Texas Higher Ed Leaders Talk Future of Education: Conversation Explores How to Best Educate a Growing, Changing State

Apr 2017

At the 2017 TAMEST Annual Conference, a panel of six leaders from higher education across the state gathered to discuss the strong forces of change affecting higher education in Texas and across the United States. Texas’ higher education system is in a unique position thanks to rapid population growth, changing demographics and a shifting focus in various industries.

The panel examined the sustainability of higher education from the perspective of their institutions, the state of Texas and the United States. Topics included: shifting financial models; technology’s impact on learning and the classroom; the increased importance of education regardless of economic status; and the political pressures to differentiate priorities and financing.

Some highlights from the conversation:

The Importance of Education

“Our biggest challenge with sustainability [in higher education] is in fact not just sustaining what we have, but getting a lot better than what we have today,” said David Daniel, Ph.D., of The University of Texas System. Daniel said both the people of Texas and legislators need to see the value of education. “There’s an opportunity here, and an important one for sustainability and that is: Higher Ed needs to get more involved in K-12 education, and doing everything we can to help them be successful,” Daniel said.

“Higher education is more important than it’s ever been,” said Gregory L. Fenves, Ph.D., of The University of Texas at Austin. “You look at our state, you look at our nation, you look at what’s happening globally, and it’s even more important that we get more of our students going to high-quality universities, getting those post-high school credentials in different forms.”

Texas’ Changing Demographic Landscape

“The disparities between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in higher education has grown over the past 40 years,” said Diana Natalacio, Ph.D., of The University of Texas at El Paso. “We have this huge responsibility given the changes in the demographics of Texas population. Sustainability of this state is going to require that that growing disparity be eliminated. We’ve got to educate more low-income and mostly-minority Hispanic students, because that’s where the population growth is.”

John Sharp of Texas A&M System emphasized that the future of Texas will depend on educating its people. “We have taken for granted our economics. We’ve built these huge empires on cattle, cotton, oil and gas and didn’t have so much to worry about it,” he said. But the next source of power in Texas is going to come from “human resources, not natural resources,” Sharp said, noting that the state has more 18- to 21-year olds than everywhere in the country with the exception of Provo, Utah. “Texas, particularly South Texas and the border and places like that, are where the future of Texas is going to be decided,” Sharp said, emphasizing how important education of those populations will be vital if the state is going to advance.

Sustaining Quality Research

The panel also emphasized the importance of quality research programs at Texas universities. Texas has three top-tier research universities—Texas A&M University, Rice University and The University of Texas at Austin—that are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), and many others in the state have reached the highest level of Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education for research. But whether the state will continue to grow as a research destination depends in part on continued state and cultural support.

“The fundamental question for Texas and the country is: Are we going to be willing to invest in these institutions? And it’s not just about money, it’s also … about culture and belief,” said David Leebron, J.D., of Rice University. “My biggest fear is we’re losing some of our belief in the importance of research and the importance of science, and particularly fundamental inquiry in science.”

“Texas has made it a priority to create research,” said Robert Duncan of Texas Tech University System, noting the growth of research-based universities and the commitment the legislature has made to research funding. He continued on to say, “I think the thing we need to do to be able to make sure that the research successes that we’ve had… [is] that we sustain that funding…because… that is what makes it happen at least for those of us in the emerging research institutions.” The panel as a whole emphasized that research and sustainable funding need to continue to be a priority.

Advancing Technology

“We’re in a period where there is tremendous technological innovation,” said Larry Faulkner, Ph.D., of University of Texas at Austin, who moderated the discussion. “It’s offering opportunities for new ways to teach and new ways for students to learn that may or may not involve the intervention of a real, physical teacher.”

“We ought to be looking into technologies because our students really, really value the opportunity to engage with us,” said Leebron of Rice University. “And I think what we’re going to see in the classroom is if you’re not using that classroom to truly engage with people, you’re using that classroom in a way that people will disengage with and they simply won’t come to class.”

To view the complete panel discussion, visit our YouTube page: https://goo.gl/f4pPgn >

The Panelists

Robert Duncan

Robert L. Duncan


Texas Tech University System

Gregory Fenves

Gregory L. Fenves, Ph.D.


The University of Texas at Austin

David Leebron

David W. Leebron, J.D.


Rice University

David Daniel

David E. Daniel, Ph.D.

Deputy Chancellor

The University of Texas System

Diana Natalicio

Diana S. Natalicio, Ph.D.


The University of Texas at El Paso

John Sharp

John Sharp


The Texas A&M University System


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