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Leaders debate whether UHV should realign

By Gabe Semenza
Sept. 25, 2010 at 4:25 a.m.


Imagine this: Each year, the University of Houston-Victoria draws thousands of students from out of town and state.

Businesses, which never before called the Crossroads home, follow suit.

Suddenly, Victoria becomes more vibrant, stable and attractive; students gain access to higher education that, for some, was unavailable before.

Many people agree this scenario can and should occur. There is debate, however, about how to accomplish this transformation.

Some say the university should cut ties with the University of Houston System. The system is too uncooperative, too focused elsewhere, and simply doesn't share this long-term vision, they say.

Others suggest staying put just makes more sense. The system founded the Victoria university and helped it to grow into the school it is today, they say.

Should the university cut ties with the system and realign with another? Does a different solution exist?

The answers remain fraught with complications, politics and the passions of those on either side.

DIFFERING VISIONS?

Many of the region's leaders talk these days about transforming UHV into a so-called destination university. So, what is that?

As defined by some, a destination university is a school that attracts face-to-face students to live on campus in a traditional college setting. The bulk of UHV's students currently live outside Victoria and attend classes at other campuses or online.

Supporters of severing ties say the UH system shows time and again it does not support Victoria's campus, let alone share the long-term vision held by many in the region.

As evidence, they say the system:

• Fought the university's successful expansion to admit freshmen and sophomores.

• Turned down donated land where a bigger campus could one day be built.

• States its top priority is to develop the University of Houston into a Tier 1 school.

"The system has no experience developing a destination university," said Claud Jacobs, a Victoria businessman. "For the last 10 to 15 years, I don't know of anything the UH System has done for Victoria. Everything we've gotten for UHV, we've had to beg for to get. There's no trust anymore."

The university in recent years added sports programs without help from the system, for example. Just before the first underclassmen arrived for school this month, the system reassigned President Tim Hudson, thus removing the driving force behind much of the school's recent advancements.

"They say 'reassigned,' but everyone knows it was a firing," Jacobs said. "They don't want expansion here, and Tim Hudson was a great leader. They wanted him gone because he wasn't a 'yes' man."

Hudson, now a special assistant to the chancellor, declined comment. The system says his move was in line with the former president's "broad range of experience."

"I feel the milestones we've achieved have all been under the leadership of Tim Hudson - and not the UH System," said Dorothy Alcorn, a Victoria businesswoman and former UH System regent. "The system has thrown a lot of roadblocks in our way."

Others, however, say the system deserves credit for founding the Victoria university in 1973 - when no other system would.

"The UH System has invested a phenomenal amount of resources into this community and that university," said Morgan Dunn O'Connor, a Victoria businesswoman and former UH System regent chairwoman. "I don't see any reason to change university systems or to sever ties with a longtime partner in the name of economic development."

Supporters of staying put say the system:

• Has experience here and is nearby, which helps lines of communication.

• Succeeds in educating students and helped to achieve double-digit enrollment growth to 4,000 students.

• Offers the university specialized attention, which would be lost in a bigger system.

"You don't just throw out these partnerships," Dunn O'Connor said.

Members of the UH System declined this week to answer specific questions. On Thursday, Richard Bonnin, a system spokesman, replied to telephone and e-mail requests with a generalized written response.

"We are committed to a feasible expansion that is supported by enrollment," Bonnin wrote. "At a time when the state is mandating cuts for higher education, the UH System has pledged to seek $61.5 million during the 2011 legislative session to support construction of new academic buildings for UHV - and about $7 million more in special item requests for the campus."

Some say the system's promise is nothing more than a smokescreen. The move is to appease eager Victorians, they say, because the system knows any financial support in the Legislature is unlikely during a tight budget year.

IF YOU BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?

Many Crossroads leaders want UHV's campus to expand to accommodate projected student growth and jumpstart the region's economy like few industries can.

The UH System received an offer of 100 acres east of town, but declined.

In what appears to be a hastily created plan, the system instead proposed adding buildings at the current landlocked campus.

Supporters of severing ties say the system's plan is short-sighted, given space constraints today, let alone in the future.

"We're sitting at a geographic crossroads and have opportunities to help the state reach its goal with Close the Gap," Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns said. "We are within a few hours of major metroplexes, and a gateway to a large population from here to the Valley. It's hard to blame us for wanting a true destination campus."

The "Close the Gap'' initiative is a formal effort to, by 2015, increase student enrollment and success at the state's public universities. A special focus is placed on minorities.

Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, is a state senator whose district includes Victoria and Sugar Land.

"I want UHV to become a much more important player in the region's higher education," said Hegar, who remains publicly neutral in the realignment debate. "Now, we need to take UHV to the next step after the downward expansion. It should become a destination campus and I think that can occur."

Bonnin said the UH system supports these ideas, including wishes to boosts this region's economy.

"That is consistent with the UH System's strategic priority of student success, as well as Texas' Closing the Gap initiatives," he wrote.

IS IT POSSIBLE?

Within the realignment debate, there exists another: Is such a move even possible?

In Texas history, only one school - Angelo State University in 2007 - successfully switched systems when the host system opposed it. Still, it worked - once the Texas Legislature approved it.

"I don't see where there is any support - especially wide-ranging support - for something like this to even be considered," said Dunn O'Connor. "I also don't see a proposal from another system. Texas Tech will not consider Victoria, and neither will Texas A&M."

Jacobs, Burns and others, however, said outside university systems have expressed interest in Victoria's campus. They declined to name the systems, though, citing the sensitivity of such talks.

ANOTHER SOLUTION?

Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor knows all about disgruntled university system members. He served on the Texas A&M System's board of regents from 1993 to 1999.

During the mid-1990s, a Laredo school shared similar complaints to those held by some in the Crossroads. The school wanted out of the A&M system.

"It took about a year to regain the school's trust, but we put our money were our mouth was," O'Connor said. "We put $50 million into them, and now the campus flourishes."

Perhaps somewhere in all this lies a win-win scenario - a move that makes people on all sides happy. That could include a continued relationship between the university and its system, but it might also include a mutual goodbye.

"If it weren't for the students, we wouldn't have this argument. It'd be a moot issue," O'Connor said. "They are the future, so let's make the best of it - no matter who the system is."

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