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For supporters of UHV switch, San Angelo offers roadmap to realignment

By Gabe Semenza
Sept. 18, 2010 at 4:18 a.m.


Some Crossroads leaders want the University of Houston-Victoria to change university systems.

For supporters of change, Angelo State University provides a roadmap to attaining it.

Like Victoria's university, Angelo State University began as a two-year school and later underwent downward expansion.

A few years ago, San Angelo business, civic and municipal leaders grumbled that the host system failed to give the school proper attention and funding. The host system also failed to embrace San Angelo's long-term goals for the school, they said.

So, leaders realigned the school with a new system.

If those complaints and wishes sound familiar, it's because they are. A group of Crossroads leaders share the sentiments.

This story does not measure whether the University of Houston-Victoria should realign itself. Rather, the story illustrates how one university did - and the effects since doing so.

'HE'D RUN OVER ME'

San Angelo is a West Texas city of about 100,000 residents - and home to Angelo State University. The university became a member of the Texas State University System in 1975.

School enrollment peaked in 1989 at 6,408 students. For the next 18 years, however, enrollment fell flat, averaging about 6,221 each fall.

Many in San Angelo felt its university system failed to provide necessary funding and support to promote growth. Many felt the system's flagship campus in San Marcos received a disproportionate share of the focus.

Frustrated, leaders in 2007 called on Drew Darby, a freshman state representative, to realign the school with a system that shared their goals. Darby had only three months to lobby for support before the legislative session ended.

"I had people tell me nobody could do this, let alone a freshman," said Darby, R-San Angelo. "The Texas State System was against the idea. The chancellor told me he'd run over me."

Historically, Texas universities have switched from one system to another, but it's rare - and the Legislature must first approve the move.

West Texas State University merged with the Texas A&M University System in 1990, for example. This move, however, required work during three legislative sessions and, in the end, the blessing of the host system.

Darby had an upper-hand. Several influential San Angelo municipal, civic and business groups endorsed the system switch. Even the Tom Green County Republican and Democratic parties agreed on the move, according to the 2007 fall edition of Angelo State University's "Alumni" magazine.

To drum additional support, Darby lobbied almost every member of the Texas House of Representatives. He met with senators and the governor's office. He garnered support before the host system could launch a counter-attack.

With the help of Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, Darby authored a bill to realign the school.

"The local folks wanted this, believed it was in the best interest of their institution, and there was no compelling reason not to do it," Darby said. "So, people more or less stood aside. This is important: Never once did we speak ill of the system we were trying to leave. We only spoke in terms of the advantages of moving."

On April 25, 2007, the Texas House approved the move by a 137-4 vote. The next month, the Texas Senate unanimously approved the switch. Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill into law days later.

For the first time in Texas history, a university switched systems - in this case to the Texas Tech University System - when the host system objected.

DID THE SWITCH WORK?

Since realignment, most people in San Angelo praise the effects. Six months after Perry's signature dried on the bill, construction began on a new dormitory - a project that had been tied up for years.

In addition to the new dorm, work also began on another dorm, recreation center, athletic facilities and library.

"I've yet to see anything negative," said Joseph Rallo, the university's president. "We had no government relations in Washington or Austin when we were with the Texas State system. Now, we have four lobbyists. We have a lot of resources at the system level that we simply didn't have before."

Enrollment in one year jumped by 7 percent, the most in school history. Last year, the school had 6,350 students. This year, it has more than 6,800.

Larger enrollment means heftier state appropriations and more programs and research. Given estimates that each Angelo State student injects $45,000 a year into the economy, businesses there benefited, too.

"New developments that had been talked about for years - privatized housing, entertainment, retail and restaurants - opened near the university," said Phil Neighbors, president of the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce. "Those had always been talked about but never really moved forward until the switch."

How does the Texas State University System feel about losing a school to a rival? Since the realignment, the system employed a new chancellor and administration.

"None of the Angelo State University history relates to the current administration." Mike Wintemute, a system spokesman since May, said. "The Texas State University System doesn't view Angelo State any differently than any institution outside our system."

Members of the Texas Tech University System did not on Friday return telephone and e-mail requests for an interview to discuss why the system wanted Angelo State University to join it.

'WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT'

If other university systems are interested in Victoria, they aren't saying. Realignment is a politically charged and sensitive topic. Most people, at least publicly, remain tight-lipped and noncommittal.

Just months ago, however, Mayor Will Armstrong wrote a letter to the University of Houston System asking for help to partner with another university system - one, he said, that matches some leaders' vision for the school's future.

The letter became public only because of a Texas Public Information Act request filed by this newspaper.

"I don't think Harvard wants us. I don't think Berkeley wants us," Armstrong said. "There are a lot of places in between, though, that could be just right for us."

Additionally, the Crossroads Commission on Education's infrastructure subcommittee filed a three-page report last month recommending the Victoria university sever ties with its host system.

The element of surprise, which Darby said helped him in San Angelo, is clearly lost. The University of Houston System already declared it opposes Victoria's realignment.

"The University of Houston-Victoria is an integral part of the University of Houston System and its mission," said John Antel, a senior vice chancellor for the system. "UHV has achieved a number of milestones over the past few years that are important to the academic mission of the UH System. We believe UHV is thriving and has a bright future within the UH System."

Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, served as the chairwoman of the Texas House Committee on Higher Education when Darby pushed his realignment bill.

Morrison said she can't answer whether she supports realignment because of many moving parts. For example, the Crossroads Commission on Education - which she created this year - is reviewing several feasibility studies.

"What we want to make sure is that the vision for UHV as a destination institution is part of the UH System's vision," she said. "We want to make sure that as we progress with plans, UHV is not held back. At this point, I think the best thing we can do is to work out our differences with the UH System. But at the end of day, I'll do what's best for my constituents and my community."

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