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Pressure building on faculty to boost graduation rates

Legislature expected to consider requiring increased productivity even as budgets decline.

The state's higher education agency, the governor's office and business-oriented groups are sending an increasingly clear message to faculty members at public colleges and universities in Texas:

Step it up.

The state Legislature is expected to consider various suggestions intended to increase faculty teaching loads, raise graduation and course completion rates, and otherwise boost the productivity of the academic enterprise.

The focus on faculty members, many of whom enjoy lifetime tenure, comes as legislative funding for higher education is declining in light of a projected state budget shortfall of more than $24 billion for 2012-13. Lawmakers will begin their five-month regular session in Austin on Tuesday .

"We have to find ways to get faculty to understand that all of us work for the state, that the state is in financial crisis and that we have to get better results for the same amount of money or even less money," said Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, whose agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, has floated a number of reforms for lawmakers to consider. "That's the reality we're in."

The proposals have been warmly received by the Texas Association of Business and the Governor's Business Council, a group of business leaders that, despite its name, has no formal connection with the governor's office. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which says it favors limited government and free markets, also likes the recommendations.

Some faculty members worry that a push to raise graduation and course completion rates could lead to a lowering of academic standards.

They are especially uneasy about a recommendation that lawmakers base a portion of state funding for schools on how much those rates rise, particularly for students studying science, technology, engineering and math — disciplines that state officials have deemed a high priority. Funding is currently based on enrollment. More broadly, many faculty members are troubled by a view that regards higher education as a business, with students as customers. They say this reflects a misunderstanding of the roles of professors and students.

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