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Higher Ed "Coalition for Excellence" Formed in Texas

A view of the UT Austin campus from the tower in the Main Building.
Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News
A view of the UT Austin campus from the tower in the Main Building.

A powerful group of individuals — including former regents, former university system chancellors and former university presidents — from around Texas have joined together to address the state's ongoing higher education controversy.

The new group, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, was unveiled today, as was a new website, According to a press release, the group was formed "to actively advance excellence at our state's public higher education institutions and support a more thoughtful and transparent discussion of ways to strengthen and improve, rather than undermine, them."

This is the latest group — and one of the largest — to form in the wake of a controversy over Gov. Rick Perry's promotion of "seven breakthrough solutions" written by Austin businessman Jeff Sandefer. Other groups have included Texas Business for Higher Education and the Alliance for Texas A&M University, many members of which are part of this new coalition.

The list of founding members of the new "Coalition for Excellence" totals more than 200 and — with some exceptions — reads like a veritable who's who of higher ed boosters in established Texas circles. Among the founding members are former University of Texas System Chancellor Dan Burck, former UT President Peter Flawn, and former UT regents like H. Scott Caven, Janiece Longoria and student regent Kyle Kalkwarf.

Prominent UT professor Adm. Bobby Inman, a former director of the National Security Agency, among other things, is involved. Former Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and former Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby are both on the list. The Burson-Marsteller office of Karen Hughes, a former counselor to George W. Bush, is handling press for the group.

"There are no party lines in this, which is amazing these days," said Richard Leshin, the outgoing president of the Texas Exes, UT's powerful alumni group.

In addition to Republicans and Democrats, the group has brought Aggies and Longhorns together as well. A couple of examples from the College Station community include former Texas A&M University President Ray Bowen and major A&M donor Jon L. Hagler. A former chairman of the University of Houston Board of Regents, Beth Robertson, is also a member.

"We are not at all against change and improvement," said Melinda Perrin, who is also on the operating and executive committees (along with the likes of Pamela Willeford, a former U.S. ambassador and chairwoman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and others), told the Tribune. "We want to always be looking at ways to get better because that's what we do in Texas."

Leshin put his goals for the group bluntly. "We need to convince the regents that we don't want to follow Sandefer's recommendations. We don't want to go that route," he said, noting that he believed such a path could risk UT's tier-one status.

A group statement issued by the coalition said that in addition to supporting the presidents and chancellors of public universities, "we also believe it is critical to continue to regularly and openly evaluate our universities, their accountability, efficiency and productivity, and do so in a public and transparent way, supporting changes that improve performance without compromising quality."

Perrin emphasized that the group would try to foster a collaborative discussion about improvements to higher education involving all the institutions in the state. "We're all looking for a soft landing here. We're not drawing lines in the sand."

Reeve Hamilton has interned at The Nation and The Texas Observer, for which he covered the 2009 legislative session. Most recently, he was a desk assistant at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. A Houston native, he has a bachelor's degree in English from Vanderbilt University.