With­out Ab­bott’s buy-in, UT-Hous­ton plan doomed

Am­bi­tious cam­pus idea runs aground on shoals of state po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity.

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

In the space of a few days, Univer­sity of Texas Sys­tem Chan­cel­lor Bill McRaven, a retired four-star ad­mi­ral, went from full speed ahead on plans to ex­pand the sys­tem’s pres­ence in Hous­ton to toss­ing out an­chors for an abrupt stop.

When he an­nounced last week that he was scut­tling the project, for which the sys­tem had ac­quired more than 300 acres at a price of $215 mil­lion, McRaven said he had been un­able to de­velop a shared vision. “The shared vision needed to be with the civic lead­ers in Hous­ton. It needed to be with the Leg­is­la­ture. It needed to be with other cam­puses,” he said.

What the chan­cel­lor didn’t men­tion was that the shared vision also needed to be with Gov. Greg Ab­bott. It would be dif­fi­cult, for rea­sons both po­lit­i­cal and prac­ti­cal, to suc­ceed in such an am­bi­tious en­deavor with­out the sup-

port of the gov­er­nor. But Ab­bott never ex­pressed sup­port pub­licly for the proj- ect — or op­po­si­tion to it, for that mat­ter. His si­lence was telling. “If he didn’t say he sup

ported it, he didn’t sup­port it,” said one well-placed source who spoke to the Amer­i­can-States­man on con- di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the mat­ter.

An­other sign that the state’s Repub­li­can chief exec- utive was cold to the no­tion of a new UT Sys­tem site in Hous­ton — where the sys­tem al­ready has a can­cer cen­ter and a health sci­ence cen­ter — came dur­ing a Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in Jan­uary for three peo­ple he nom­i­nated to serve on the sys­tem’s Board of Re­gents.

Two of the three — for­mer state Sen. Kevin Eltife and for­mer UT Sys­tem Re­gent Janiece Longoria — indi- cated that they op­posed the ex­pan­sion project be­cause of in­tense op­po­si­tion from Hous­ton’s leg­isla­tive del­e­ga­tion and other forces, in­clud­ing the Univer­sity of Hous­ton, a ris­ing in­sti­tu­tion that saw McRaven’s plan as

en­croach­ment on its ter­ri­tory and prospects. It’s vir- tu­ally cer­tain that Ab­bott’s nom­i­nees would be on the same page as the gov­er­nor re­gard­ing a high-pro­file mat­ter they were sure to be ques­tioned about at the hear­ing.

Ab­bott, who earned his bach­e­lor’s in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion at UT, has gen­er­ally sought sta­bil­ity and peace in deal­ing with his alma mater and its gov­ern­ing board, in con­trast with the tense rela- tion­ships that pre­vailed in the last sev­eral years of Rick Perry’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Bud­get cut re­quested

Higher ed­u­ca­tion lead- ers for the most part give Ab­bott high marks. They were pleased, for exam- ple, that he won leg­isla­tive ap­proval two years ago for a $40 mil­lion fund — one of his emer­gency items — in­tended to fur­ther his goal of el­e­vat­ing the na­tional rank­ings of the state’s pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties.

The pro­gram, which would re­ceive no fund­ing un­der the pro­posed House and Se­nate bud­gets for the next two years, awards match­ing grants for hir­ing No­bel laure

ates and Na­tional Acad­emy mem­bers. Ab­bott wants con- tin­ued fund­ing and held a re­cep­tion at the Gov­er­nor’s Man­sion on Mon­day for the

first batch of re­cruits. At the same time, higher ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers re­gard as some­what hol­low Ab­bott’s call, while cam­paign­ing for gov­er­nor, for Texas to have five uni­ver­si­ties among the top 10 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties as ranked by U.S. News & World Re­port.

The state has none on that list, and it would take sus­tained ap­pro­pri­a­tions in­creases of many hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to even have a shot at his goal — an in­fu­sion he has not sought.

In­stead of boost­ing fund- ing, Ab­bott in­structed higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions to trim their ap­pro­pri­a­tions re­quests by 4 per­cent for the 2018-19 bi­en­nium.

And in a move that the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Leg­isla­tive Bud­get Board called “a sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion of the power of the gov­er­nor” at the ex­pense of the Leg­is­la­ture, Ab­bott two years ago ve­toed some bud­get rid­ers — for agen­cies as well as uni­ver­si­ties — that had pre­vi­ously been re­garded as in­for­ma­tional and not sub­ject to veto. That in­cluded $5 mil­lion for UT-Austin to study iden­tity theft.

As for McRaven’s vision for the Hous­ton prop­erty, that never came into sharp fo­cus.

The chan­cel­lor had charged a blue-rib­bon task force of civic, busi­ness and ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers with mak- ing rec­om­men­da­tions, and the panel met nu­mer­ous times dur­ing the past year. But he pulled the plug on the project be­fore its rec­om­men­da­tions saw the light of day. McRaven said the pan- el’s draft re­port, which has not been re­leased pub­licly, rec­om­mends cre­ation of an in­sti­tute for data sci­ence that would fo­cus on health care, ed­u­ca­tion and en­ergy.

The chan­cel­lor ex­pressed hope that the con­cept might find trac­tion at some of the UT Sys­tem’s 14 aca­demic and health cam­puses, but he said the sys­tem would sell off the land it ac­quired in Hous­ton to re­coup its in­vest­ment. He said the de­ci­sion to scut­tle the project was his alone. “The de­ci­sion had noth

ing to do with pres­sure from any­body,” McRaven said. “It had to do with the fact that it was dis­tract­ing and

over­shad­ow­ing the great work go­ing on around the sys­tem.”

Fund­ing ‘death grip’

UT board Chair­man Paul Fos­ter told McRaven in a let­ter on Fri­day that the re­gents still have “great con­fi­dence in

and re­spect for you and your lead­er­ship” and ad­mire “your will­ing­ness to step for­ward

and as­sume re­spon­si­bil­ity” for the Hous­ton ini­tia­tive, which had been unan­i­mously ap­proved by the board in 2015.

Alex Cran­berg, a for­mer UT re­gent and mem­ber of the task force, told the States- man he was dis­ap­pointed that McRaven wasn’t “given the chance to show what could be done. This sad loss of a po­ten­tially game-chang- ing op­por­tu­nity for Texas higher ed­u­ca­tion is a fail- ure of imag­i­na­tion.”

UT-Austin boost­ers and Univer­sity of Hous­ton boost- ers “pushed hard to main- tain their death grip” on pro­ceeds from the Per­ma­nent Univer­sity Fund en­dow­ment in the case of the for­mer and ter­ri­tory in the case of the lat­ter, Cran­berg said.

Larry Faulkner, a for­mer UT-Austin pres­i­dent who served on the panel, said McRaven was frank with the group about the pos­si­bil­ity of fail­ure.

“There are also peo­ple on the com­mit­tee who are very savvy po­lit­i­cally,” Faulkner said. “I think it was well un­der­stood what kind of pres­sure he was un­der and the sig­nif­i­cant risk that he might not get a con­sen­sus as­sem­bled that would al­low him the free­dom to con­tinue to de­velop the idea.”

Chan­cel­lor Bill McRaven said the de­ci­sion to drop the Hous­ton plan was his alone.

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