Houston Senator Calls UT System's New Campus Plan an "Affront"

In a letter sent Wednesday to University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven, state Sen. John Whitmire joined a growing number of legislators asking the UT System to pause and reconsider its plans to open a branch campus in his hometown of Houston.

Houston, Texas.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven.

In a letter sent Wednesday to University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven, state Sen. John Whitmire joined a growing number of legislators asking the UT System to pause and reconsider its plans to open a new campus in his hometown of Houston. 

The new campus could bring unwanted competition with the University of Houston, the city's growing research university, Whitmire said. 

"I have been around long enough to know that UT can proceed with the land purchase regardless of legislative opposition or expressed concerns from local leaders and the Houston higher education community," wrote Whitmire, a Democrat and UH alum. "But I would strongly advise the University of Texas System leadership to hold off on any action, including the purchase of the land, until the Legislature reconvenes and we can have a discussion on how this significant move impacts the entire higher education community."

The UT System has signed a letter of intent to purchase more than 300 acres in southwest Houston. A sales price hasn't been disclosed, but Whitmire estimated that the land would cost more than $200 million. Whitmire questioned why the possible purchase wasn't disclosed to lawmakers during this year's legislative session. The search for land appears to have been going on for a long time, he wrote, but most legislators didn't find out about it until the day plans for the purchase were announced. 

"In all candor, in my 42 years of service in the Texas Legislature, I have not seen such an affront to the legislative process and the conservative deliberations of the higher education community," Whitmire said. 

In a statement, McRaven said the UT System will convene a task force of local leaders to figure out the future of the Houston site. The city is big enough for numerous research universities, he said. It's a logical place to build a hub for the UT System's work related to engineering, finance, energy and health care, he said. 

"This isn't a competition," he said. "This is an opportunity."

But Whitmire said the Legislature should have "serious discussions" about ensuring a "level playing field" for the UH System if the UT System expands in Houston. He particularly focused on the Permanent University Fund, a multibillion-dollar state revenue source that is currently only made available to the UT and Texas A&M University systems. 

"As the distribution is currently constituted, UT owning 300 acres in Houston and having access to the [Permanent University Fund] would give them a distinct advantage over UH and its ability to compete for highly recruited faculty and research dollars," Whitmire wrote. 

UH supporters have long complained about their school's lack of access to the fund, which has helped UT and A&M build some of the biggest endowments in the country. Efforts to give UH access would face long odds since doing so would require a change to the state Constitution. A bill to start that process died in the House Higher Education Committee this year. 

UH supporters have also argued that the UT System would need approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to open its new campus. The coordinating board has rejected schools' efforts to expand in the Houston area in the past, including an A&M plan in the 1990s to partner with the South Texas College of Law.

Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System and the University of Houston are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Reference
  • Whitmire Letter to UT System About Houston Campus