Stephen F. Austin University weighs joining a Texas system

Stephen F. Austin State University, one of the last Texas public universities to remain independent, might finally shed its unaffiliated status—a step that highlights the increasing complexities involved with running a college or university.

“It’s becoming more difficult to be a stand-alone institution,” interim Stephen F. Austin president Steve Westbrook said. “You’ve got all of the costs of complying with federal and state regulations. You have the unfunded mandates that we’re dealing with. We’ve got all sorts of tuition waivers and exemptions that we’re required to give. And then the increasing cost of deploying technology and all the cybersecurity costs and staffing that comes along with that. Pretty soon those things begin to snowball.”

Joining a system could help the university reduce 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 benefit the university.

So far, four of the seven systems in Texas are interested in adding Stephen F. Austin State to their ranks, but the university’s process of vetting potential partners is just beginning. The university’s Board of Regents will make the final decision on which, if any, system to join, and state lawmakers ultimately will have to sign off.

Questions about whether Stephen F. Austin should join a system are not new, Westbrook said. For years, the rural-serving institution with nearly 12,000 students has fielded informal invitations from several systems to discuss affiliation. But it wasn’t until this summer that the Board of Regents decided to act on those invitations before it undertakes a search for a new president.

“If we decide not to affiliate, well, then, we will proceed with the presidential search,” Westbrook said. “But if we decide to accept an invitation for affiliation, then that would impact the way that next president would be selected, because eventually that president would be reporting to the chancellor of a system rather than this board.”

Power in the Network

Given the myriad challenges facing higher education, it’s not surprising that some universities and colleges across the country have sought to merge, even while others seek to break from existing systems to secure greater autonomy.

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

“There’s a power to having a network of colleges and universities that isn’t available as a stand-alone, so collaboration matters,” he said. “Higher education leaders in recent years have talked about the notion of ‘system-ness’—that the whole can be greater through the sum of its parts through those networks and collaboration.”

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

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

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

Nationally, it’s difficult to determine how many unaffiliated regional public universities exist because higher ed governance structures vary by state, Fryar said.

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

Adding 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 regarding governmental affairs and contract negotiations with third-party providers such as Zoom and Canvas, she said.

“There’s no reason to expect that presidents are just going to know everything they need to know going into these negotiations and picking [third-party] partners,” Fryar said. “At regional colleges, they don’t always have the capacity to do 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 the best fit for the East Texas institution, administrators aim to have a “wide-open and transparent” process, Westbrook said. Several campus councils and stakeholder groups will submit questions to the interested systems, which will be asked to respond by Oct. 6. The stakeholder groups will vet their responses and also develop their own reports on the strengths and weaknesses of each system. Those reports will be presented at the regents’ Oct. 30 meeting and will include suggested criteria for the board to consider as it weighs whether to join a system.

Westbrook said he hopes to better quantify the advantages of affiliating with each system as part of the process. There’s no front-runner yet.

To Fryar, the Texas State system, which has seven campuses and no true flagship, feels like the most natural fit.

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

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

“This is a rather exciting process, even though it is a rather exhausting process,” he said.

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

“The number of potential advantages cited by respondents … included factors like the potential for improved state funding, availability for additional research and program collaborations, more support for faculty research, the ability to achieve infrastructural costs, general cost sharing, and improved institutional leadership, McKenna wrote in an email.

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

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

“That’s not surprising to me,” he said. “We will be 99 years old in a couple of days and getting ready to celebrate our centennial year, so the name and the identity of the university is paramount.”

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