Texas senators give UH advice about Legislature
A strong, cohesive message and personal contact are the keys to forging positive relationships with state legislators on behalf of the University, Faculty Senate members learned at their retreat in late October.
UH administrators, officials and its regents are continually using these tactics to gain support from the Legislature, so Texas senators are more aware of the University’s potential, Interim President John Rudley had said at the UH System Board of Regents’ Nov. 1 meeting.
"We need to try and tell the story. We have not educated the legislature," Rudley said at the meeting, discussing UH’s new initiatives – specifically regarding the Health Science Center initiative.
At the retreat, senators heard an open panel discussion by Texas Sen. Dan Patrick, Rep. Garnet Coleman and Rep. Scott Hochberg and brainstormed ideas for how UH could better reach out to legislators.
"(The discussion) gave the (faculty) senators a much better sense of the kinds of pressures our state legislators face and the need to work with them and put our needs in language that they can communicate to the people who elected them," said Allen Warner, education professor and a Faculty Senate Executive Committee member.
Faculty Senate President Joseph Kotarba said the legislators provided valuable feedback and strategies to help UH gain more influence in the Legislature.
Their advice included sending legislators unified and consistent messages from administration, faculty, students and alumni, playing up the University’s strengths and focusing on a few key priorities rather than many goals.
"We should prioritize our work," he said. "We can’t be all things to all people, and we need to build on our strengths."
Kotarba said in the discussion, the legislators said state officials and voters view the University favorably, and he noted UH should focus on becoming a positive influence on the state’s economy.
"One way to be important is to acknowledge and help satisfy the needs of the state of Texas," he said.
UH can increase its influence, in the state and in Houston, by raising the number of college graduates in the state, conducting research in conjunction with military and corporate applications and teaching students to become productive contributors to the economy, he said.
Warner said another point raised during the retreat was UH must find sources for funding other than state formula funding, which is based on enrollment.
"We have to look for ways to get revenues in, and our options are relatively few," Warner said. "Unlike a school district, we can’t do a property tax, so we have income from the state, and we have tuition and fees, and there’s not a whole lot else….
"(We should continue) trying to find revenue streams that aren’t just student tuition and fees, because that’s kind of where over a long period of time all of the costs of running higher education in Texas have gone."
Warner said the retreat did not address any specific revenue options.
Faculty senators also met with UH political science professor Richard Murray and Vice President of Governmental Relations Grover Campbell in brainstorming legislative priorities for UH.
Warner said the Faculty Senate should continue working with other entities to improve the University.
"We try not to do things unilaterally just as a senate, we want to work with the administration and with the regents and with the students to really make it an institution in which students can continue to take pride," he said. "We’d like to make the University of Houston among the top two or three things the legislators care about – that’s going to require more than just the Faculty Senate, that’s going to require student support and everybody working toward it."
Kotarba said faculty members are in a unique position to develop relationships with legislators and raise awareness of UH.
"We understand students and their needs, we understand administrators and their expectations, and we know the community," he said. "Faculty (is) in a great position to tell the University’s story in ways that are meaningful to legislators."
Campbell said the retreat was a positive step in building relationships with legislators.
"This is how anybody interested in trying to have an impact on the legislative process needs to go about their business – you have to have a clear, concise message, that that message is uniformly, unanimously reinforced over and over. Those are just general rules," he said. "I’m happy the Senate had a chance to get engaged early in this process. Hopefully, there will be some good follow-through. The most important part of dealing with the legislature is dealing with the legislature, being engaged."
Campbell said specific legislative agenda items for the University will not be decided until UH begins to write its formal appropriations requests in late Spring 2008, but it is still important to communicate with legislators now.
Kotarba said the Senate would continue to reach out to legislators and plans to hold a reception for them before the next legislative session starts in January 2009. He has also extended invitations to the three other Faculty Senate presidents in the UH System to discuss how the system as a whole can better reach out to the state.
He also extended appreciation to Welcome Wilson, chairman of the UH System Board of Regents, for supporting and participating in the retreat.
"It was a great experience for faculty to hear the legislators talk to us about who we are," he said. "It was a good feeling to hear the legislators say we’re doing a good job."