Houston mayor “concerned” about UT expansion

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said the UT System’s planned expansion into the city could hurt other Houston-based universities.

“One the one hand, it is flattering for a Tier One institution like UT to want to expand its blueprint in Houston,” Turner said in a statement. “On the other hand, with the playing field not being level for public higher institutions, I am concerned UT may be utilizing access to the Permanent University Fund to stymie the growth of UH. I am not going to jump to conclusions at this time, but I am concerned.”

The Permanent University Fund is a state-owned sovereign wealth fund which only allocates money to the UT and Texas A&M University Systems, not other Texas public universities such as the University of Houston System.

Turner’s criticism of the UT System is similar to other critical statements many other Houston-based lawmakers have made about the System. Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) said the UT System may draw away research dollars or other funding from Houston-based institutions in a letter to Chancellor William McRaven in December.

“In my 42 years of service in the Texas legislature, I have not seen such an affront to the legislative process,” Whitmire wrote. “I would strongly urge the University of Texas leadership to hold off on any action … until the Legislature reconvenes.”

The System isn’t backing down from its ambitious plans to build a new campus in Houston. The planned 300-acre campus, which is estimated to cost around $450 million over 30 years, is set in southwest Houston near the downtown business hub. A task force will convene to discuss possible uses for the campus without duplicating the efforts of existing Houston institutions, according to a UT System press release.

In a response to the mayor, UT System spokesperson Karen Adler said the System is working with lawmakers and other higher education institutions to develop plans for the Houston campus.

“The expansion of higher education opportunities for Texans, regardless of which institutions offer them, is a positive achievement,” Adler said in a statement. “More higher education, more students obtaining marketable skills and certificates or degrees is needed for Texas to remain strong economically and societally.”

While the UT System has promised to collaborate with other institutions during the planning process, UT System Chancellor William McRaven acknowledged he is “guilty as charged” last Thursday of not coordinating with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees all higher education activities in the state.

“It probably would have been a good idea [to consult with the coordinating board],” McRaven said. “If the word gets out, the next thing you know, the price goes up [on the land].”

Whitmire and other lawmakers have raised doubts about the PUF’s allocation of funds.

“As the distribution is currently constituted, UT owning 300 acres in Houston and having access to the PUF would give them a distinct advantage over UH and its ability to compete for highly recruited faculty and research dollars,” Whitmire wrote in a letter to McRaven.

In response, McRaven said the System’s expansion into Houston would benefit the city and the state as a whole, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle.

“This isn’t a competition. This is an opportunity,” McRaven wrote. “The University of Texas and Texas A&M have been magnificent stewards of this unique resource since its inception. The incredible strength of Texas higher education, research and the economy can be directly attributed to how UT and A&M have utilized the PUF. We are proud of our stewardship and the progress we have made to advance our state.”