By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune
“Stephen F. Austin State University considers joining a university system” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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The Stephen F. Austin State University Board of Regents is considering whether the nearly 12,000-student university in East Texas should join a larger university system, and at least three systems across the state are expressing interest about becoming a new home for the currently unaffiliated school.
The university, in Nacogdoches, will spend this fall considering the benefits of joining a system, according to a slide presentation shown to faculty and staff at a meeting last week, which was first reported by news stations KLTV and KTRE and CBS19 in Tyler.
The goal is to make the decision before the next legislative session starts in January. State lawmakers must pass legislation allowing a university to leave or join a system.
“The timing of the upcoming legislative session (any affiliation with a system would require enabling legislation) necessitates a brisk and deliberate pace,” interim President Steve Westbrook wrote in a note to faculty and staff Friday alerting them that the board would be weighing its options over the next few months.
SFA is one of two universities in the state that are not part of a university system. The only other independent university in Texas is Texas Southern University.
Over the years, four university systems have expressed interest in potential affiliation: the Texas A&M University System, the University of Texas System, the Texas Tech University System and the Texas State University System, according to the presentation.
“SFA indicated to these systems that our Board of Regents was interested in formalizing conversations with the four who have been listed,” spokesperson Graham Garner said in an email to The Texas Tribune. The presentation said that SFA had been in touch with all four systems in recent months.
The University of Texas System did not immediately respond for comment.
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said the A&M System and SFA are a good fit culturally.
“The Texas A&M Forest Service also would be a great asset for a university located in Deep East Texas,” Sharp said. “It would be the 3rd largest university in our System and would give us a larger presence in East Texas.” He also pointed out that SFA is working with the A&M System on multiple fronts, including that SFA is teaching students at the system’s campus called RELLIS and the system manages SFA’s investments.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Texas State University System said it is also interested in exploring an affiliation with SFA.
“The Texas State University System does not have a flagship institution – we have seven,” Mike Wintemute said in an email. “As our eighth flagship, Stephen F. Austin State University would have access to valuable programs and services while maintaining its unique identity, culture, traditions, and a high level of local control.”
And a Texas Tech University System spokesperson also said the Tech system felt SFA fit well culturally with its current institutions.
“The TTU System Board of Regents and Chancellor Tedd L. Mitchell, M.D.— a proud SFA alumnus—are looking forward to the opportunity to formally discuss a collaborative partnership with representatives from SFA,” Scott Lacefield said in a statement. “Our leadership is excited to learn more about the Lumberjack family and share how the TTU System and five component universities will support and advocate for SFA’s future growth and success.”
According to the presentation, the SFA board of regents created a subcommittee of members to discuss governance and financial issues related to possibly joining a system.
Westbrook told faculty and staff in a letter that he plans to present questions about such a move from SFA’s faculty, alumni and employees to the four interested systems next month. The systems will have until Oct. 6 to respond to questions.
Faculty groups and university leaders will then review the responses and prepare a report for Westbrook that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each system and share their feedback to SFA’s board of regents.
The university staff council, student government and alumni association are all invited to participate in the process. All reports will be presented to the board at its meeting at the end of October.
Westbrook, who was appointed interim president in April after former President Scott Gordon and the board “mutually agreed” to part ways, said the board wants to determine if it is beneficial for SFA to join a system before it searches for a new president. But he expressed that a presidential search will be needed.
SFA and its board dealt with multiple instances of internal turmoil during Gordon’s tenure. Last year the board offered Gordon an $85,000 pay raise as the school navigated enrollment drops related to COVID-19. Gordon returned the pay raise, but it sparked questions from faculty and staff about the university’s financial situation.
The university has been dealing with enrollment decreases for years. Between 2019 and 2021, enrollment at the university declined by 7.5%.
In January, a survey of the school’s faculty senate found that 75% felt the university should “probably” or “definitely” join a system.
Disclosure: The Stephen F. Austin University Board of Regents, Texas Tech University System, the Texas A&M University System, the Texas State University System and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/22/stephen-f-austin-state-university-system/.
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