Higher education commissioner wary about expansion plans

Mediocrity. That’s one of Raymund Paredes’ biggest worries these days.

As Texas higher education commissioner, he knows that legislative appropriations haven’t kept pace with rising enrollments, inflation, demand for student financial aid and other costs. At the same time, a number of state universities are floating plans to add medical schools and, in the case of the UT System, a campus of yet-to-be-determined flavor.

If funding for higher education stays flat, such growth is a recipe for mediocrity, Paredes told news reporters in a conference call today.

“I’m worried about continued expansion of higher education programs . . . beyond the willingness of the state to support them,” he said.

Case in point: the UT System’s plan to establish a campus of sorts in Houston. The system’s Board of Regents signed onto Chancellor Bill McRaven’s plan in November by authorizing the purchase of 332 acres of mostly undeveloped land in the southwestern part of the city.

Meanwhile, the University of Houston wants to establish a medical school. Texas Christian University, a private school, and the University of North Texas, which is public, want to collaborate in establishing a medical school. Sam Houston State University wants to build one as well.

“We aren’t sure that we need new medical schools,” Paredes said. “Our research suggests that if we’re going to do one or the other it makes more sense to invest in graduate medical education” — residency slots for newly minted doctors undergoing additional training after medical school.

As for the UT System, it already has a strong presence in Houston, with its Health Science Center that includes a medical school and its MD Anderson Cancer Center. McRaven envisions adding a campus that would be an intellectual hub for education and research capitalizing on the energy, medical and other strengths of Houston. Myriad details have yet to be worked out.

Paredes said he understands why the UT System might want to expand its presence in Houston, which is the state’s largest city and the fourth-largest in the nation.

By the same token, the commissioner said, Texas is obliged under an agreement with the federal government to protect the interests of the historically black Texas Southern University in Houston and Prairie View A&M University, about 50 miles to the northwest. In addition, he said, the state wants to ensure a strong pathway for the University of Houston — which has protested McRaven’s plan loudly — to rise from its largely regional plane into the ranks of national research universities.

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