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Stephen F. Austin University plans to join a Texas system

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Stephen F. Austin State University, one of the last public universities in Texas to remain independent, may finally give up its unaffiliated status, a step that highlights the growing complexities of running a college or university. a university.

“It’s getting harder and harder to be a stand-alone institution,” said Steve Westbrook, acting president of Stephen F. Austin. “You have all the costs of complying with federal and state regulations. You have the unfunded mandates that we take care of. We have all kinds of tuition exemptions and exemptions that we are required to grant. And then the rising cost of deploying technology and all the cybersecurity and personnel costs that come with it. Pretty soon, these things start to snowball.

Joining a system could help the university cut costs by sharing services and resources, he said. Additionally, Texas university systems tend to have more representatives in Austin and at the federal level, which benefits the university.

So far, four of Texas’ seven systems are interested in adding Stephen F. Austin State to their ranks, but the university’s process of screening potential partners has only just begun. The university’s board of trustees will make the final decision on which system to join, if any, and state lawmakers must ultimately approve.

Questions about whether Stephen F. Austin should join a system aren’t new, Westbrook said. For years, the rural-serving institution with nearly 12,000 students responded to informal invitations from multiple systems to discuss affiliation. But it was only this summer that the Board of Regents decided to follow up on these invitations before undertaking the search for a new president.

“If we decide not to affiliate, well, we’ll do the presidential search,” Westbrook said. “But if we decide to accept an invitation for affiliation, it would impact how the next president would be selected, because ultimately that president would report to a system chancellor rather than this council.”

Power in the network

Given the myriad challenges facing higher education, it’s no surprise that some universities and colleges across the country have sought to merge, while others seek to break away from existing systems to ensure greater autonomy.

Thomas Harnisch, vice president of government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said being part of a system allows universities to share resources, save money and have more political clout. .

“There is power in having a network of colleges and universities that is not available as a stand-alone network, so collaboration is important,” he said. “In recent years, higher education leaders have been talking about the notion of the ‘system’, where the whole can be made greater by the sum of its parts through these networks and this collaboration.”

Alisa Hicklin Fryar, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, said Stephen F. Austin’s potential decision to join a system makes sense.

“It almost feels like joining a system at some point is inevitable [for the university]said Fryar, who is also the data director for the Regional College Research Alliance. “The most interesting phenomenon is that he hasn’t done it so far.”

Thirty-five of Texas’ 37 public universities are part of a system, according to Stephen F. Austin.

Nationally, determining the number of unaffiliated regional public universities is difficult because higher education governance structures vary from state to state, Fryar said.

“There’s been a lot of talk about mergers and consolidations, but what’s been missed are those conversations about multi-institutional systems trying to strengthen and grow and finding better ways to be. more effective, more efficient and get more resources,” Fryar said. .

The addition of Stephen F. Austin could give some Texas systems more credibility and legitimacy as they expand their statewide footprint, she said.

For the university, being in a system would bring additional resources and expertise around government affairs and contract negotiations with third-party vendors such as Zoom and Canvas, she said.

“There is no reason to expect presidents to know everything they need to know to enter into these negotiations and choose [third-party] partners,” Fryar said. “In the regional colleges, they don’t always have the ability to do some kind of high-level perspective analysis.”

“A rather exhausting process”

So far, the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas State University and Texas Tech University systems have expressed interest in Stephen F. Austin.

To determine which system might be best suited for the East Texas institution, administrators aim to have a “widely open and transparent” process, Westbrook said. Several campus councils and stakeholder groups will submit questions to interested systems, which will be asked to respond by October 6. Stakeholder groups will review their responses and also develop their own reports on the strengths and weaknesses of each system. These reports will be presented at the October 30 Regents meeting and will include suggested criteria for the Board to consider when evaluating whether to join a system.

Westbrook said he hopes to better quantify the benefits of joining each system as part of the process. There are no favorites yet.

For Fryar, the Texas state system, which has seven campuses and no real flagships, seems like the most natural fit.

“Stephen F. Austin is a strong regional college, and he has strong roots in his community,” she said. “It would be joining a sort of group of equals in many ways in the Texas State University system. [But] the difference in resources that might be available on other systems might be compelling. It’s hard to know for sure. »

Westbrook said through questions from campus groups, the council will learn what is most important to the community. He expects the system evaluation process to be complex but productive.

“It’s a pretty exciting process, even if it’s a pretty exhausting process,” he said.

According to a faculty survey conducted in January, the majority of university faculty members support joining a system, said Senate Speaker Chris McKenna, associate professor in the department of corporate communication and legal studies. .

“The number of potential benefits cited by respondents… included factors such as the potential for improved state funding, the availability of additional research and program collaborations, increased research support from faculty, the ability to achieve infrastructure cost savings, overhead cost sharing, and improved institutional leadership,” McKenna wrote in an email.

The board wants to decide whether and which system to join by the end of the fall semester, before the state Legislature convenes. That would give state lawmakers time to pass a bill allowing Stephen F. Austin to join a system. Last year, Midwestern State University joined the Texas Tech system, which Westbrook says gives lawmakers a playbook.

Westbrook said some stakeholders are concerned about whether the university will be able to retain its name and identity.

“It’s not surprising to me,” he said. “We will be 99 in a few days and we will be preparing to celebrate our centenary, so the name and the identity of the university are paramount.”