University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven gave a limited mea culpa about his Houston expansion plans to the state's higher education oversight board Thursday, saying he should have consulted with the board before buying about 100 acres for a future Houston campus.
"Had I not been as new on the job, I probably would have been a little smarter and come in and talked to the chairman and the commissioner," said McRaven, who has been chancellor for about a year.
The purchase was finalized last week. It's one of several that the UT System plans to make in the next year as it pieces together a 300-acre tract near the Texas Medical Center. The goal, McRaven said, is to open some kind of campus — but not a new university — where students and faculty from the system's 14 institutions can collaborate, study and conduct research.
He was invited to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board meeting to discuss his vision for the system. At the meeting, he touted the project as one of his top priorities, saying it provides the system an opportunity to rethink how higher education operates in Texas.
But the project has been unpopular among some state leaders. Nineteen Houston-area legislators wrote McRaven a letter asking him to slow down the project. University of Houston supporters have complained that the campus would be an encroachment on their university. And the coordinating board's commissioner, Raymund Paredes, has questioned whether it's the best use of state money.
But lawmakers and coordinating board members have also been miffed that McRaven didn't consult them before he announced the plan. McRaven acknowledged that frustration Thursday, saying he was "guilty as charged."
He said he kept quiet about the plans because he didn't want to risk news leaking about the project as real estate is a competitive business. If land owners found out UT-Austin's plans, he argued, the price for the land would have gone up. So the system made the decision to buy the land before it got very far in the planning stages, he said.
"We had to get the property, and then the thinking all along was now we are going to build a task force" to figure out how to use it, McRaven said.
The task force will include local leaders and a representative from the coordinating board, McRaven said. Members will be announced in the coming weeks, and they will likely deliberate for the rest of the year.
Still, McRaven acknowledged that he should have at least given someone at the coordinating board a heads up.
Also at the meeting, representatives from UH's political action committee urged the coordinating board to do something to block the project. Welcome Wilson Sr., chairman of the PAC, said the project should be delayed until the next legislative session so lawmakers can weigh in.
"Will the University of Houston be hurt? Of course it will," he said. "UT is an 800-pound gorilla."
Board members didn't take any action Thursday, and some expressed worry that they have limited authority to do anything. The board has lacked the authority to block the construction of new university buildings since 2013. The actions of the UT System and other schools pursuing expansion show that the board may need that power back, said David Teuscher, the board secretary.
"We have some authority, but it's limited authority," Teuscher said. "It is up to the Legislature to act."
McRaven has dismissed concerns about competition. Houston is the largest city in the state and would benefit from another university's presence, he has argued. He said Thursday that the University of Houston would be invited to collaborate on work being done on the campus.
"This is about Texas," he said. "This is about helping the people of Texas."
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune, and Welcome Wilson Sr. is a donor to the Tribune. The University of Houston was a sponsor in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.