of the admissions process at the flagship university earlier this year. The subsequent report found no evidence of quid pro quo but determined that individuals on whose behalf legislators contacted the president appeared more likely to gain admittance. …

It’s apparent from the documents released on Thursday that Cigarroa would often receive recommendations or admission inquiries from lawmakers and other influential individuals. He would usually forward the materials to Powers and send a thank-you note to the original writer assuring him or her that the applicant would receive “careful consideration.” He would occasionally note to his assistant if the writer was a “strong UT supporter” or otherwise notable.

The Texas A&M Fightin’ Aliens?

The Aggies are fond of touting their successes loudly, but their latest news item is fairly mysterious. Aggie officials announced this week their vision for something called—and we’re not making this up—Area 41.

Here’s how the Bryan-College Station Eagle described the ambitious new project:

Professors, students, administrators and researchers from across Texas will unite under the mysteriously named organization to transform ideas into real public policy solutions that aim to support the needs of the rapidly growing state. Texas A&M Executive Vice Chancellor Billy Hamilton, a leader in the formation of the institute, said Area 41’s unique approach as a research outfit is too dynamic to be contained by the traditional academic setting. …

The institution’s goal is to not be reactive to the problems the state faces, but proactive by thinking 20 to 30 years ahead and to be the trusted third party that lawmakers look to for solutions.

The institute will use “future forecasting” developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with a five-channeled structure of outside contributors, policy researchers, faculty/agency researchers, a futures forecasting group and student research analysis from the school’s colleges that will turn ideas into something tangible the state can use.

Go Green Jays!

Another source of academic controversy this week brings us back to the UT System, where the debate over UT-Rio Grande Valley’s new mascot is close to boiling over.

Texas Monthly explains the fracas thusly:

The point of contention here mainly stems from questions about whether the new school, which will merge the University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg and UT-Brownsville, while adding a teaching hospital campus in Harlingen—the city roughly equidistant between the two in the Valley—will truly be a new school.

UTPA’s student body is twice as large as that of UT-Brownsville, which has stakeholders from the Lower Valley concerned that they’re merely going to be folded in to the existing UTPA identity.

You can see the official contenders here. Green jays, sadly, has not made the cut—yet.


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