Just off Highway 59 in fast-growing Fort Bend County, two academic buildings make up a multi-institutional teaching center known as the University of Houston Sugar Land. Most of its university courses are offered by the University of Houston-Victoria, a small but ambitious institution more than 100 miles away.
For roughly 20 years, despite the distance, UH-Victoria has maintained a presence in Sugar Land, where it generates a significant portion of its revenue and houses many of its full-time faculty.
That era will soon end. In February, the regents from the University of Houston System, which is made up of four universities and five teaching centers, approved a plan to convert the Sugar Land location into a branch campus of its flagship institution, the University of Houston, over the next two to five years.
While Victoria took the decision as an eviction notice for UH-Victoria, there was palpable excitement in Sugar Land over the anticipated influx of programs exclusively from the University of Houston, which is 25 miles away and carries the designation of a top-tier research university.
“Now we will be a part of a major tier-one university,” said Sugar Land Mayor James Thompson, who was on the task force that recommended the change. He speculated that the benefits to his city could be comparable to the influence of the University of Texas System’s flagship in Austin.
The move, which also calls for Houston to absorb UH-Victoria’s nursing school because it depends on the facilities in Sugar Land, bewildered local leaders in Victoria. They have been encouraging efforts, aided by significant investments from the university system, to make UH-Victoria a prominent regional university. Projections for its enrollment and budget had assumed that the university would continue to grow in Sugar Land.
Victoria Mayor Paul Polasek, who was not on the university system’s task force, said the plan caught local officials by surprise, as did the system’s lack of follow-up on Victoria’s concerns. “Right now, the system appears to be a bit unresponsive to some of our inquiries,” he said last month.
Polasek said that as of last week, communication with the system had not picked up, though confusion at UH-Victoria had.
In mid-March, 13 members of the UH-Victoria faculty senate passed a vote of no confidence in Philip Castille, who had served as the university’s president since 2011. Four days later, Renu Khator, the system chancellor and president of the University of Houston, called him into a meeting, after which he resigned.
In an email this week, Khator declined to elaborate. “President Castille resigned and I accepted his resignation,” she wrote, adding that she would not comment further.
Castille, in an email to The Texas Tribune this week, said he was ousted because of his opposition to the Sugar Land campus plan. Noting previous positive evaluations from Khator, he said, “she turned against me only when I opposed the dismemberment of UHV at Sugar Land, a crisis she herself brought on.”
He further asserted that because of the flagship university’s higher price and admission standards, the change in Sugar Land would “reduce rather than expand educational opportunity for first-generation college students and working students in suburban Houston.”
Khator said she was forming a transition committee to study such issues and make recommendations. “Ultimately we will provide the region with increased higher education opportunities and expanded access,” she said. As for specifics of the transition, she said that “all of the answers are not yet known, nor should they be speculated upon.”
Ron Salazar, a professor based in Sugar Land and the president of U.H.-Victoria’s faculty senate, said he was comfortable with the situation. “There are a lot of questions to be answered, but the chancellor has made it clear that she is committed to supporting faculty, students and staff,” he said.
State Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, said such information should have been available before the board’s decision. “You should know what the outcomes are going to be prior to voting on something,” Morrison said.
She asked the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to conduct an impact study on the UH System plan.
UH-Victoria’s second abrupt presidential resignation in four years made the situation more difficult, she said. “He was doing his job, and the institution was doing very well,” she said of Castille. “I don’t understand why we don’t have a president again.”
In 2011, Morrison filed a bill that would have transferred UH-Victoria to the Texas A&M University System. This week, she said consideration of renewing that effort was “premature.”
When asked if the A&M system would be interested in taking over the Victoria campus, Chancellor John Sharp expressed uncertainty. “What will be left in Victoria after UH moves Victoria programs to Sugar Land?” he asked.
Jarvis Hollingsworth, the chairman of the Houston system’s board of regents, said that rather than diminishing the institution, the new plan provided an opportunity for the system to focus on UH-Victoria’s growth in its hometown.
“It’s easy to me to understand how people may not fully understand why this was the right decision to make, especially the folks who live in Victoria,” he said. “But from my perspective and the board’s perspective, it makes all the sense in the world.”
The plan approved by the board calls for UH-Victoria to “be furnished with adequate funds to carry out its important mission to become a destination university in the city of Victoria.” The source of those funds and the total amount will be worked out by the transition team.
Hollingsworth, a Sugar Land resident, said he hoped that people in Victoria would have faith in the UH system. “Hopefully, the tensions will lessen as more time goes by,” he said, “and they will start to see tangible benefits of an effort that is going to be in their best interests.”
Polasek said faith would not be enough. “You have to build trust,” he said. “This made us question that somewhat. It can certainly be repaired and we can move forward. But the actions they took, the way they handled this, was just questionable in our minds.”
Hollingsworth said Sugar Land has desired a stronger association with UH for some time, and that the cities’ roles have previously been reversed.
“Trust me, there were times when Sugar Land wasn’t really happy with the University of Houston for their own reasons,” Hollingsworth said. “But they’ve been patient and let us do our work, and now they like the result. We’re just asking Victoria to do the same thing.”