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As Texas Universities Expand, Political Fights Grow Over Turf

Texas universities have been aggressively expanding their geographic reach in recent years, opening up new educational opportunities for students. But the growth has also led to complaints from state leaders and turf wars between schools.

Students at Texas A&M students in Doha, Qatar.

For years, the geography of higher education in Texas has been clear-cut: Texas Longhorns studied in Austin, Texas A&M Aggies went to school in College Station and Texas Tech Red Raiders were contained to Lubbock.

But lately, university leaders have begun working to bring Longhorns to Houston, Aggies to McAllen and Red Raiders to Costa Rica.

Those universities and others have sought to build or expand facilities far from their main locations. Their goal is to expand their reach and improve access for students. In the process, the universities have stirred up controversy — and complaints of wasteful spending and turf battles between institutions. Now, some state leaders have begun calling for more coordination and oversight of the universities' plans. 

“What we don’t want to have is this manifest destiny mentality, where you can just buy property and do what you want with it without consulting” state leaders, said state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston. 

Branch campuses have been around for decades, but Texas universities’ interest in them has grown rapidly in recent years. And no college has been more active than A&M.

For decades, the university has had a campus in Galveston where “Sea Aggies” can study marine biology and engineering while earning the same degree as those on the main campus in College Station. In 2003, Texas A&M University opened a branch in Qatar, handing out hundreds of engineering degrees to students from the Middle East. And this year the university announced plans for a new satellite campus in McAllen, plus academies at four community colleges across the state where students can begin work toward engineering degrees.

A&M was also planning to open a branch campus in Israel but announced this week that it is scaling back that initiative after concerns that local government wouldn’t allow the campus complete academic freedom.

“We are a land grant university, and our job is to serve the whole state of Texas,” A&M Chancellor John Sharp said of the expansion plans. Lately, he said, that means having the university go to the students, not just the other way around.

Other schools have done the same. Over the past decade, Texas State University, based in San Marcos, has expanded its campus 65 miles north in Round Rock, where it offers degrees in nursing, business management and mass communication. And Texas Tech, which already offers upper-level courses from two Hill Country campuses, has been working toward establishing an off-campus instructional site in San Jose, Costa Rica. 

Some of those projects have been criticized as costly, especially at a time of frugality in the Legislature. But none has been as controversial as the University of Texas System’s plans in Houston.

UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven announced in November plans to buy more than 300 acres in the southwestern part of the city. System officials haven’t announced their full plans for the site, but McRaven said at the time that he expects students to do coursework there and professors to use the site for research. 

The plan immediately set off alarms among University of Houston supporters, who said it would encroach on their hometown and harm efforts to build the stature of their university. At a UH System regents meeting, officials called the UT System effort a  “land grab and a “Trojan horse.”

The UH System Board of Regents approved a resolution expressing concern about the idea and argued that UT's unilateral approach was an affront to state leaders. Last week, 19 state representatives from the Houston area — 12 Republicans and 7 Democrats — wrote McRaven urging him to slow down and work with local leaders before purchasing the land. 

“It appears many steps in planning have already been taken without consulting key leader and stakeholders,” their letter said.

That kind of response shows a conflict underlying many universities’ expansion plans, said Raymund Paredes, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The branch campuses are good for the schools’ notoriety and research but not necessarily good for the state overall, he said.

“The nature of universities, particularly universities that want to enhance their prestige, is to expand,” Paredes said, paraphrasing a famous quote by former Harvard President Derek Bock. “You can never satisfy their appetites.”

Regardless, there appears to be little that state leaders can do to stop the expansion. The UT System, for instance, has enough money to buy the land it’s eying without any new appropriations from the Legislature. And unless it plans to open a brand new university or offer new degrees, it may not need approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Chancellor McRaven said he plans to convene a task force made up of local leaders to develop a plan for the site. Walle, one of the representatives to sign the letter of opposition, said he hopes the system will consider the feedback.

“Just because they can do it doesn’t make it right,” he said.

Similar confrontations could be brewing around A&M’s plans. The university may soon begin offering degrees from its veterinary school at sites across the state. That could lead to competition with Texas Tech, which expressed a desire this month to open a veterinary school in Amarillo.

And A&M’s plans for its McAllen campus have caused rumbling from some state officials, who note that a new university, the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, just opened in the area.

“There is no strong evidence that the region needs more than one university,” Paredes said.

Paredes said he’d like to see the universities notify the Coordinating Board and Legislature of their plans further in advance. That would allow for more collaboration with state officials. He said he has invited McRaven to meet with the board in January and hopes other chancellors will brief the board at future meetings.

“We need to come up with policies and procedures that allow us to get an overall plan,” he said.

Sharp said he doesn't see a need for conflict. A&M is a top-tier public university — it isn’t competing with the regional schools when it moves into an area like the Rio Grande Valley, he said. Reaching students in those underserved areas benefits the whole state, he said. 

“I don’t think anybody expands for the heck of it,” he said. “You expand if there is a need and there is a reason that you are called.”

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

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