UH System Speaks Out Against UT System Plans for Houston

Members of the University of Houston System Board of Regents lashed out against the University of Texas System's plans to expand in Houston, calling the idea a "Trojan horse" and passing a resolution expressing strong concerns.

Houston, Texas.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout. 

Members of the University of Houston System Board of Regents and other supporters of the University of Houston lashed out Thursday against the University of Texas System's plans to expand in Houston, calling the idea a "Trojan horse" and passing a resolution expressing "concern." 

Board members on Thursday discussed the possibility of suing to stop the move, and urged the Texas Legislature and the Higher Education Coordinating Board to consider intervening. 

"This transgression violates the law of Texas higher education campus location, and we urge that it be stopped in its tracks," said Michael Olivas, director of the University of Houston's Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance. 

Olivas was invited to present the legal issues related to the UT System's plans. He called the expansion idea a "land grab" and argued that it needs approval by the Higher Education Coordinating Board. UH System regents applauded his presentation, and then passed a resolution arguing that the UT System's plans violate the "process and rules designed by the Coordinating Board."

If the state allows the UT System plans to continue, it should give the UH System a share of the billions of dollars that the UT System receives from the state's plush Permanent University Fund, the resolution said. 

Those actions are the latest sign that the UT System could face political hurdles to establishing a campus in Houston. UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven was authorized by his regents earlier this month to finalize the purchase of more than 300 acres in the southwestern part of the city.

But lawmakers and higher education leaders inside and outside of Houston have expressed skepticism, and UH has signaled it will try to aggressively protect its status as the top public university in the city.

McRaven has said he doesn’t know how the land will be used; a task force is being convened to come up with a vision. But McRaven said Houston is attractive because of its size and prominence in the health care, energy and engineering fields.

He dismissed complaints that UT was encroaching on UH’s territory, saying that two major research schools can coexist near each other. In Los Angeles, he said, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles are mere miles away.

But Board Chairman Tilman Fertitta scoffed at that argument Thursday, saying USC is private and UCLA is public. That’s a different dynamic.

"That is the most asinine example I have ever heard," he said. 

UH System officials seemed focused on the possibility that the UT System would need state approval to open a new campus. They cited the time that Texas A&M tried to take over the South Texas College of Law in Houston in the 1990s. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board killed that idea after strong lobbying by UH.

In 2006, UH wanted to open an instructional site in northwest Houston, but was told it couldn’t because it would encroach on Prairie View A&M, school officials said.

“No school has ever tried to make an extraterritorial site expansion and not sought approval from the Coordinating Board,” said Olivas, the law professor.

After Olivas' presentation, Fertitta asked Olivas a question: "If we were to litigate, which side do you like?"

Olivas answered: "My guess is that everyone in this room should do so or be removed for cause."

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said Thursday that the purchase in Houston isn't final, but that there are signed letters of intent and proposed contracts drawn up. The system will work with the Legislature and Coordinating Board when the time is necessary, but right now the system doesn't know what kind of approval will be needed, she said.

“Certainly the board would need to approve new academic programs, but they do not need to approve anything regarding the purchase or development of the property and would have limited involvement pertaining to research activities,” she said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, McRaven said in an e-mail that he doesn't think the UT System will compete with UH. 

"This mission for a broader UT presence in Houston will be decades in the making," he said. "This is about advancing Houston, and what that could mean not just for Texas but for our nation. This is preparing for the future, not the present."

State officials seem less sure. At a Texas Tribune higher education symposium on Monday, Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said he was “concerned about the impact on the University of Houston.”

At the same event, state Sen. Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, questioned the UT System’s priorities. He described the Houston expansion and the new system headquarters being built in Austin — which he referred to as a “monument being built to the Board of Regents” — as expensive endeavors during a time that tuition is going up.  

“How this becomes a priority is a little bit of a mystery at the moment,” said Seliger, R-Amarillo.

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.