Proposed UT expansion less than 10 miles from UH
The University of Texas System is set to expand its foothold in Houston with the proposed institution falling just under 7 miles from the University of Houston.
In November 2015, the UT System Board of Regents voted to purchase 332 acres roughly 3.5 miles south of the Texas Medical Center. Though an official plan for the expansion has yet to be released, it has already faced opposition from many Houstonians.
“It’s a duplication of state resources when there’s already two state institutions in this city,” said Trey Wilkinson, former president of the University of Houston Alumni Association Foundation. “That’s the thing we keep trying to convey.”
Following the UT System’s land purchase, the Alumni Association Foundation began a change.org petition calling on Texas legislators to prevent the expansion for this reason, additionally citing the expansion as unnecessary competition for the University of Houston.
In December 2015, a Dallas Morning News article addressed a letter from Houston Rep. Carol Alvarado to the Texas Higher Education Commissioner regarding the possible Houston expansion and the response it received from William McRaven, the UT System Chancellor.
In the letter, Alvarado said UT’s purchase of the land undermines the state’s authority on higher education and called on the commissioner to stop the expansion.
“Purchasing land does not require Coordinating Board approval,” McRaven said in response. “If or when we consider expanding academic programs in Houston, that process would occur only with the full approval of the Coordinating Board and with thoughtful consultation with elected officials and our higher education colleagues in Houston.”
Previously, McRaven has said that large cities draw multiple Tier One universities and that university systems should work together for the betterment of higher education in Texas.
“This isn’t a competition,” McRaven said. “This is an opportunity. When Texas A&M opened a campus not far from UT San Antonio a few years ago, the UT System applauded it because it was good for San Antonio and it was good for Texas.”
However, Wilkinson said that were the expansion successful, the UT System’s access to the Permanent University Fund would give it an unfair advantage in relation to other universities.
The PUF is a state-level public endowment, providing financial support only to institutions belonging to the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System.
“We do think that with the money that the University of Texas System, through the Permanent University Fund, has access to, it could potentially be damaging to the University of Houston,” Wilkinson said. “I think it’s very important for our student body to know what the University of Texas System has done and how they’ve been very noncommittal as to what they plan to do.”
McRaven previously told the Houston Chronicle that the UT System has no intention of using the possible expansion to compete with UH.
“Bringing more of UT to the city of Houston and creating an intellectual hub in the city in no way creates competition for the University of Houston, nor do we see this as a UT versus UH scenario,” McRaven said.
Members of the administration at UH have objected to the expansion on the grounds that the University of Texas System chose to purchase this land without discussing it with either the UH System or the Texas legislature.
“This is a Trojan horse, and Houston should not let it inside the gates,” said UH William B. Gates Distinguished Chair of Law professor and UH Downtown interim president Michael Olivas when the purchase was made in 2015. “Were the situation reversed and UH bought land near the Austin Airport to provide state-level experiences for its students in the state capitol, UT would properly object.”
Olives said the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, to which all public universities must adhere, is responsible for ensuring geographic balance, according to documents released by the Houston Chronicle.
In reference to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Olivas said the UT System should abide by the rules which have historically guided higher education institutions. Olivas referred to the practice as common law.
“The University of Houston has played by the rules and the (Coordinating Board) should enforce these equally against all comers,” Olivas said. “Purchasing land almost as large as the UH main campus violates every practice and policy so carefully carved out over the years.”
One of the main concerns raised at the possibility of a UT expansion in Houston is that it may duplicate and therefore compete with services already offered by UH. This imbalance, Olivas said, would likely not be tolerated by the Coordinating Board.
“We’re not afraid of competition,” UH System Chancellor and President Khator said to the Houston Chronicle. “But make sure it’s competition and not take over.”
According to the Houston Chronicle, McRaven said the committee charged with planning the expansion will brief the UT regents in early 2017. At that time, plans for the land will be announced.
“The University of Texas System has not said what it plans to do with the land. But we have seen, through media outlets, artistic renderings of a full campus,” Wilkinson said. “This is an election year, so we’re watching very closely what happens in Austin.”
Both Wilkinson and a UH spokesperson said the Texas legislature should be addressing this issue during its current session. Additionally, Wilkinson said this will likely be a topic of discussion at UH Day at the Capitol on March 1.
“We remain opposed to such expansion,” the UH Media Relations spokesperson said. “Nothing has changed.”