The Politics of Regents

In my lectures often use the Board of Regents as an example of the governor’s appointive powers. An appointed board of regents reflects the common pattern of using an appointed board to oversee a state agency. University regents are close enough to be of interest to students but mysterious enough to generate some student questions. At Stephen F. Austin we have our own board of regents so our students can see a clear line of authority from our regents to the university’s budget and policies.

The Board of Regents Conference Room at Stephen F. Austin State University

The Board of Regents Conference Room at Stephen F. Austin State University

The role of the board is to bring general oversight while a president selected by the board runs things on a day-to-day basis. Regents are appointed to six-year terms. The terms are staggered so that only a few members are replaced at any one time. These boards are guided by principles spelled by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges which provides board members with information and advice for dealing withe challenges of dealing with higher education.

In 2007 the Legislature passed the law that allows the governor to appoint one non-voting student regent. Student regents serve one-year terms and may be reappointed.  Like other regents, the student regent is not paid but may be compensated for expenses incurred as part of their duties on the board.

Of course, there’s more to this than administration and regents will be politicized. To some degree this can be a good thing. Appointment of regents by an elected official brings democratic pressures to bear on a university as it spends taxpayers’ money. Regents can make sure that universities serve the needs of the state and an indirect connection to gubernatorial elections should help translate the political changes among citizens into the direction of higher education.

However, there are some ways in which the politics of the appointment of regent casts a shadow on universities and the governor.

A recent story in the Amarillo Globe-News points out that Texas Tech’s regents are frequently major contributors to Governor Rick Perry’s campaign. In another post I’ve talked about the appearance that Perry has put too much political pressure on regents. In some regards, Perry’s office is correct in saying that the Governor should appoint regents who “share his conservative philosophy of government and can provide the appropriate oversight and leadership.” However, university boards benefit from a diversity of views and the discussion that might generate.

The questions for students is how close politically regents should be. We need to be careful to avoid the impression that higher education is a fund raising mechanism for his reelection campaigns and that a narrow ideological test is being applied.

In class we also discuss the limits on how useful partisan politics can be when it comes to running a university. There’s no difference between a dorm approved by a Republican or Democrat. For example, Perry’s appointees have borrowed and spent large sums of money on building at SFASU. That doesn’t make them “liberals.” Instead, it represents business people making investments for future growth.

Universities are only discussed in American politics in ways that are largely irrelevant to our functioning. Occasionally, a buffoon like Ward Churchill will make some statement in a classroom that offends virtually everyone. However most of our time and effort is spent on lectures with no political controversies, or chores like grading, committee work, assessment, etc. I doubt that most Texans have any idea what I do with my day.

Yes, you could be irritated that occasionally one of my colleagues (often from another discipline) will launch some silly notion about politics that I’m going to have to spend 15 minutes correcting when students get to my class. However, Texans should be more concerned with rising tuition, bad classroom lighting, poor classroom technology, limited library budgets, outdated curriculum, growing class sizes, and a dozen other things that have nothing to do with Republican or Democrat.

Let’s hope our governor think more about higher education than politics as they pick the state’s regents.

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