Last year, when public higher education reform was a red hot topic in state policy circles, a group of influential Texans formed an organization called the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education. A primary objective was to provide a buffer between universities — in particular the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University — and the changes they feared that activists pushing onto their respective boards of regents.
While the debate — which set the group at odds with Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank — has cooled in recent months, the coalition remains active. The founding members are having their first-ever physical meeting this afternoon at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on the edge of the UT-Austin campus.
"This group of people isn't going away, is not turning a blind eye, but is maintaining its focus on excellence at our institutions," said spokeswoman Jenifer Sarver.
Speakers on the closed-door meeting's agenda include a who's who (or perhaps the usual suspects) list from last year's debate. It includes former President George W. Bush adviser Karen Hughes, former U.S. Ambassador and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board chairwoman Pam Willeford, former presidents of both UT-Austin and A&M, and outspoken A&M professor Jaime Grunlan.
Sarver said the meeting does not indicate that the temperature of the debate is rising anew. Rather, she said, the group wanted to take advantage of many of its members being in Austin to celebrate Texas Independence Day to discuss "how important this issue not only was, but is, and will continue to be."