Saturday, October 22, 2011

UT System chancellor says he is committed to helping UTEP reach Tier One status

"We are competing with the world..."

Check out this short snippet of Cigarroa's talk in El Paso.


By Zahira Torres \ Austin Bureau
Posted: 10/20/2011

University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said he will push during the next legislative session to rectify a decision by state lawmakers that denied UTEP access to a pot of state money for which it qualified.

Cigarroa visited El Paso on Wednesday to give the keynote address at the State of Higher Education luncheon put together by the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. He said the UT System was "very disappointed" when UTEP was not allowed to join a handful of universities that participate in the Competitive Knowledge Fund, which provides money to support faculty for the purpose of "instructional excellence" and research.

"We felt that UTEP accomplished all the metrics that would merit it," Cigarroa said, and he vowed to work toward getting the university into the fund during the 2013 legislative session. "It was a top priority for me. It was a top system priority. This is historically one of the most challenging legislative sessions. Everybody made some really tough choices. Some of those choices we didn't appreciate, but that was from our point of view."

UTEP and the University of Texas at Arlington attained the three-year average of $50 million in research expenditures needed to gain access to the fund, which divvies up $93 million over a two-year period among participants. Still, both universities were kept from entering the fund during Senate budget negotiations.

Cigarroa's nearly 40-minute speech to El Paso business and political leaders focused on how they could help universities adapt to greater demands to provide a more accessible, accountable and affordable education at a time when they have lost millions of dollars through state budget cuts. He said there are "strong indications" that more reductions will come in the 2013 legislative session.

State budget cuts in the past legislative session reduced funding by $275 million for six health institutions and by $222 million for nine universities in the UT System. Because of the cuts, UTEP will get $27.3 million less over the next two years.

Cigarroa said the responsibility of fostering successful universities should be shared. He pushed for additional revenue streams, such as philanthropic donations and public-private partnerships "as long as academic freedom and creativity is protected."

He also said he was committed to helping UTEP become a nationally recognized research institution, known as Tier One, because the border region deserves such opportunities.

"We've got all the low-hanging fruit," Cigarroa said about the impact state budget cuts have had on higher education. "I don't see a single mango hanging from the tree anymore."

"We can always do more, but there's a point that you start going beyond muscle, where you can't accomplish the appropriate student-faculty ratio or be able to globally compete for the best faculty," Cigarroa said. "We're always going to do our mission, but we've got higher aspirations, such as being able to transition UTEP to Tier One and that takes resources. It just does."

Cigarroa touted his plan for raising graduation rates, boosting online learning and expanding educational and health opportunities in South Texas.

At the same time, he also made a quick reference to Gov. Rick Perry's support of a controversial proposal, which offered seven "breakthrough solutions" for higher education. That plan, which the UT Board of Regents has now said is off the table, called for the separation of research and teaching budgets at universities and would have strictly used student evaluations to award bonus pay for professors.

Cigarroa told the audience that the system has no intention of separating teaching from research at its universities.

"There was a lot of anxiety about that, and I want to mitigate that anxiety because the framework, which the Board of Regents unanimously approved, does not separate teaching from research," he said. He added that his plan does not mirror the seven reforms for higher education.

Zahira Torres may be reached at; 512-479-6606.

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