Texas A&M’s first openly gay student president responds to Rick Perry

A gay student at Texas A&M University has taken the high road in responding to former Gov. Rick Perry’s criticism of his election as student body president. The student, Bobby Brooks, didn’t even mention the criticism in a diplomatically worded letter to Perry that has been posted on the Battalion, A&M’s student newspaper.

Former Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation on Wednesday February 24, 2016, after the state’s top criminal court threw out the remaining charge against him. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Perry, now U.S. energy secretary, suggested in a Houston Chronicle column last week that a “quest for diversity” was behind a decision to disqualify Brooks’ opponent, Robert McIntosh, who received the most votes. A student-run judicial court disqualified McIntosh for failing to report a campaign expense — specifically, glow sticks of the type seen at concerts and raves.

In his letter, Brooks focused instead on Perry’s declaration in the column that he was initially proud of students for electing an openly gay man, calling it “a testament to the Aggie character.”

“I am indeed proud to be an openly gay student,” Brooks wrote, “and I share your pride that my fellow students see my sexual orientation as a simple matter of fact – not something that compromises my qualifications.”

Brooks invited Perry “to come home to Texas and meet with my team and me as we take office later this month to discuss how we can work together to achieve our common vision. We have many students on this campus from all walks of life, whose perspectives I would care to share with you. In the case that you are unable to do so in the coming weeks, I would be happy to travel to Washington DC at a time convenient for us to speak about the important issues you raised in your op-ed.”

A&M officials have denied that a diversity agenda thwarted McIntosh’s victory, asserting that students simply followed the rules in disqualifying him. McIntosh has asked a state district court in Brazos County for permission to question two students and one staff member in preparation for a possible lawsuit.

 

 

 

UT Faculty Council backs students in country illegally

When President Donald Trump issued his first executive order banning certain foreign travelers, the Faculty Council at the University of Texas responded with a resolution of opposition. On Monday, the council adopted a resolution in support of students who are in the country illegally, including those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Established by former President Barack Obama, the DACA program gives young people temporary protection from deportation as well as permission to work.

“There is a continued effort among faculty to show strong support for our students who are experiencing great uncertainty and anxiety as a result of the current political climate,” said Jody L. Jensen, a professor of kinesiology and health education who chairs the Faculty Council. “This resolution doesn’t change any existing policy. It is an affirmation that our undocumented and DACA students are entitled to the same protections as all of our students.”

Here’s the full text of Monday’s resolution:

Resolution in Support of Undocumented and DACA Students

The University of Texas at Austin guarantees all rights afforded to its students under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Therefore, be it resolved, that undocumented and DACA students, as members of our University community, are included in this protection under FERPA.

 

UT defends race-conscious admissions as new legal threat looms

The University of Texas has responded to the prospect of a new legal assault on its use of affirmative action in admissions by defending the legality and purpose of its program.

As the Statesman reported Thursday, the same UT alumnus who took a lawsuit against UT to the U.S. Supreme Court twice, ultimately losing, is recruiting students who were denied admission to the Austin flagship.

Edward Blum, a former stockbroker and onetime candidate for Congress, is president of Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit group that on Thursday began inviting students who were rejected by UT to provide grades, test scores and a list of outside activities to help build a new legal case.

I asked UT for a comment and received this emailed statement by Maurie McInnis, the executive vice president and provost:

“Last June, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of The University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policy in the case of Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, affirming the university’s use of race and ethnicity as one factor in our holistic admissions process. The policy, which remains in effect, has not changed since the ruling. Our pursuit of excellence is grounded in the university’s public mission to provide the highest quality education for every student. Diversity is essential to carry out that mission. The educational benefits of diversity for all students enhance The University of Texas at Austin, the higher education community, and the nation.”

Huston-Tillotson CEO on White House visit: ‘We need to stay engaged’

colette-pierce-burnetteColette Pierce Burnette, the president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University, knows full well that the vast majority of black voters went with Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. That there is a photo-op aspect to any appearance in the Oval Office. That historically black colleges and universities have had a tough time getting adequate federal funding for years.

“I went in encouraged that we were having a conversation,” she said of the White House visit Monday by representatives of dozens of HBCUs. “That was the driver for me — to be part of a conversation on how schools that have been traditionally underfunded could benefit from additional investment. We need to stay engaged in the political process.”

Pierce Burnette and other HBCU leaders met with senior administration officials and were ushered into the Oval Office for a brief meeting with the president.

“It was an interesting experience — interesting in that we didn’t anticipate going into the Oval Office,” she said in an interview with the American-Statesman on Wednesday. “We were invited in at the last moment. Just as an American to be in the Oval Office is an honor. I had been there before as a tourist once upon a time.”

Trump signed an executive order Tuesday signalling his commitment to HBCUs and transferring the government’s initiative on such schools from the Education Department to the executive office of the White House. Pierce Burnette told the Statesman that she took that as a good sign, a transfer from the second tier up to the first tier.

But she acknowledged that the true measure of Trump’s commitment would come with concrete plans for increased federal funding for HBCUs, including investments in capital infrastructure and expanded financial aid for all low-income students eligible for Pell grants. The same goes for Congress, she said. The college presidents lobbied congressional leaders on Tuesday for more funding, with Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor Jr. asserting that $25 billion is needed to make up for years of underfunding.

Asked if she was disappointed that no firm financial commitments emerged from the Washington visit, Pierce Burnette said: “I’m not disappointed. I realize there’s heavy lifting. I’m used to heavy lifting.”

She was equally diplomatic regarding the college leaders’ interactions with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who called the historically black schools “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” Critics responded that the schools were established at a time when blacks could not attend white schools, not to give blacks more options of where to enroll.

“The more we have conversations about what our objectives are, the more we will educate each other,” the Huston-Tillotson president said. “So the more that the secretary of education learns about the mission and vision of HBCUs the more informed she becomes about the necessity of investing in minority-serving institutions that serve segments of the population that have been traditionally been underserved.”

Is UT’s campus site in Houston a dump? Chancellor says no.

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UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, left, and board Chairman Paul Foster at a July 2016 regents’ meeting

State Sen. John Whitmire is plenty upset with University of Texas System officials for purchasing more than 300 acres in Houston for a new campus. His ire is just one of many challenges facing system Chancellor Bill McRaven and Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster during the current legislative session, as my story online and in today’s print edition details.

A large part of the Houston Democrat’s beef: The acquisition was undertaken without advance consultation with lawmakers. He also complains that the UT System, with its access to the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund, a higher education endowment, would have a distinct advantage over his alma mater, the University of Houston, in competing for faculty members and research dollars.

But Whitmire also doesn’t think much of the land itself.

“Are you familiar with the history of this piece of land? It’s environmentally unsound. It’s an oil and gas abandoned field,” he told McRaven and Foster during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month.

“There’s a reason you’re able to get 300 acres locked up southwest of the dome,” Whitmire said, referring to the Astrodome. “Because no one else wants it. . . It’s a dump. This is nothing but you, in my judgment, bailing out some land speculators.”

McRaven responded at some length a couple of weeks later in a letter to Whitmire, a copy of which the American-Statesman has obtained. The site has never been a landfill, but much of the property is indeed part of an abandoned oil field, with plugged wells, some former oil-field ponds and a former polymer facility, the chancellor wrote. Cleanup is expected to cost less than $2 million, and the sellers agreed to a price reduction accordingly, the chancellor wrote.

Except for limited detention of storm water, nothing will prevent full development of the property, McRaven added.

“Your comments at the hearing, however, would lead a listener to conclude that the Property and the surrounding area are blighted and unlikely to ever be developed,” he wrote. “In fact, the Property is adjacent to apartments, neighborhoods, and commercial buildings, and it is highly likely that these adjacent developed lands had similar characteristics.”

The $215 million price for 307 acres is below the $233 million appraised value, McRaven said. The sellers are Buffalo Lakes Ltd. and related entities. Buffalo Lakes was formed in 2002 by John Kirksey, who cobbled together the land over 15 years. Kirksey’s major partners are Joel R. Scott and Kyle Tauch, the chancellor added.

During the Senate hearing, McRaven said expected to receive recommendations on developing the tract from an advisory panel in Houston by the end of January. In his letter to Whitmire, he said he expected the recommendations by the end of February. When asked about the timing in a subsequent interview with the Statesman, he said: “I don’t really want to put a date on it right now.”

On the virtues of small and midsized private colleges like St. Edward’s University

RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When it comes to higher education, public universities and community colleges tend to draw most of the attention. No surprise there: More than 90 percent of college students in Texas, for example, attend public institutions.

Private schools nonetheless play an important role in higher education. Richard Ekman and S. Georgia Nugent are on something of a campaign to help those schools tell their stories. Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a group of 650 small  and midsized private schools in the United States. Nugent is a senior fellow with the council and a former president of Kenyon College in Ohio.

The pair were at St. Edward’s University, a member of the council, last week as part of a workshop at which teams from various private schools gathered for brainstorming on ways to revise the curriculum, boost enrollment, cut administrative costs and tweak teaching in ways intended to better prepare students for the workplace.

In other words, these small and midsized schools are doing some of the same things the big public universities are doing to survive and thrive in an era of rapid change. The workshop at St. Edward’s, which drew academics and administrators from schools inside and outside Texas, was the sixth in a series of eight sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges.

When I met with Ekman and Nugent at St. Edward’s, they were eager to talk up the virtues of the schools they represent, including the close-knit residential model.

“There are a lot of structural advantages in smaller colleges,” Ekman said. “Kids don’t get lost.”

Nugent, who has taught at Princeton, Brown and Cornell, said the focus on teaching is greater at such schools than at big-time research universities.

“If you’re a faculty member” at a major research school, “your first priority has to be research,” she said. “It’s not teaching.”

Tuition and other charges at private schools often exceed those of their public counterparts, but the private schools on average provide more financial aid, Nugent and Ekman said. Financial aid packages at private four-year schools average $33,795, compaired with $20,558 for public four-year colleges and universities, according to the council’s analysis of U.S. Department of Education data.

What’s more, private colleges have higher four-year graduation rates, at 53 percent, compared with 34 percent for public schools. Hispanic students and black students are more likely to graduate on time from private colleges.

Nugent and Ekman conceded that the term “liberal arts,” often applied to the private schools, is confusing and off-putting to some. Nugent said the term has nothing to do with politics, instead harkening back to skills that in classical antiquity were regarded as essential for a free person. Liberal arts colleges emphasize undergraduate education and offer a full complement of classes in literature, language, sociology, math, biology, computer science and other disciplines, with an emphasis on developing a student’s intellect as opposed to vocational skills.

The long and short of service on the UT Board of Regents

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Janiece Longoria, Rad Weaver and Kevin Eltife at their Senate confirmation hearing. Photo by Jay Janner

When Robert Estrada’s six-year term on the University of Texas System Board of Regents wound up stretching to nine years, he declared that the experience reminded him of the film “The Long Goodbye,” adapted from a novel by Raymond Chandler.

Estrada served until February 2008, when his replacement, Janiece Longoria, was sworn in. She served the remaining three years of a six-year term and exited the board in 2011. On Wednesday morning, she returned to the board in what might be dubbed “The Short Hello.”

Longoria, a lawyer from Houston, along with former state Sen. Kevin Eltife of Tyler and San Antonio businessman Rad Weaver, enjoyed a swift process of nomination, confirmation hearing and Senate approval, the latter of which came Tuesday evening. The three were sworn in Wednesday morning by a UT System staffer who is also a notary in time for the start of a two-day board meeting.

Gov. Greg Abbott nominated the trio on Jan. 23, and their Senate confirmation came 15 days later. In contrast, Abbott’s three previous nominees, in 2015, weren’t approved by the Senate until a month and a half after he named them.

One of Wednesday’s outgoing UT regents, Wallace L. Hall Jr., had charged that the swift pace this time was an effort to short-circuit his legal case before the Texas Supreme Court concerning access to records from an investigation into admissions practices at the Austin flagship. Hall was concerned because he likely wouldn’t have any right to see confidential student records once he was replaced on the board.

Alas, the Supreme Court ruled against Hall’s bid for the confidential records before his replacement was confirmed. The swearing-in of Longoria, Eltife and Weaver to six-year terms also marked the departure of Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich from the UT board.

UT board chairman treading carefully on matter of no black regents

Paul Foster, chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, apparently wasn’t satisfied with his explanation — and his apology — regarding the question of African Americans on that board during a state Senate hearing Thursday. So he released a statement Friday to “clearly articulate my beliefs in the importance of diverse representation.”

ut-board-chairman-paul-foster state-sen-royce-west

The issue arose when Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, noted that there have been only 3 blacks on the UT board in 126 years.

Here’s how the exchange went:

West: “Do you think that perspective is necessary in this day and age to make certain that the decisions you are entrusted to make are made with the best information available in order to render a decision based on what the facts are?”

Foster: “I think that perspective is valuable, yes.”

West: “Do you think it’s necessary?”

Foster: “I don’t think it’s critical. But it’s very, very helpful.”

West: “I find it appalling that you sit up there and say that our perspective is not critical to your deliberations on your board.”

Foster: “I”m sorry if you took my statement that way. What I thought you were asking me was, is it critical that an African American be on the board? And all I was saying was I don’t believe that’s absolutely critical. I do believe that the perspective is critical. And I apologize if I misstated that, and I certainly apologize if I offended you.”

West: “I accept your apology. But African American perspective on every board of regents in this state is absolutely necessary.”

Here’s what Foster said Friday in his statement:

“I want to clarify my comments yesterday to Sen. Royce West regarding the importance of diversity on The University of Texas System Board of Regents. My initial response didn’t clearly articulate my beliefs in the importance of diverse representation.

“I unequivocally believe that a board that represents the people of Texas – a truly diverse body that brings multiple perspectives to every issue – is absolutely critical to the success of the UT System. While we, as regents, do not have the power to choose our own members and would greatly benefit from increased racial, ethnic and gender diversity on the board, we do ensure that our faculty and staff councils, advisory committees and working groups include diverse voices from varied backgrounds and we listen carefully to all of those perspectives.

“We have also supported and applauded a new policy implemented by Chancellor McRaven to increase diversity among our executive leaders at both the campus and system level – an issue we feel very strongly about. I can say with utmost confidence that all of members of the UT System Board of Regents carry out their duties with the best interests of our students, faculty and all Texans foremost in their minds.”

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott, whose three appointees two years ago to the UT board and three current nominees do not include any blacks, had this to say earlier this week: “Governor Abbott is proud of the individuals he has appointed to direct Texas’ higher education institutions, and he will continue to seek out willing public servants who not only share his vision for Texas, but also reflect the diversity of the state.”

Sen. West disappointed that Abbott didn’t name an African American to UT board

Two years ago, when Gov. Greg Abbott named three people to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, state Sen. Royce West expressed concern that none was African American but nevertheless voted for all three.rbb-senate-meeting-5

West, a Democrat from Dallas, noted that there have only been three African Americans on the UT board in its history. None of the three being confirmed by the Senate in March 2015 — David Beck, Steve Hicks and Sara Martinez Tucker — was black. West said he expected Abbott to name an African American during the next round of UT appointments.

Fast forward to this week. Once again, Abbott has named three people to the UT board. And once again, none is black. West made it clear, in a written statement and at a news conference Wednesday, that he isn’t happy.

“I could not be more proud of my former Senate colleague, Kevin Eltife, being named to the UT Board of Regents and have no qualms with the other selections,” West said. “But I feel that an opportunity was missed to add a perspective that one of Texas’ flagship institutions has been without for nearly four years. It is a void that cannot be addressed for at least another two years.”

Besides Eltife, Abbott has nominated Rad Weaver, a San Antonio businessman, and Janiece Longoria, a former UT regent. The trio will appear before the Senate Nominations Committee on Thursday.

“Governor Abbott is proud of the individuals he has appointed to direct Texas’ higher education institutions, and he will continue to seek out willing public servants who not only share his vision for Texas, but also reflect the diversity of the state,” said John Wittman, a spokesman.

West said he received assurances from Abbott’s office two years ago “that they’d make a good-faith effort” to select an African American for the UT board. The last black UT regent was Printice Gary, who served from November 2007 to May 2013 and who was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

“There is room at the table for the viewpoints of the many faces and ethnicities that are part of a population that is urban, rural and suburban and reflective of all walks of life,” West said. “How higher education will respond, guide and supplement the Texas workforce is critical and the University of Texas Board of Regents should be at the helm of these societal advances. The African American perspective is a functional component of Texas’ future that is too important to proceed without. I would hope that the governor will be more mindful of these considerations at the next and earliest opportunity.”

 

One of Abbott’s nominees for UT board once figured in a regent’s resignation

Most observers expect Gov. Greg Abbott’s three nominees for the University of Texas System Board of Regents to work cooperatively, with fewer fireworks, than the trio they would replace, assuming confirmation by the state Senate.

But one of Abbott’s picks, former state Sen. Kevin Eltife, once tangled famously with a regent who was also at the time chairman of the UT board’s investment arm.

kevin-eltife

It was February 2009, and Regent Robert Rowling and University of Texas Investment Management Co. CEO Bruce Zimmerman had been summoned to appear before the Senate Finance Committee for a dressing-down. A day earlier, then-Gov. Rick Perry and then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst sent a letter to Rowling calling more than $3 million in bonuses to UTIMCO employees, including $1 million for Zimmerman, “irresponsible” when the multibillion-dollar higher education endowments overseen by the company had posted significant losses and the country was in a recession.

Never mind that the bonuses were based on investment performance during the year that ended months earlier, before the financial markets tanked. In fact, the returns were in the top quarter of comparable endowments and pension funds nationally, Rowling told senators. He said UTIMCO board members felt an obligation to award bonuses that were part of the pay packages negotiated with employees.

“We made a deal with these people, ” Rowling said.

That explanation didn’t sway the senators. And the harshest words came from Eltife, a Republican from Tyler, who directed some of his comments at Zimmerman.

“This is shameful, ” Eltife said. “Most people out there on the street are scared to death and we just paid you a million-dollar bonus.”

At that point, Rowling, a billionaire businessman from Irving who is one of the richest people in the state, abruptly said he would resign from the UT and UTIMCO boards. “Watching the way Mr. Zimmerman was treated at this morning’s hearing truly does meet the definition of ‘shameful, ‘” Rowling wrote in his formal resignation letter to Perry and Dewhurst.

There undoubtedly was some politics at play in this episode. Rowling had given more than $200,000 in campaign contributions and more than $100,000 to Dewhurst. And although he was a Perry appointee, Rowling was part of the campaign leadership team of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was planning a run for governor against Perry.