Raising the Bar in Texas


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired May 18, 2023

Kelly Damphousse was a Canadian with dreams of playing in the NHL, who then became a correctional officer—four-year college was never part of the original plan. Now he’s president of one of the largest universities in Texas. In this episode, he explains how he plans to take Texas State University to the next level of research excellence and explores why new funding for higher education can help raise the bar for some colleges in his state. Jon and Mushtaq also dive into debt ceiling woes and concerns over anti-DEI legislation in Florida.

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Yellen Reiterates That the U.S. Could Run Out of Cash by June 1
The New York Times (sub. req.) | May 15, 2023

House G.O.P. Passes Debt Limit Bill, Paving the Way for a Clash With Biden
The New York Times (sub. req.) | April 26, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Signs a Bill Banning Dei Initiatives in Public Colleges
NPR | May 15, 2023

Texas State University’s Run To R1

Leveling the Playing Field in Texas
Inside Higher Ed | April 20, 2023

A New Fund, Called the TUF, Could Boost Research on Four University Campuses
Spectrum News 1 | April 13, 2023


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. A little bit later in our episode, we’re going to be joined by Kelly Damphousse, the president of Texas State University, who will be talking to us about his remarkable journey through higher education, as well as some of the initiatives and the work they’re undertaking on his campus.

Before we get to Dr. Damphousse, I am joined by my most important, most appreciated, most valued co-host, Mushtaq Gunja. Mushtaq, how are you doing today?

Mushtaq Gunja: I’m looking around to see where Sarah is because I am certainly not the more important of your co-hosts. I know that because you spend a lot more time with Sarah than you do with me.

Jon Fansmith: When you’re on the episode, you’re the more important of the co-hosts, right? Absence in this case does not make the heart grow fonder.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, your logic and intelligence astounds me every time.

Jon Fansmith: I notice in which direction it astounds you, you do not indicate, but thank you, Mushtaq. I appreciate it nonetheless.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, how are you doing, and what is happening in Washington and higher ed these days?

Jon Fansmith: Oh, so I think the thing that’s happening the most, or at least that I’m spending the most time on, isn’t frankly a higher ed-specific thing, but it’s the debt limit and trying to understand what happens if we don’t raise the debt ceiling. And what that means for higher ed, frankly, which, since we’ve never defaulted on our obligations, nobody is entirely sure. But it’s looking increasingly likely that we might, so it’s become a pressing concern of late.

Mushtaq Gunja: So, let’s set the scene, right? So it’s Tuesday, May 16th, around 2:30. I think that President Biden and Speaker McCarthy are set to resume their negotiations today at 3:00 PM, but I think President Biden is off on some international diplomacy starting tomorrow. Secretary Yellen told us earlier this week that June 1st is a real deadline and don’t mess around. I don’t know if that’s exactly true or not, but she said, “Don’t mess around. June 1st, let’s get something done.”

The House did pass some piece of legislature or some piece of legislation, sorry, that would extend the debt limit and also would have pretty devastating cuts to all things non-military, non-entitlement domestic spending. Jon, what do we know about the impacts that that bill, if it were to be signed by President Biden, and it won’t be, what impacts that would’ve had on higher education?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and it’s important to note that that bill is less relevant as a piece of legislation and more as a marker of where particularly House Republicans want to start these negotiations. In fact, that has been, as the president and what we call the four corners, the leadership of the House and the Senate, minority and majority from both sides, who have been part of these negotiations. Primarily their staff have been the ones handling the negotiations rather than the principals themselves. That’s what they would like to see. If that were to go through, they would raise the debt ceiling by about one and a half trillion dollars or until March, whichever comes first. To do that, they would ask for about five trillion dollars in spending cuts and through a variety of different ways.

Two biggest things, frankly, would be that they would want to cut spending this year. We’re looking to do fiscal year ‘24, that would start October 1st of 2023, to set the spending levels for that at the FY ‘22 levels. It sounds Beltway wonky, whatever, but essentially what that would mean is about $130 billion less spent on government programs next year than we spent a year and a half ago, or than we’re currently spending, I should say.

Since Republicans have also said that they don’t want any of those cuts to come from Homeland Security, Department of Defense, or veterans programs, all 130 billion of the cuts would come from other parts of the budget, including education, so financial aid, scientific research, health care, lots of everything else the federal government does. If you were to do that at those levels like they’ve asked for, it’d be about a 30% cut across the board for those other programs. When you think about Pell Grants or work-study or NIH funding, you are talking about a budget that would cut those by 30% for the first year. Then, for the next 10 years, they would cap an increase in spending at 1%. It’s about 19% below the average, generally, so not only are you making massive cuts, but then, going forward, you don’t have the opportunity for really meaningful increases to restore what those cuts have taken away. So it would be an extremely draconian series of cuts to programs that we care about.

In addition, they had a bunch of provisions in there. They would block student loan forgiveness plan the Biden administration has put forward before. They’d block the income-based repayment plan that the Biden administration is putting forward, which would be very generous to borrowers. Would block any efforts by the Department of Education to do anything on loans that make those programs more generous.

It really has a pretty heavy focus on higher education in a way that you often don’t see. I mean, again, we’re talking about the debt ceiling. This is a major national political issue. The rolling into it of a lot of higher education pieces is somewhat unusual, but also indicates just how central to a lot of the policy debates higher ed is right now.

Mushtaq Gunja: All right, so, Jon, President Biden is not... That’s the starting point for negotiations. I mean, President Biden is not going to agree to all of those cuts. But we’re a couple of weeks away from June 1st. How do you see this playing out? I mean, I guess one thing, one observation that I might make is I cannot imagine that President Biden is going to sign anything that doesn’t extend the debt limit past the next election. I mean, I would assume that this has got to be at least a couple of year deal. At least. What’s your sense of how this thing actually, where we go from here?

Jon Fansmith: I think you’re completely right about that. Generally, what we’ve seen in the last few years, it used to be that, when they would raise the debt ceiling, what they would do is they’d say something like, “All right, we’ll raise it $4 trillion,” or, “We’ll raise it $3 trillion.” They don’t have to raise it by an amount; that’s just how traditionally it had been done.

What they’ve been doing most commonly in recent years is to say, “We will raise the debt ceiling until X date,” and March of the year following an election tends to be the most popular time for doing that, in part because it allows you to get through an election, allow whatever the change of government is to settle in before you have to begin negotiations on raising the debt ceiling again.

I would imagine that was the first and probably most important concession the administration would like to make. That said, it’s probably not that hard-won for Republicans. They aimed for March of the following year. There are members of that caucus that would love to have another debt ceiling fight that close to the election. Most of the Republican Party in Congress doesn’t want to have another debt ceiling fight. You look at the Senate. The Senate, particularly Senate Republicans, have been very low-key on this. They have essentially tried to stay out of the debate. It is not a winning argument for a lot of people, especially in a very tight election year.

That said, the president has made a number of other accommodations. If you take the reporting on the table, he’s agreed to rescind COVID relief money, which had previously always been off the table. He’s agreed to look at possibly, in countering accounts of this yesterday, whether they might tighten work requirements around federal benefits programs.

He might be open to putting spending caps in place. Seems to be yes on that, but the debate is how many years those caps will be in place. 10 years is what Republicans want. Currently, it seems Democrats are asking for two. Is that going to wind up at five? You don’t know, but we are, as you pointed out, two weeks away from June 1st. The president leaves tomorrow for a very important diplomatic trip to Asia with the G7 summit, which considering the tensions with China and the importance of that, the economy and security arrangements over there, that is not an insignificant trip abroad. He can’t really cancel that.

The other thing is, any bill you put forward has to go through Congress. Congress doesn’t move these things quickly. Speaker McCarthy has promised his members that they would have three days to review any bill. They’ll have to figure out a way to get it through that chamber. There will be members on the Republican side who will not support it no matter how many concessions the president makes, and they can only afford to lose four, possibly three votes, depending on the status of the recently indicted member from New York. It’s a tough path forward without a lot of clarity, and the clock is ticking, ticking, ticking, ticking. We’re getting very close.

Mushtaq Gunja: On that happy note-

Jon Fansmith: I haven’t even bothered to say what happens when we default, which is the really depressing part.

Mushtaq Gunja: We’re not going to default. Right, Jon?

Jon Fansmith: You know what it feels-? Well, I’ll tell you this. Logically, you say no because the consequences are so drastic that you think cooler heads will ultimately prevail. The other thing is the financial markets desperately would want to avoid a default, and they tend to have an outsized influence in policymaking, right?

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah.

Jon Fansmith: So yeah, I think probably the safe money is we’ll get close and we’ll avert it somehow. That said, this reminds me a lot of the last round of shutdowns about a decade ago with the Obama administration where people seemed to have forgotten the lessons from the first round of shutdowns they went through during the Clinton administration. And there seems to be at least a cohort of people who don’t feel the fear of what might happen the way that they probably should, so we’ll see. There’s always a few reckless actors, and, unfortunately, given the margins we have in Congress, some of the more reckless actors have an outsized influence these days.

Mushtaq Gunja: It’s funny. We observed five months ago how difficult Speaker McCarthy’s job is going to be, and it is going to be difficult. On this work requirement business and the increased work requirements for federal benefits, there was reporting this morning that there’s a set of House Republicans that are not interested in having that debate in conjunction with the debt ceiling. And I’m sure there are going to be... and there are more than five of them. You probably only need four, but there are more than five of them. It’s all well and good to talk about enormous, big priorities and big cuts, but when you get down to individual instances of exactly what is going to be cut, is going to be, I just don’t know if you’re going to have 218 Republicans over and over on each of the pieces of this thing. I mean, not that it will get broken out that way.

I mean, you would think that maybe there’s some deal to be had around the COVID relief money, around some caps, maybe around some student loan forgiveness. I could see some higher ed stuff getting thrown into a eventual deal, given exactly what you’re saying about the weird focus on higher ed in these negotiations. I guess it just goes to show we’ve become a little bit of a cultural lightning rod, I think, but I guess we’ll see.

When do we record again, Jon? We’ll have more information in a couple of weeks, I suppose.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, a couple of weeks, we’ll be right past the deadline, so who knows? We might be doing it from our bunkers, hoarding gold, Mushtaq.

Mushtaq Gunja: Mmmm.

Jon Fansmith: You’ve prepared your bunker, right?

Mushtaq Gunja: I haven’t. What should I put in that bunker? I have a boombox with my favorite desert island discs in it.

Jon Fansmith: Sure. Batteries, some sort of, what are those things called, the electric generators. I’m actually not a very good prepper.

Mushtaq Gunja: We are toast.

Jon Fansmith: Yes. Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: If we go down, Jon, I think they’re coming after us first.

Jon Fansmith: Don’t go to each other’s house. We have to find a better prepared third party we need to meet at.

Mushtaq Gunja: My wife bought a karaoke machine a couple months ago, so we can at least sing.

Jon Fansmith: Well, I can’t, but I can certainly speak into the microphone.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, the other big thing that happened this week was down in Florida, where Governor DeSantis signed into law something prohibiting the use or the discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Florida state colleges. Jon, what do you know about that? What should our listeners know about what Governor DeSantis just signed?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and you covered it a little bit with the headlines, this certainly doesn’t stand on its own. This is part of a piece of efforts, particularly by Governor DeSantis in Florida, and certainly it has been raised before by people other than me that a lot of this is less about what he sees as the best policies for Florida and more about positioning a national profile for a presidential race. He was also in Iowa last week speaking. He’s been doing a tour of the sorts of things you do as you prepare for a presidential run. So some of this very clearly is intended for a national political audience.

That said, it has actual ramifications. Most Florida institutions, public institutions have sought to promote diversity of their student bodies, have looked at being inclusive to all perspectives and populations on a campus. This is one of the things that I think you and I, and I don’t want to speak for you, but that we tend to find very frustrating with these efforts to target DEI. DEI on a campus looks like a lot of things, but it looks like supports for our rural students, and it looks like supports for students with disabilities, and it looks like programs that assist veteran students in acclimating to a campus and reentering education. It is not necessarily the efforts that it is portrayed as by its critics.

So going forward, Florida institutions won’t be able to allocate funds towards DEI initiatives. They will not be able to use DEI as a consideration in terms of hiring or student recruitment. And then you, really, I think the concern is how this bleed-. Well, frankly, all the above is a concern, but the other concern that I think is going to be unclear is how this bleeds into curriculum and treatments of discussions of race. Particularly, I tend to think, I’m a history graduate, I was a history major as an undergraduate, the treatment of race within history, particularly systemic racism and other aspects of American history that are especially problematic and that Governor DeSantis has clearly shown some hostility to embracing as part of an academic curriculum.

It’s not a great sign. I will say Florida seems to be the most far forward in terms of advancing these kinds of legislation. In other states, and we’re talking with a president from Texas later, don’t know if we’ll get into this or not, but Texas had a similar bill that has since been subsequently modified and reduced. It has other contingencies around DEI that include relevance to federal grants or other things, so that bill seems to be moving in a much more-. Again, I don’t know that we’d necessarily be supportive of its current form either, but in a form that’s a little bit more amenable, a little bit more understanding of the traditional role of academic freedom. But this is not new, right? I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a little while. This is happening across state levels. There is a clearly coordinated effort across states to push legislation like this, and while not all of those bills, in fact, the majority of them, aren’t being adopted, you see in a case like Florida, in some cases they are, and they will have profound implications for campuses.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yes. I feel like it is relatively easy to pass these things and it’s relatively easy not to see what the ramifications of some of these measures might be. I’m really curious about what this might mean for accreditation, where accreditors have traditionally required some level of academic freedom and academic quality. And we’ll have to see how that plays out.
On the inclusion side, DEI, the I stands, of course, for inclusion. In a world in which so many institutions, especially public institutions, serve a very diverse, in every sense of the word diverse, population, but a whole set of students that are not used to being in college, first-generation students. I mean, part of student success, I think we know from the research, is having those students feel like the institution is a home for them, you know?

Jon Fansmith: Yup.

Mushtaq Gunja: And that comes in so many different forms. A blanket prohibition on DEI just feels so counterproductive to what we know that so many of these legislatures care about, which is student outcomes, completion, and ultimate job placement and success. It’s not like you just wave a magic wand and then, all of a sudden, some student is going to be able to come in, do great at the institution, graduate, and then get a good job. I mean, colleges have a role in that.

Jon Fansmith: And we have so much evidence of the fact that different student populations learn in different ways, require different supports. If you are a critic, you can say, “Well, this emphasis on DEI gets away from the core argument-.” The exact opposite is true. We know the exact opposite is true. If you’re worried about students coming back to school, if you’re worried about students completing, working their way through school, then regardless of what their demographics are, finding ways to support them and encourage them and assist them in meeting their goals is the role of a university. And when you take a really key component of how you identify those efforts, how you use them to distinguish the students who need what kinds of supports, you’re undercutting the institutional effectiveness, and you’re hurting those students. You’re hurting the institution. You’re hurting the students. Frankly, as a public institution, you’re hurting your state. These are not policies that will benefit the students. They’re not policies that will benefit the institution. Not policies, again, that will benefit the state or the taxpayers who have sent people in place to support those policies. So all around a bad outcome.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, we’ll see how much of it sticks. We’ll see how much of it gets walked back. We’ll see how it gets implemented. Some of the broadest reach of the implementation could be quite drastic, but potentially there’s some way in which institutions might be able to find their way to some sort of middle ground here, something that’s a little bit more watered down. Let’s cross our fingers. Otherwise, we’ll be reporting back to our listeners sometime soon.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, absolutely, and we do know institutions remain committed to doing the best by their students, and they find ways regardless of the constraints put on them. So I am sure we’ll have good outcomes, happier outcomes than this conversation has trended towards anyway, but we will-

Mushtaq Gunja: Actually, to that point, Jon-

Jon Fansmith: Go ahead.

Mushtaq Gunja: We’re about to talk to President Damphousse, and I just know what a remarkable institution that is, that’s so committed to student success, to serving the region in which they live in central Texas. There are a lot of headwinds for higher education, but there are just so many incredible institutions out there that are just working in ways big and small to serve the students, their states, their regions, and happy to get to talk to the president Damphousse about his journey.

Jon Fansmith: I think that is the perfect note to go to the break on. And when we return, we will be having that conversation. Thanks a lot, Mushtaq, and all of you. Hold on for just a second.

And we are back with our special guest, Kelly Damphousse, the president of Texas State University. Kelly, welcome to dotEDU.

Kelly Damphousse: Thanks, Jon and Mushtaq. It’s great to be here.

Jon Fansmith: It is really great to have you, and I will say this is one of those things that doing this podcast has been such a special joy for me because we get to meet people, members like you who have, I think, really fascinating stories about how they got into academia, how they got into higher education, higher education leadership, and I have to say, yours is particularly unique. I think you are the only college president I’ve ever seen whose bio starts off with a failed NHL hockey audition.

Kelly Damphousse: Well, everybody brings it up. It’s like the first thing people bring up is the major failure of my life, and so thanks, Jon, for keeping up the record. We’re batting a thousand then.

Jon Fansmith: That’s not how I intended it, I promise you.

Kelly Damphousse: Yeah. So I grew up in a little fishing village in northern Canada. I had no dreams of going to college at all. It wasn’t in the plans. I really wanted to be a goalie in the NHL. That was my big dream, but like many people, I think you have a dream, that it’s a dream, but it’s not a reality. I thought the chances of getting into the NHL are almost impossible, and so really my goal was to work in a gas station. One of my buddies worked in this gas station and I thought, someday, he’s going to leave there, and I’ll take his job. He would pump the gas and I’d wash the windshield, and I was always thinking like, “When’s Randy ever going to quit this job?” and so that was my goal.

A miracle of my life is my dad in February of my senior year moved us to southern Alberta, and in that new high school, everybody was going to college. And it just hadn’t even crossed my mind before. They were all going. Everyone was saying, “Well, where are you going?” I said, “Well, I’m not going to college,” and then I found out that the local community college just down the street, about 30 miles away, had a law enforcement degree program, and I thought, “Well, I’m probably never going to make it.” I’d already tried out for the NHL and hadn’t made it. I got cut in the third day, and so I said, “Well, maybe I could go become a police officer.” It’s my next goal, and long story about why that is, but I ended up going to community college and completely lost.

My mom had grade nine education. My dad had grade 12. I had no idea what I was doing there. I don’t know why I was there. I was a terrible student, failed my English class my first semester, which was my best class. I didn’t know I had to go to class. Because I thought I was pretty good at English, and then ended up, long story short, I graduated, got a job as a prison guard, and then got talked into going back to school by one of my former instructors, and then that brought me to America.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and I will say I like how you described making it through three days of the NHL tryout as a failure, which I think, Mushtaq, we can comfortably say two and a half days longer than we’d, and that’s only if we hid in the locker room for the first few hours.
Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, can you imagine me as an NHL goalie? I mean, how many goals would I give up per minute? I mean, 7? 15?

Jon Fansmith: I assume your reaction would be much like mine, which is, after the first one, to just throw your head on the ground and cower in place until they stop shooting at you.
Kelly Damphousse: It’s funny, when I first started playing, we didn’t wear masks, and so you had to be very courageous to be a goalie. I have the mug to prove it, too. Things have changed a lot. Yeah, I remember the coach calling me to, “Hey, you need to come meet with me after practice.” I said, “Hey. That’s it. I’m in good shape,” and then he said, “Yeah, you don’t need to come back tomorrow.” Yeah, that was it.

Jon Fansmith: Well, and you spent three years, am I correct, as a correctional officer?

Kelly Damphousse: Yeah. When I graduated from college, I was only 19 and I couldn’t get a job as a police officer. I’m so grateful now that no police department trusted me with a fast car and a weapon. I got a job as a prison guard, and I remember telling people like I was doing-. After a while, I said I’m never going to get out of prison. It’s hard to get out of prison even if you’re a guard. I just thought I was typecast, and I said, “I’m doing a life sentence eight hours at a time.” I was three years in, and I said, “I got 17 more years to go ‘til I’m 20, then I can retire and then figure out the next part of my life.”

Then I had this former instructor from community college who saw me one day and said, “I thought you want to be a police officer.” I said, “I did,” and he said, “Do you still want to?” I said, “I’ll do anything to become a police officer,” and he said, “Anything?” I said, “Well…” and we talked about it. Then I said, “Yeah, I’m all in. I’ll do anything,” and he said, “You should go back to school and get a four-year degree, and that will help you, and I’ll help you get there.” He said, “I’ve got these colleagues. I’ve made some friends down in this school called Sam Houston State down in Texas, and they’ll accept your two-year diploma. Come over there and get your four-year degree, and then come back, and I’ll help you become a Mountie.” So that was the ultimate goal.

I ended up meeting a Texan, who she didn’t want to marry a cop or a Canadian, so she made me stay in the States, and that’s the story. My life really is divided between Sam Houston State before and after because when I went there, I met her and made a decision to stay in the States, and that’s really changed the trajectory of my life. And getting that degree changed the trajectory of my life. I think about that a lot. When we talk about what we’re doing in higher education in America and how we’re changing people’s lives, I’m a living embodiment of that, of someone who came here with nothing. I literally had packed everything I owned in the world in a hockey bag on the back of my motorcycle and drove to Texas from Canada, and then never left, and didn’t have to leave because this country afforded me so much, and really it was the degree that gave me that opportunity.

Jon Fansmith: Well, and I love the former professor reaching out to you because, and Mushtaq will back this up, we have done a number of episodes where we talked to people about their journeys through higher ed. And the overwhelming majority, right, Mushtaq, started with somebody who said, “You need to get your degree,” or, “You would make a great X, Y, or Z,” and, essentially, always sort of shocking to hear people who said, “I never would’ve considered this until somebody showed faith in me or reached out and saw, knew what I wanted to do and gave me that encouragement.” In some ways, we’re talking about what a unique story you have, but in some ways, it’s also a very consistent story that we see in people who have really risen through the higher ed ranks.

Kelly Damphousse: Yeah. When I get a chance to talk to people about my career, and people often ask like, “How do you become a college president?” I say “Well, don’t do what I did because it wasn’t planned at all,” but I talk about the five people that changed my life, and they’re all either advisers or teachers or professors.

One of them, actually, was my master’s thesis adviser, who really babied me through the first couple of years of graduate school because I had no clue what was going on. I had no idea what I was doing. I was basically just biding my time trying to figure out what to do with my life after I got married and trying to figure out a way to convince my wife that Canada was a beautiful place to live, and next thing I knew I had a PhD and I had to stay here.

But I remember talking to him one day, and I said, “I don’t even know why you’re doing all these things for me. Why are you investing yourself in me?” and I said, “How could I ever pay you back for what you’ve done for me?” and he said, “Kelly, you don’t have anything I want, so you can’t pay me back.” We happened to be sitting in his car. He said, “Someday, you’ll be sitting behind the steering wheel, and there’ll be somebody sitting in the passenger seat and they’re going to need your help. That’s how you pay me back, because you do for them what I did for you, and don’t forget that you didn’t get here by yourself, that you got here because other people invested in you.”

I’m not kidding. I think about that moment every single day of my life. That was one of those moments in my life that I said, “Okay.” They say the second-best day of your life was the day you were born, and the best day of your life is the day you figure out why you were born. It was like that moment when I said, “I’m here to serve other people, help them get from here to there.” That moment changed my life. I don’t know if that was a signature moment for him. We talk about that quite a bit. I still love the guy. He’s still a great guy, a great mentor. But for me, it was like one of those turning points.

Jon Fansmith: For our audience who can’t see, Mushtaq and I basically just spent the last two minutes nodding and smiling.

Kelly Damphousse: You’ve seen this, right?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, but every time, it’s something that really reaches down, touches you, and really the importance of higher education, how it can impact people’s lives. And related to that, especially given your experiences, we have been talking about, and, Mushtaq, going back to your time at the Department of Education with Second Chance Pell, we seem to be at what we see as a very positive turning point in the way we approach how we deal with incarcerated individuals and particularly giving them access to education. Very recently, we had a change in law that allows prisoners to access Pell Grants after 20-plus years of denying any federal support for prisoners to pursue their educations. Given your background, both in terms of correctional work and now as head of an institution, just curious to get your thoughts on where you see this moment in time and where you see those opportunities, what this looks like to you from your perspective.

Kelly Damphousse: Yeah, it’s great. I hadn’t thought about my personal connection of being a prison guard, but I do remember when I was in prison and I was a brand new prison guard, and one of the guards who was training me said, “Hey, Kelly, don’t think you’re any better than these guys.” He said, “There’s an off chance that you might have been just as likely to be in here as you were and, by the grace of God, you’re not. These people all come from different backgrounds and so on, and there’s all kinds of reasons why they’re here, and they are valuable people.” And he was telling me, trying to teach me-. This was during the era of rehabilitation was coming into vogue in the 1980s in prison systems. That’s how far back it was. It was 1982, right? And he said, “Prisons are not warehouses, and they’re not places just to keep people until they die. Eventually, they will leave here.” And this is an older guard that was telling me. This wasn’t like a social worker telling me this. He said, “Our job is to help make sure that when they leave here, they can lead a good life and contribute back to society and not come back.”

The truth is the recidivism rate is somewhere around 70 or 80%, depending on what jurisdiction you’re looking at, which means 70 or 80% of people who get out of prison come back to prison. When you have opportunities from whatever mechanism, a job placement or degree advancement, where you can help people reintegrate back into society that they left and then have a reasonable chance at a reasonable life that can impact our society in a good way, there’s no greater calling than the correctional system to do that. Remember, it is correctional. The idea here is that we are correcting people and trying to get them more socialized and give them the chance to get back into mainstream society.

Mushtaq Gunja: You are about just a little bit more than a year into this presidency of Texas State, I think. A fabulous institution, I think something like 33,000 undergrads.

Kelly Damphousse: Yeah, so we’re the 25th-largest university in undergraduate population in the country. But our graduate program is relatively small, so you’re right to point out about 33,000 undergrads and about 4,000 or 5,000 grad students.

Mushtaq Gunja: I know you serve a pretty high percentage of Pell students. I think 41% of your students are Pell. Something like 50% are underrepresented minorities. An incredibly diverse institution in terms of your students and also in terms of what you’re trying to do. Do you want to talk a little bit about your priorities over the next couple of years as you’ve entered this job?

Kelly Damphousse: Yeah, just for some context, I’d served as a professor and then ultimately associate dean and dean at the University of Oklahoma in the College of Arts and Sciences. So I was actually part of an institution that had raised its research profile and its national profile. I remember hearing this quote at the University of Oklahoma where the president once said, “We want to build a university that the football team can be proud of.” That’s kind of a funny line, but he was trying to say, “We’ve got to build up. We’ve got a great football team, and we won the national championships. The whole university has to rise,” so I remember thinking and adopting this idea of we have to be excellent in all things.

I left there and was chancellor of the campus at Arkansas State University for five years and then came here. While I was there at Arkansas State, we became an R2 institution. It was about the same time that Texas State became R2.

When I was applying for this job, there was actually eight criteria in what they were looking for for the presidency. The very first one was we want to become an R1 institution and become a tier one research university. This actually aligned with the Texas legislature’s efforts to increase the number of research universities in the state. Number two was to raise the university’s national profile, and that really was closely tied to the first one, becoming known as a national research university. Number eight, by the way, was fixing the football program. I think some alumni were asked, “What are your priorities?” and that made it to the priorities list, and so we’re working on that as well.

But it’s telling that the university had been spending some time before I got here thinking about what it would mean to become an R1 institution because I’ve spent most of my career convincing people that these are not rankings. They’re just classifications. They describe different things. Even during my interview, I would repeat this idea that if you want to become R1, you’re saying, “We want to become different, and here’s what different looks like, and if that’s what you want, I’ve lived through that. We went through that at Oklahoma, and I see how this can happen here.”
We’re behind, but there’s things we can do, and we’re fortunate that the state is providing resources to allow us to do that. We can certainly talk about that some more as well. To be living in a state where the legislature’s actually investing in higher education is a relatively rare luxury.

When we got here, I also noticed that there was, I think, some understandable reticence among some of the faculty about, a worry about giving up the things we have always valued. We’re a 122-year-old university. We’ve been certainly doing research for a long time, but, originally, we were a teacher school, and so our job was to teach teachers, and then we started adding other disciplines over time, and certainly we’ve got some other great programs. Our fine arts programs are unbelievable. And there’s understandable anxiety around that issue like, do we stop investing in the fine arts? Do we stop being a teaching school? Are we more interested in PhDs than undergrads? And so on.

As I met with people, and I actually spent the first few months just going to people’s offices and meeting them in their spaces and trying to get a temperature on where we work, because I anticipated there would be an anxiety around it, and I found it. What I decided to do is that we would try to chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. Let’s keep doing the things we’re proud of and we’ve loved doing for over 120 years, but add this other component over here.

We’ve been blessed with some pretty strong resources at the university. We’ve saved money over the years. We’ve got some reserves we can invest in, so we stood up two commissions, one on something I call the Run to R1. We could certainly walk towards an R1 designation, but we’ve done so much work already. What would it take to get us there by 2027? I think 2033 or 2030 would be relatively easy, but what would it take to get us there by 2027?

Then, at the same time, we stood up a commission on student success, and this is all about the academic programs we’re offering. Are we offering the right ones? Should we be offering different ones? What does our recruiting look like? As you mentioned, we’ve got a very diverse student body. We’re 61% minority at our university. Our demographics exactly mirror the state of Texas. We’ve got a lot of first generation-students here. So how can we continue to recruit those kinds of students and have them be successful here and then ultimately graduate them?

We’ll have another record freshman class this year, probably about 8,000, maybe 8,500 freshmen this year, but our goal has shifted from having the biggest freshman class every year to having the biggest graduating class every year. So those two commissions are meant purposefully, not in a way to coopt anybody, but to align ourselves with our values. Our values are both teaching and education and changing people’s lives and the research mission, as well.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. I love that. I love that you can hold two thoughts in your head at one time and have the organization move and to improve at everything that you do. It actually aligns really nicely with the way that we’re thinking about the Carnegie work because we’ll certainly keep a classification that’s around degree profiles and degrees and research, but we’re also creating this new social and economic mobility classification, which really is going to be much more student outcome-centered and really evaluate institutions by how they’re doing on social and economic mobility measures.

And thank you for clarifying that these are groupings and not rankings. Maybe if the two of us say it enough times, Jon, maybe you can help, too, then maybe somebody will believe it one of these days because I feel like it’s the hardest part of this.

Can I ask one more question?

Kelly Damphousse: Sorry to chime in, but it does feel like rankings, though, when you say, “Here are our new peer institutions,” which means they’re our aspirational peers, and we’re not quite there yet, so I get why people think “better,” now because you’re compared with other people. Every university has to figure out who we are, and then, as I said earlier, be excellent in everything that you do, and that means sometimes jettisoning some things that aren’t working, like things you tried to do. And if becoming an R1, if we weren’t capable of that, then we should jettison the plan and say, “That’s just not who we are. We’re this. We should be proud of that, and make us be the best R2,” and whatever, but we’re so close. Our trajectory is so close, I feel like. We just have to make a few changes to get there and invest a little bit in ways we haven’t done before, so, yeah, great point.

Mushtaq Gunja: One of the things that’s interesting about research, and I think it sometimes gets lost, is the investment in research can have a lot of positive impacts for students and for undergraduate students. Are there ways in which you’re thinking about your investments in both the research expenditure side and potentially on the research degree side and aligning that with some of the student success measures?

Kelly Damphousse: Well, yeah, whenever I talk about this run to R1, I often talk about-. The first thing that I do is talk about why are we running to R1? Actually, we put together a video for our board of regents that we’re going to release next week. I’ll send you a link to it so you can see it. If we talk about that, why are we doing this? How does this improve the kinds of faculty we’re attracting? It means we’ll continue to attract high-quality faculty to come to our university. And those high-quality faculty interact with our students. And by the way, because we haven’t had a large graduate student population, a large number of our undergraduates are actually engaged in the research process, so how do we continue to engage our undergraduates when we grow our graduate student body? How do we continue to engage our undergraduates in the research enterprise, and how can we recruit more of our very diverse undergraduate student body into master’s programs and then ultimately to PhD programs, and what is the pathway for that as well?

We think that becoming an R1 institution also increases the value of the degree for our alumni, who then again see themselves aligned with other peer institutions that they think have high prestige as well. There’s all kinds of benefits out there, but you’re right, you have to be careful. This is the thing that I worry about the most is chasing metrics with investments. People do that with other magazine rankings and so on and say, “Well, we’ve reverse engineered the rankings, and we know that if we invest in these three things, that’ll increase our score to such and such a thing.” I’ve resisted that greatly here because I said, “Well, let’s just do what we know we must do, and where are we short and where should we invest?”

Part of that is, as good as we’ve been in student success, our retention numbers, we hit a record this past year of 80.2%, but that means almost 20% of our freshman class didn’t come back, so where can we invest there? So that’s why the investment is in research, but also in the student success area as well. It has to be. Have to be able to do both.

Jon Fansmith: And Kelly, I wanted to ask you about something that I think actually ties in nicely with this, what we’ve just been talking about, how you embrace the research role, but keep it consistent with the identity of the institution and the other things you do very well, but you also mentioned earlier it’s nice to be in a state where they’re investing in higher education. One of the things that’s come up recently, this idea of the Texas University Fund which is a-. Well, frankly, I’ll let you explain it a little bit, because I have a feeling you’ll explain it better than I will, but can you tell our listeners a little bit about what the Texas University Fund is and how that ties into these efforts you’re undertaking?

Kelly Damphousse: Yeah. Some good context here is that, at the founding of the state, the state founders created something called the Permanent University Fund which funneled money from west Texas counties that back then were basically cattle ranches and pushed money into something called the Permanent University Fund. And those funds were originally going to University of Texas, but then ultimately to Texas A&M, and then those two systems had benefited from the proceeds. Ultimately, they found oil in that land. It turned out to be an incredible investment by the state to do this, and those two universities and the systems have really benefited greatly from that.

Over the years, there’s been efforts of trying to put other universities into the Permanent University Fund or let them get a cut of that fund because it generates enormous amount of money for those two systems. It’s been politically unpalatable, and so, more recently, the effort has been to create a separate fund for what the state has called emerging research universities, and so they have taken a part of this enormous surplus. Texas economic engine is running on all eight cylinders, and so $34 billion of surplus this year, they took somewhere-. The numbers are still not certain yet. Somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 billion dollars will be applied to something called the Texas University Fund. One third of the revenue will go to University of Houston, one third to Texas Tech, and then University of North Texas and Texas State will split the remaining one third, so we’ll get one sixth each.

This will be the first time the state has made that kind of investment in those four schools just for the research enterprise. This isn’t just our allocation. These are monies that will go directly to the research enterprise. The goal for the governor and for the legislature is for us to have increasing number of universities listed in the top 100 in the research classification or rankings because we are bursting at the seams. Companies who are moving to Texas, many of them from states that have universities that are ranked in the top 100. So we’re generating knowledge in places like California and Florida and so on, but we’re not doing as well here. That’s something the legislature says we can do a better job of.

The kinds of resources that will now be split, I don’t know where the number is going to actually fall for Texas State, but it could be an infusion of 25 or 30 or 40 million a year upwards. I’ve seen upwards of a hundred million dollars a year over time, just for research, and that allows me to hire postdocs, to invest in strategic hiring clusters, to provide stipends and tuition waivers for top-notch graduate students now, who are in an open market saying, “Well, here’s what this university is offering. What are you offering? Well, I’m going to go over there because they’re offering more.” I can’t compete very easily in that element right now, but now I can buying or paying for infrastructure, new buildings and new laboratories. Those kinds of things will come along because we now have some resources we never had before, and that’s remarkable to see a state investing like that.

Now, they had been doing this for a while. They had something called the NRUF, which is the National Research University Fund, which meant once you became an R1 institution, you got part of the NRUF money. This actually gives you money to help you become an R1 institution. It’s a different kind of deal. So the effort before was fund yourself, use your resources to become R1. Now it shifted to, “Here’s some funding. Make wise decisions, and go off there and help the state of Texas get better.”

Jon Fansmith: It really sounds like a remarkable, not just act of support from the state, but a remarkable opportunity for Texas State and the other institutions, so obviously something else that I know Mushtaq and I will be keeping a close eye and keeping track of as you move forward in that run to R1, but we’re going to let you get back to doing just that and managing an actual campus that requires a bit more of your time and attention than probably this podcast does, but Kelly, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your story and your vision for the institution and the work that you’re doing there.

Kelly Damphousse: Thanks so much, guys. I really enjoyed it. Mushtaq, come back to visit. Jon, you’re welcome any time. Come to San Marcos.

Mushtaq Gunja: Definitely do it. It’s beautiful there.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, I’ll take you up on that, absolutely.

Kelly Damphousse: One of the most beautiful campuses in the country. It’s got a river running right through it. It’s the headwaters at San Marcos River and Spring Lake is right there. It’s just unbelievable. You can see our original building in the background there of my slide. That’s what our first building looked like. It looks a lot different from that now, but we’re really proud of it, and we think we’re doing great things. Thank you so much, Jon and Mushtaq, for inviting me.

Mushtaq Gunja: Thanks, Kelly.

Jon Fansmith: Thanks so much for coming on.

Sarah Spreitzer: As always, you can check out earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU on Apple, Google Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. For show notes and links to the resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. While there, please take a short survey to let us know how we’re doing. You can also email us at podcast@acenet.edu to give us suggestions on upcoming shows and guests.

Finally, a very big thank you to the producers who helped pull this podcast together: Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, Malcolm Moore, Anthony Trueheart, Rebecca Morris, Jack Nicholson, and Fatma Ngom. They do an incredible job making this happen and making Jon, Mushtaq, and I sound as good as possible. Finally, thank you so much to all of you for listening.

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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