Proposed Rules Spark Concern About Campus Construction

UTEP campus on Jan. 31, 2012.
UTEP campus on Jan. 31, 2012.

University officials from around the state — baffled by proposed rule changes on construction funding — will seek some clarity from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board next week.

The proposed revisions deal with the board’s approval process for campus buildings funded with student fees. The rules would allow the board to consider the financial impact on students when determining whether or not to approve a project, and also require that student funds account for no more than 75 percent of any capital construction projects.

The change appears to have been inspired by discussions surrounding a new student union at the University of North Texas, which to the surprise of many observers, the board declined to approve at its October board meeting.

UNT students held an election and approved a $114 per semester fee that, in the initial proposal, would finance more than 90 percent of the building. But only 10 percent of the student body participated in the election, and within that small group, only 54 percent were in favor of the idea.

“You can scramble this, bake it, flip it up and down, hang it from the ceiling, whatever you want to do with it, that’s woefully low,” THECB board member Dennis Golden told UNT President V. Lane Rawlins.

UNT officials pointed out that a 10 percent turnout is actually higher than is typical in a student election on their campus, and said they had actively tried to encourage student participation.

For what it’s worth, it’s a higher turnout of eligible voters than in many statewide elections. But the board was not satisfied.

“In the future, I’m going to scrutinize the student participation of these types of projects,” Golden said.

Board member Munir Lalani noted that the building had been part of UNT’s plans for many years and wondered why the school had not secured more private funds to support it. He estimated they could have brought the burden on students down by up to 30 percent.

But with the exception of top-tier universities, it can be difficult to gin up interest in naming rights that sometimes go with private funding.

“In very few corners of higher education can you raise money to name buildings,” Rawlins explained. “You have buildings named, but that’s not why the gift was given.”

The 75 percent ceiling for student funding is already the coordinating board’s rule for athletic facilities. But particularly at the smaller institutions, there is concern that these new rule changes, if they go forward, will make it very difficult to get any non-athletic buildings approved.

University officials are not eager to discuss their concerns on the record, but several expressed frustration at what they perceived as a potential move toward increased regulation from the coordinating board.

Meanwhile, the student union at UNT, which was resubmitted with a new funding sources that reduced the students financing to about 88 percent, is still awaiting approval from the full board.