HOUSTON — Charles Haston was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the University of Texas at Austin longhorn logo when he showed up for orientation at the University of Houston — home of the Cougars — in the fall of 2008.
“I wasn’t the only one,” he recalled. The University of Houston “was this school that was rather dilapidated, had a reputation for being ‘Cougar High,’ and it was everyone’s second or third choice.”
That year was the university’s first under Renu Khator, its president who also doubles as the chancellor of the University of Houston system. As the first woman to hold both positions concurrently, and the only chancellor of a Texas public university system who is a woman, a minority or foreign-born, she was well cast as the face of change.
Over the next six years, Khator tried to instill a drive for national competitiveness in place of a mentality she described as “we are what we are.” While the aggressive transformation of the urban university has drawn praise, it has prompted questions about the college’s role in both the community and the university system.
“We are in an experiment to make sure that diversity and excellence are not put in two mutually exclusive categories,” Khator said. “Because we are such a diverse university, we are very important for the country. We are the prototype of what universities will look like.”
Today, it is difficult to spend a day at UH without being reminded that it has reached the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s highest classification for research activity. On campus, this is referred to as “tier one” status. The designation holds particular significance in Texas, where lawmakers have provided major financial incentives to encourage eight of its public universities, including UH, to elevate themselves to the same perch as UT-Austin and Texas A&M University.
Perhaps no Texas university has embraced the challenge with as much enthusiasm as UH. But some legislators have begun sounding the alarm that UH’s transition could provide a less-accessible academic environment for its roughly 40,000 students, a majority of which are minority.
“What we complain about as legislators is the lack of students of color at the tier ones we already have,” state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said. “If that’s the model, then that means we’ve just limited access at UH like it’s limited at A&M and UT”
There are concerns about rising costs during the tier one push: In fiscal year 2014, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the average tuition and fees at UH were 46 percent higher than they were in fiscal year 2007, and exceeded those at UT-Austin and A&M. Despite that, Khator noted that the school has fared well in rankings of universities that graduate students with the least amount of debt.
There have also been questions about college culture. Khator is determined to improve UH’s graduation rate; currently, 55 percent of students graduate within six years.
One of her proposed strategies for improving student engagement and retention called for requiring most freshmen to live on campus. It was quickly set aside last month after strong objections from state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.
In texts with Khator that were published in the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire, a UH alum, noted that the school had long served commuters, including himself, and accused the president of being “very insensitive” to the “UH experience.”
Haston a student in the business school at UH and the student government association president, said the exchange represented “an ideological struggle about what the university’s mission is supposed to be.”
He added that UH is “not the same university that Whitmire went to or that people even 20 or 30 years ago went to.” Among the state’s public universities, UH now has the second-highest number of students living on campus, after Texas A&M.
Whitmire, who declined to comment for this article, also questioned how Khator had gotten so far along on such a proposal without local lawmakers getting a heads up.
“We generally try to keep all our legislators as informed as possible, but you can get blindsided sometimes and you can make mistakes sometimes,” Khator said, adding that she is always willing to step back and reconsider alternative strategies.
It was not the first time this year that Khator had made waves.
In February, the UH system announced that the main UH campus would take over a campus in Sugar Land that the University of Houston-Victoria operated out of, and annex the UH-Victoria nursing program. Philip Castille, then the UH-Victoria president, opposed the change, and was ousted in March for what he framed as opposing Khator’s policies “that starve UH-Victoria to feed her tier one ambitions.”
Castille said he was concerned that the campus transition would leave students in the Houston suburbs who could not access or afford the latest “tier one” offerings with few options for higher education. “But if you question or resist,” he said, “Khator takes no prisoners, because she has never understood her role as chancellor of the entire UH system.”
Khator said she is deeply committed to improving the entire system, and noted that under her leadership, two of the system’s two-year colleges transitioned to four-year universities. She said she intends to convert UH-Victoria into a destination university.
“It’s possible you end up disappointing someone, but I think that ends up happening in every family,” she said. “I respect people’s disappointments, people’s frictions, people’s sense of unease. We will work through them. We don’t want any campus that’s not successful.”
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said it was natural that UH would experience “growing pains.”
“I’m not saying there won’t be hiccups along the way,” he said, “but I think they’ll be able to address them. Obviously, the diversity issue is a challenge, but so far they’re holding on.”
In addition to increasing student success, Khator said she was focused on growing the university’s footprint in energy, health care and the arts, since those are most relevant to Houston’s economy.
“The hardest thing for any organization in transformation is really changing the culture,” she said. “That has been the toughest thing in all of this. But as time passes, that has become easier.”
Haston, who has disposed of his Longhorn shirt, said the shift in perception was palpable.
“I haven’t had anyone call it ‘Cougar High’ to my face in five years,” he said.
Disclosure: The University of Houston, UT-Austin and Texas A&M are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.