McRaven: No UT cam­pus in Hous­ton

Chan­cel­lor ends ef­fort amid strong op­po­si­tion from Hous­ton forces.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ralph K.M. Hau­r­witz rhau­r­witz@states­man.com

Univer­sity of Texas Sys­tem Chan­cel­lor Bill McRaven has abruptly killed the sys­tem’s con­tro­ver­sial plan to de­velop a cam­pus in Hous­ton on 307 acres it pur­chased last year, a project pushed by the chan­cel­lor but one that was run­ning into in­creas­ingly strong head­winds from mem­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture.

“We are through with this project and through with our ex­pan­sion into Hous­ton,” McRaven said at a hastily called news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, adding that de­bate over the project “was over­shad­ow­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary work un­der­way on the 14 cam­puses of the UT Sys­tem.”

The chan­cel­lor said the de­ci­sion to pull the plug was his alone, but there is no doubt that he was fac­ing op­po­si­tion not only from the Hous­ton leg­isla­tive del­e­ga­tion but also from the Univer­sity of Hous­ton and even from some mem­bers of the UT Sys­tem Board of Re­gents. Newly ap­pointed UT Re­gents Janiece Lon­go­ria and Kevin Eltife tes­ti­fied at their con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing that they couldn’t back a cam­pus in Hous­ton if it didn’t have lo­cal and leg­isla­tive sup­port.

And McRaven had taken con­sid­er­able heat from law­mak­ers for not con­sult­ing with them be­fore putting the land un­der con­tract for $215 mil­lion — an ex­pense to have been funded with bonds backed by the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar Per­ma­nent Univer­sity Fund,

a higher ed­u­ca­tion en­dow­ment over­seen by the UT board.

McRaven had in­sisted since he an­nounced the ini­tia­tive last year that it was es­sen­tial for the UT Sys­tem to take bold steps, even risky ones, to re­tain its place as one of the na­tion’s great pub­lic univer­sity sys­tems. The Hous­ton project was the most prom­i­nent of nine so-called quan­tum leaps that the sys­tem is pur­su­ing un­der his guid­ance. They in­clude ini­tia­tives in­volv­ing na­tional se­cu­rity, brain health and stu­dent suc­cess.

But for the re­tired fourstar ad­mi­ral and Navy SEAL who planned the raid that re­sulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, the fail­ure of the Hous­ton project is the big­gest set­back since he be­came chan­cel­lor in Jan­uary 2015.

McRaven said Wed­nes­day that the sys­tem would di­vest it­self of the land and that he didn’t ex­pect it to lose any money through that process.

“I ac­cept full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the lack of progress on this ini­tia­tive. I am grate­ful to the Re­gents, my sys­tem staff and the univer­sity pres­i­dents for their en­gage­ment over the last year,” McRaven said in a memo to Board of Re­gents Chair­man Paul Fos­ter.

The Univer­sity of Hous­ton had been es­pe­cially crit­i­cal of the UT Sys­tem’s as­pi­ra­tions in Hous­ton, re­gard­ing the move as en­croach­ment on UH ter­ri­tory and its prospects for con­tin­ued ex­pan­sion of its re­search and ed­u­ca­tion port­fo­lios.

“The Univer­sity of Hous­ton is pleased that UT is not ex­pand­ing in Hous­ton,” said Til­man Fer­titta, chair­man of that school’s gov­ern­ing board. “This was a group ef­fort by elected lead­ers, our Board of Re­gents, our ad­min­is­tra­tion and sup­port­ers to stand our ground against an un­nec­es­sary du­pli­ca­tion of re­sources that didn’t align with the state’s plan for higher ed­u­ca­tion.”

State Sen. Bor­ris Miles, D-Hous­ton, whose dis­trict in­cludes the land at is­sue, said he was “en­cour­aged that UT lis­tened to the voices of con­cern and de­cided to pull the plug on pro­ceed­ing with the Hous­ton de­vel­op­ment.”

He said, “There must be a me­thod­i­cal and in­clu­sive process when de­ci­sions like this are made, es­pe­cially when it af­fects our present uni­ver­si­ties.”

McRaven had re­peat­edly said a full-fledged UT Sys­tem univer­sity in Hous­ton wasn’t in the cards. Rather, he saw the project as a venue for the sys­tem’s other cam­puses to have a pres­ence in the state’s largest city for ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties as well as re­search part­ner­ships with Hous­ton’s ro­bust en­ergy, health care and fi­nance sec­tors.

The UT Sys­tem al­ready has two in­sti­tu­tions in Hous­ton: the UT MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter and the UT Health Sci­ence Cen­ter.

The chan­cel­lor said at Wed­nes­day’s news con­fer­ence that an ad­vi­sory task force of civic, busi­ness and other lead­ers in Hous­ton had rec­om­mended es­tab­lish­ing an in­sti­tute for data sci­ence at the site. Such an in­sti­tute, fo­cus­ing on health care, en­ergy and ed­u­ca­tion, might find a home at other UT Sys­tem cam­puses, McRaven said. The chan­cel­lor pre­vi­ously had spo­ken of his in­ter­est in es­tab­lish­ing a lead­er­ship in­sti­tute at the Hous­ton site.

One sign that the project was in se­ri­ous trou­ble came dur­ing a state Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee hear­ing in Jan­uary. Mul­ti­ple sen­a­tors ques­tioned McRaven sharply about the project.

Sen. John Whit­mire, D-Hous­ton, was the most vo­cif­er­ous.

“I be­lieve your style is it’s your way or the high­way,” Whit­mire told McRaven. “In all due re­spect, I don’t think you give a damn what the Leg­is­la­ture thinks.”

That marked the start of an un­usu­ally testy ex­change:

McRaven: “As far as my re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion for this body and elected of­fi­cials around this coun­try, that is ab­so­lutely wrong. I spent 37 years in the mil­i­tary, and I’m not go­ing to tout the uni­form, but I swore an oath to sup­port and de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion against all en­e­mies for­eign and do­mes­tic. I raised my right hand to do that, and I think I did that pretty well for 37 years.”

Whit­mire: “That’s not the is­sue this morn­ing.”

McRaven: “Sir, you said I do not re­spect this body.”

Whit­mire: “That’s my opin­ion.”

McRaven: “I rec­og­nize that’s your opin­ion, and I can tell you that’s not true.”

JAY JAN­NER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Chan­cel­lor Bill McRaven said that the UT Sys­tem would di­vest it­self of the land in Hous­ton.

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