Students at the University of Houston are seeking to revive a proposal requiring freshmen to live on campus that was scrapped by university administrators after pushback from state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.
The university's student government approved a bill Wednesday night calling for the implementation of the policy. It will be sent to administrators for consideration, and Charles Haston, the president of the student government association, said he expects it will also get the attention of the University of Houston System Board of Regents.
The student association bill does not require the university to change any of its policies, but it will have to issue a response. While the measure would require all freshmen to live on campus, exemptions would be granted for students who live with their parents in Harris County or any contiguous counties. Students who are married and/or have children can also receive exemptions.
The measure approved by the students is similar but not identical to a plan that university leaders appeared poised to implement in August as part of an effort to improve graduation rates. Before they could, however, Whitmire, an alumnus of the university, had a heated exchange via text message — later publicized in the Houston Chronicle — with Renu Khator, who serves as both the university's president and the system's chancellor, in which he accused her of being “very insensitive” to the “UH experience.”
The senator conveyed concerns about the school forgetting its history of serving commuter students and also wondered if an exemption for married students was unfair to gay students who did not want to live on campus but could not get married under state law. Following the exchange, Khator pulled the proposal. She later told The Texas Tribune that she is not committed to any single strategy in her efforts to improve graduation rates on campus.
Whitmire on Wednesday declined to comment on the student-backed proposal.
Haston said he did not disagree with all of the senator's concerns and that differences between the students' plan and the one previously put forward by the university administrators reflect that. For example, he agreed that applying the requirement — as the administration's initial plan sought to do — to students who do not live within 20 miles of the campus was "an arbitrary measure."
Haston also noted that the requirement had an easy opt-out clause. Under the plan, requests for waivers would be reviewed anonymously by a committee made up mostly of students, and any request determined to be valid would be granted.
"It's very important to us that we don't have a policy that negatively impacts any student," Haston said. "Any student who has any reason why this policy is counterproductive to their success at the University of Houston should be exempt."
In making his pitch for the policy despite the previous pushback, Haston said the data demonstrated that such a requirement would improve student outcomes at the university, which already boasts the second highest number of students living on campus among public universities in Texas.
University data shows that, on average, students who live on campus take more credit hours, earn higher grades and have higher retention and graduation rates. Haston also noted that many public universities in the state already have similar requirements, including Texas State University, Texas Tech University and the University of North Texas. After seeing the data, he said he hoped those who had previously opposed the plan might reconsider.
"We're not trying to do anything contentious or take a shot at any of our elected representatives that have concerns," he said. "What I hope is that when it comes from students, some of the people who were originally in opposition to this will take a step back and listen to what the students have to say."
Disclosure: The University of Houston is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.