Philip Castille: The TT Interview

University of Houston-Victoria campus.
University of Houston-Victoria campus.

Philip Castille was aware of the controversy surrounding higher education — and in Victoria, in particular — when he moved his family from Hawaii and became the new president of the University of Houston-Victoria.

State leaders have spent the better part of a year mired in a contentious debate about productivity and accountability regarding the state’s public universities. Add to that a feeling among some influential members of the Victoria community that their local institution was undervalued by the University of Houston System, which prompted unsuccessful efforts to jump to an alternative system.

Castille says his reasons for the move were personal — it allowed his young son the chance to grow up closer to his extended family — as well as professional. Earlier in his career, after stints at Tulane University and the University of Memphis, Castille spent 13 years on the faculty of the University of Houston-Downtown.

UH-Downtown, a majority-minority, open-admissions institution, was unlike Tulane and Memphis. Castille said the adjustment was a galvanizing experience. “To me, all of a sudden, higher education and being a professor really meant something,” he told the Tribune. “It wasn’t just about you and publishing your own articles in private. It became a matter of actually changing people’s lives.”

Most recently, Castille was the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. But he jumped at the chance to return to the mainland, assuming his current post in August 2011.

“You know, the UH System doesn’t always get a lot of credit in the state of Texas,” he said. “But outside of the state of Texas, the UH System is really well-regarded as one of the top metropolitan-serving systems in the country. For me to come back to a high-performing institution like this was really attractive.”

Of course, UH-Victoria, which in the last two years has undergone downward expansion (admitting freshmen and sophomores) to become a full four-year institution, is a dramatically different institution from the previous UH campus that Castille experienced.

He recently talked with the Tribune about UH-Victoria’s relationship with the UH System, the university’s place in the statewide higher education landscape and what they are doing to help the state meet its workforce needs.

The following is an edited and abbreviated transcript. 

TT: What’s the current state of the conversation surrounding the attempted system switch?

Castille: When I got here, I think there had been some energetic efforts by the University of Houston System to address some of the issues that were the most serious issues that had been brought up during the spring of 2010. Of course, I was 3,000 miles away when all of that happened.

As I understand it, one of the main issues that was brought up was that the local leadership — or a good chunk of it — felt that the University of Houston master plan for Victoria was not concrete enough, and it hadn’t been updated recently, and they didn’t think it was relevant to where UH-Victoria was at the time.

I think the UH System had to acknowledge that the master plan did need to be visited again and revised. When I got here, one of the first things I was shown was a new draft master plan.

What I did right away was to bring the community and Victoria’s leadership, including all of the political leadership, into a master-planning process. I met with them twice over the course of the fall semester to show them the draft master plan and to get feedback from them on it. I think that went a long way toward offsetting a lot of the anger and frustration from the previous spring.

All the feedback that I’ve gotten has been, “Look, we might not agree with everything in the master plan, but we’re so pleased to have a plan that’s accurate, that’s timely and that’s based on downward expansion.”

That was really their big argument: that the university had gone through a big change in 2010, but that the master plan on file did not reflect that sea change. The new one does. I think everyone agreed that this was a very positive step and was addressing the main issues that the community felt had been neglected.

TT: Is your sense that you’ll be staying in the UH System for the foreseeable future?

Castille: From my point of view, being positioned in the UH System is a great advantage to UH-Victoria as we go through this big change. When I was in this interview process for this job, I had an interview with the board leadership via Skype. I addressed this question to the board leadership: What can you do to assure me that UH-Victoria is a valuable part of the UH System for the future to come?

Here’s the answer I was given. And I don’t think this answer was ever given on a clear channel to the leadership in Victoria, but it was very good answer. And it’s the one I’ve tried to give.

The answer I was given by the UH board of regents was this: The University of Houston System is Houston’s university including a metropolitan area of 6 million or so people. There are tens of thousands of students and parents in that wide metropolitan area that see the University of Houston as their regional university. Many of those students and many of their parents would like to have a traditional college-town experience for their son or daughter, and that is not possible at any branch of the University of Houston except UH-Victoria.

And so the niche, now that we admit freshman and sophomores and now that we have residence halls, the niche that we will fill for the large University of Houston System and the vast population base of the Houston statistical area is this: For those students and for their parents who wish to attend the University of Houston, but would like to have a traditional campus-town experience, UH-Victoria will provide that.

And that, we see is our niche in the master plan. And the master plan goes out to 2030 and beyond. Now obviously when you’re talking about 20 years into the future, there are going to be changes. But that core principle is what drives our master planning.

This is a thriving city. It’s perceived — and I believe the reality bares it out — as a safe, friendly, neighborly city. And so, we think this is a very, very attractive place where you would plant a destination campus for a traditional undergraduate college experience.

TT: Beyond the system, what is the university’s role in the wider statewide higher-education landscape?

Castille: That brings us back to “Closing the Gaps [the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s plan to bring college participation and achievement in Texas up to the levels in comparable states].

Some of the governor’s higher-education proposals have been somewhat controversial. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the intent or the need for closing the gaps.

If you look at the 2010 census, Texas had the steepest population growth of any state in the 2010 census. Most of that growth is in families for which college-aged students would represent first-generation college students. 

Closing the Gaps,” if it’s going to be effective in Texas, is not going to work at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s not going to get done at Texas A&M-College Station. Those universities are already oversubscribed and already maxed out in terms of their facilities. Also, they are not designed to be public access universities. If we’re going to be successful at “Closing the Gaps,” it’s going to be at places like UH-Victoria, UT-Brownsville and A&M-Texarkana.

It’s the regional comprehensive universities that are going to be called upon to be successful at ramping up to provide higher education for eligible students. 

Now, a lot of that is going to come to us in the form of transfer students. That’s where our partnerships with the community college system is going to be really important.

Here in Victoria, we’re right on the campus with Victoria College, which has been around since the 1920s.  Our two years of downward expansion have coincided with their most robust two years of enrollment growth in a decade.

I’m not saying there’s a direct relation, but what I am saying is that this is a time in Texas higher education where it really is all hands on deck. I mean, the community colleges and the four-year institutions have to be prepared to handle larger numbers of incoming students and transfer students than they’ve seen before. 

These are really unprecedented numbers in Texas higher-education history.

TT: Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about higher education’s responsiveness to the work force. One example you’ve offered of how UH-Victoria does that is by being the only institution in the UH System to offer a bachelor of applied arts and science degree. What is that, and what purpose does it serve?

Castille: Historically, graduates of two-year institutions, if they had the AA degree or the AS degree, certainly for at least a decade or two decades, most comprehensive universities have created articulations that include 2+2 agreements. But a lot of the growth, certainly over the last decade, in community colleges has been in non-AA and non-AS fields.  What I’m talking about are the AAS fields, applied arts and sciences.

There’s a wide range of degrees that students can go for in those fields. Some of the most popular are fields like computer science, information technology, criminal justice, counseling and things like that. 

Higher education at the comprehensive universities was fairly slow to respond to this rising tide of students coming out of community college with AAS degrees. The rise of the BAAS degree is really something that went hand in hand with the rise of the AAS degree on community college campuses.

If UH-V is any indication — it was until 2010, our single most popular bachelor’s degree. It’s still our second most popular major behind psychology. 

Our challenge has really been how to handle the wide range of fields that students get AAS degrees in and to design curricula that will allow students to get a bachelor’s degree.

You may ask the question, what’s the advantage to them? The advantage is this: If a student can turn an AAS degree into a BAAS degree, then you professionalize yourself. You make yourself eligible for professional-level, managerial-level positions. Oftentimes our students in BAAS programs are older students, usually over 30 and usually they’ve been in the work force for five to 10 years or more. They’ve advanced to a point where their original credential, they’ve outgrown it, and they should be stepping up to be managers, but they lack a bachelor’s degree. That’s where we come in.

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