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How four Texas university systems are pitching themselves as the best new home for Stephen F. Austin State University

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

How four Texas university systems are pitching themselves as the best new home for Stephen F. Austin State University” 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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For the past few months, Stephen F. Austin State University has been speed dating.

The 11,300-student school in the East Texas Piney Woods has four suitors: The Texas A&M University System, The Texas State University System, The Texas Tech University System and the University of Texas System, all vying for a chance to have the university join their ranks.

Since SFA leaders announced at the start of the fall semester that they were interested in potentially joining a system, a subcommittee of university board members has been wooed by these system leaders. Their first date was in Nacogdoches, where SFA is located. And this week, another round of meetings with each system was held in Dallas.

SFA is one of just two public universities in Texas that are not part of a system. The other is Texas Southern University, the historically Black university in Houston.

Earlier this month, the four systems answered a long list of inquiries — a sort of higher education compatibility questionnaire, if you will — submitted by faculty, staff, alumni and students.

SFA interim President Steve Westbrook told faculty that the meetings this week were meant to clarify responses to those questionnaires.

“Some were more specific than others,” he said at a faculty senate meeting last week. “We’re trying to develop sort of a more across-the-board, apples-to-apples comparison in certain areas … so we know the real meaning behind some of the verbiage.”

In their answers, all four systems boasted about the extra services and perks SFA could access, like academic and research databases, cost-saving contracts and skilled government relations teams who could advocate for SFA at the Texas Capitol. They all also reassured SFA that it would be able to retain its university name, colors and identity as Lumberjacks. Similar to other universities within a system in Texas, the systems also said SFA would retain control of decision-making about hiring, curriculum and academic programs.

But the systems also tried to set themselves apart from each other.

The Texas State University System championed its hands-off approach as a system and the lack of a flagship school under its umbrella as a way to say it treats all universities in the system equally. The Texas Tech University System hyped its commitment to rural universities and its recent experience bringing Midwestern State University under its fold.

The richest university systems flashed their cash — and their access to the Permanent University Fund, assets created by oil and gas revenue from 2.1 million acres of land in West Texas that rake in billions of dollars annually.

The Texas A&M University System envisioned a new state-of-the-art building for SFA’s forestry program and floated SFA as a potential branch location for some of the system’s agencies, like the Texas Division of Emergency Management. They emphasized a focus on health science education programs and included a reminder that A&M already manages SFA’s investments.

The University of Texas System waved dollar signs, too: $1 million more for annual student scholarships and $5.5 million to boost faculty salaries, as well as its system STARS program that provides start-up funding for research equipment, labs and other capital costs. It also emphasized mental health resources for students.

On Friday, SFA representatives are expected to submit four separate reports to the university president assessing the systems’ responses and share strengths and weaknesses of each system’s pitches. The faculty report includes feedback from professors, department chairs and deans.

Faculty say there is a feeling of tempered excitement around campus at the potential of joining a system. But there is also a campaign within the Nacogdoches community against the idea. An ad in the local newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, says “Join a system? Bad for you. Bad for SFA.” A button that says “Get the facts Jacks,” leads to a website that says it’s critical SFA maintain independence and control and characterizes the offers as “weak” and claims faculty will lose their jobs.

“Multiple system offers promise to commit $1 million per year toward growing enrollment with an eventual goal of 15,000 students,” the website reads. “Those are paltry numbers in light of SFA’s annual budget.”

According to SFA, enrollment dropped 5% this fall from last year to 11,327 students. Between 2019 and 2021, enrollment at the university declined by 7.5%.

A survey of faculty released in January showed that 73% supported joining a system. The survey was taken during a tumultuous period at SFA. In April, former President Scott Gordon and the board “mutually agreed” to part ways, less than a year after the board sparked outrage when they gave Gordon an $85,000 pay raise as the school navigated enrollment drops related to COVID-19. Gordon returned the pay raise, but it created tension between faculty and school leaders and sparked questions from faculty and staff about the university’s financial situation. Some say uncertainty and distrust in the board persist.

As of now, the SFA board has not signaled it will make a decision at its board meeting on Oct. 30 and 31, but it will review the reports from each section of the university at that time. Westbrook told faculty the board will subsequently call a special meeting specifically to discuss its decision, which could include staying independent. Texas lawmakers make the ultimate decision.

“If there is anything being left on the table being unaffiliated that we can access if we were affiliated, being able to suss that out and quantify it is important,” Westbrook told faculty at an Oct. 12 board meeting.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Southern University – Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Tech University, Texas Tech University System, Texas A&M University System, Texas State University System and 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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