In January, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching elevated the University of Houston to its top tier of research universities. But, in the ensuing celebration for this hard-to-achieve accolade, some are feeling left out. An influential band of the 62,500 or so residents of Victoria, home of the University of Houston-Victoria — a smaller, more rural member of the University of Houston System, about 130 miles from the main campus — is leading a movement to part ways with the parent system.
State Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, filed a bill earlier this session to move the university under the Texas A&M University System, based in College Station. Supporters of the unusual proposal to become Texas A&M University-Victoria argue that more important than the name is the shift into a system that is more in line with the community’s values.
The proposal has set off debate in the community between residents who, sensing an approaching boom of first-generation students from the Valley and nearby cities, are eager to invest in a new residential campus and others who worry that the broader implications of such a move are being overlooked. “We need to partner with a system that has other institutions similar to ours and helping them thrive and grow, and Texas A&M has definitely done that,” Morrison said.
By most measures, business is booming at the University of Houston-Victoria. Until recently it had been an upper-division-only institution, but it welcomed its first class of freshmen (218) and sophomores (101) to campus in the fall. Already, more than 480 freshmen have been accepted for the next fall term. The downward expansion coupled with an enthusiastic embrace of online course offerings has increased the school’s enrollment by more than 64 percent in the last five years, to more than 4,000 students.
Many civic leaders, craving the economic development they believe could come with a full-fledged “destination” university, would like to see that growth continue. They say that they doubt that the University of Houston System, focused on the rapid growth of its flagship school, is of a similar mind.
“To say that our visions don’t match as to how we should progress is a total understatement,” said Victoria Mayor Will Armstrong. He believes the Texas A&M System, which already has several small rural campuses, might be a better fit. He referred to the switch as “the absolute No. 1 highest priority that we’ve ever had that I can remember.”
Don Smith, the interim president of UH Victoria, said the push was coming from the community, not from the campus. Because of state laws prohibiting government employees from lobbying on specific legislation, the systems are also publicly quiet on the issue. What they are allowed to say, however, betrays little eagerness for the switch.
“We are not seeking to persuade or entice members of other university systems to join the Texas A&M University System,” said Jason Cook, a spokesman for the A&M System, which recently acquired two new campuses in San Antonio and Killeen.
The University of Houston System issued a statement on behalf of Renu Khator, the chancellor, and Carroll Ray, the board of regents chairman. “As U.H. Victoria transitions into a four-year ‘destination’ university of choice that offers quality, accredited face-to-face and online programs to students in the Gulf Coast region and beyond, we believe the U.H. System remains the best partner for U.H.V. and its students,” it said.
Dennis Patillo, a Victoria businessman who chaired the destination campus subcommittee on a recent education commission set up by Morrison and who fully supports the switch, said that the system’s position on the university’s expansion into freshman and sophomore education was “ambivalent at best.”
Last year, a wealthy resident offered to donate 100 acres, with an option on 200 more, in order to build a more attractive residential campus for UH Victoria. Adding injury to the insult of a perceived lack of support, the system turned it down.
In their statement, however, the system’s leaders contended, “We remain firmly committed to a destination university in Victoria.”
Complicating any switch for either system are the elements of UHV that are not confined to the campus in Victoria. The university has a major stake in University of Houston System centers in Sugar Land as well as in the Cinco Ranch neighborhood in Katy. Additionally, the system currently provides the computer servers and technological support for all of the university’s online degrees.
State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said the issue was much more complicated than a simple swap because Sugar Land and Katy are not as eager to part ways with the system. “People keep asking why they wouldn’t want to leave,” Hegar said. “Well, why would they? Nobody asked them. It’s hard to get married if you haven’t been asked.”
Still, if the House passes the legislation and sends it to the Senate, he said he would work to make sure each community gets what it needs — which may mean splitting up the campuses, a move that could endanger degree offerings administered by UH Victoria at the system centers. “I am more than willing to help Victoria accomplish what they want,” he said. “If they want to leave the system, I will create a mechanism to make sure they can do that.”
While many residents in Victoria support the move, not all are eager to change. Gabriel Soliz, the lone city councilman to vocally oppose the switch, has expressed concern that the timing is off. With the state facing a huge budget shortfall, it is not the right time to make costly transitions. “People say we’re just going to switch out the flags, but it’s a whole lot more complicated than that,” he said.
Matt Ocker, a local businessman, said he is not impressed with the plan’s endorsement by local business organizations like the Victoria Economic Development Corporation. “It’s a small group of people that are mostly unelected that decided they are the voice of Victoria, and what they want, they’re going to get,” he said.
With only seven weeks remaining in this legislative session, the bill has yet to receive a hearing. Morrison said that with the House’s budget debate concluded, she was refocused on the effort. Armstrong, Victoria’s mayor, said that if it does not pass this session, there will be another chance in two years. And in the meantime, he’s willing to give the University of Houston System a second chance.
“I am completely and totally open to a new mutual understanding on the vision,” he said.