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Emails reveal UH System plans to alter UHV's operations

By Gabe Semenza
May 7, 2011 at 12:07 a.m.
Updated May 8, 2011 at 12:08 a.m.


TO VIEW THE EMAILS,MORE EMAILS TO COME?The University of Houston System withheld an unknown number of emails based on the position those correspondences are privileged, private and protected by state law. The Advocate asked for a Texas Attorney General's ruling on those emails the systems deems as non-public.

Geanie Morrison was furious this week to learn the University of Houston System has, without her knowledge, proposed to alter a critical component of the Victoria university's operations.

The system proposes making the UH System at Sugar Land a branch of the University of Houston, the Advocate learned. The ramifications for the University of Houston-Victoria could be significant.

Morrison, the Republican state representative from Victoria, learned first about the system's proposal when the Advocate presented her emails this week. The documents were a few of the 1,500 pages of university system emails obtained by the newspaper as part of an open records request.

"I was completely caught off guard and, needless to say, extremely irritated when the Victoria Advocate provided the documents to me," Morrison said. "We have been trying to negotiate with the UH System for almost two years regarding the future vision of the University of Houston-Victoria, and not once was any of this brought up in those discussions."

Victoria Mayor Will Armstrong and other members of the Crossroads Commission on Education shared Morrison's sentiments.

TALKING POINTS

The emails in question were sent between Feb. 19 and March 4 and include correspondence sent to and from UH System Chancellor Renu Khator. Khator had communicated a number of times about meeting with State Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican whose district includes Sugar Land, and the need for talking points.

"What should I be asking him/alerting him under various scenarios?" Khator wrote.

The talking points she then received from a system staffer included this paragraph:

"After careful review by outside consultants, we are proposing to transition UH Sugar Land from a system center to a branch of UH. We believe this is consistent with the community's vision and will provide the best model for delivery of academic programs."

That paragraph irked Morrison.

"I find it interesting that prior to me even filing House Bill 2556, Chancellor Khator was interested in working with what was 'consistent with the community's vision' in Sugar Land," Morrison said. "However, after nearly two years of hearing from Victoria and the surrounding communities, our vision seems to have been discounted."

EFFECTS ON UHV

Morrison filed HB 2556 on March 8 - a few weeks after Khator received her Sugar Land talking points - in an effort to move UHV into the Texas A&M University System.

For almost a year, many Crossroads leaders have publicized frustrations they have about the current host system, namely the beliefs it doesn't share the local vision for higher education and neglects UHV's needs while attending to others in the system.

Khator's emails show the system values Sugar Land's wishes, but their content also raises important questions. How would the Sugar Land transition affect UHV students and faculty, and the school's ability to offer academics?

Students enrolled in UHV programs at the UH System at Sugar Land count toward the Victoria university's 4,188 student population.

Fewer UHV-affiliated students could mean less funding and fewer programs.

"Half of our faculty live in the Houston area and more than half of our students reside in Harris and Fort Bend counties - taking courses online and in those centers," said Don Smith, the interim UHV president, referring also to the UH System at Cinco Ranch.

Smith was unaware of Khator's email and meeting with Hegar, although he is generally aware of various possibilities within the system, he said.

Many leaders in Sugar Land have for years pushed for the multi-institution learning center there to become a free-standing university, to attain a stronger voice at the table.

While the transition would not make the learning center a free-standing institution, it could, as a branch of the University of Houston's main campus, attain more autonomy and leverage.

Sugar Land Mayor James Thompson said he has yet to discuss in detail the transition plans with Khator.

"I know that was one of the options they presented us some time back," Thompson said. "I'd support being part of the main campus, especially if it could be the first step in becoming a free-standing institution."

PROTECTING ITS TURF?

Khator clearly wants to keep the system's centers and universities under her umbrella - and not lose any component to the A&M or any other system.

"I have spoken with chancellors of Texas Tech and A&M to let them know that UHV is, and has been, an important part of our system strategic plan and regardless of what they hear, we are not prepared to give it up," she wrote in an email Aug. 20.

Khator's position prompts this question: Did the UH System in February plan to transition Sugar Land in part to protect it against the potential of a system switch and the likelihood of Morrison's bill?

Crossroads leaders, after all, had several months earlier made it known they want UHV and its affiliated students and faculty in another system.

Consider this: Dennis Golden, a former UH System regent and a member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, sent an email to the system on March 8, the day Morrison filed her bill.

Golden wrote to Grover Campbell, the system's director of governmental relations, to ask whether UHV was transferring into the A&M System. Golden further noted that, several years before, A&M System Chancellor Mike McKinney asked for his opinion about the University of Houston-Downtown becoming part of the Aggie system.

"I interpreted (McKinney's) comments at the time that A&M would like to have a presence in the Houston market," Golden wrote. "Their interests in UHV is concerning to me."

Campbell replied: "We share your concern."

Golden then wrote he was working to get a former Cougar - presumably a former University of Houston Cougar - on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

If issues arose regarding Morrison's bill and the transfer of UHV, the coordinating board would be charged with settling disputes.

"Outstanding," Campbell told Golden.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

If the transition occurs, UHV will continue to teach certain programs in Sugar Land, although those programs and the duration of their existence is unknown at this time. Khator's talking points don't say.

"UH Sugar Land and UH-Victoria are important and valued components of the UH System," the chancellor's talking points note. "The transition will be done in a way to minimize the impact on UHV."

The UH System briefly answered questions posed this week by the Advocate.

What effects would the Sugar Land transition have on UHV?

"None known," the system said in an email. "The proposal you reference is one of many options available to the UH System. In no way has a decision been made. The UH System continues to evaluate ways to provide the best educational services possible to the residents it serves, and that may include making these services available in suburban communities."

The system also noted that no new branches or other operations of any kind could be developed without the legislature's authorization.

CONCERNS?

Not everyone is angry or surprised about the system's proposal. Emett Alvarez, a Victoria opponent of moving UHV into the A&M System, said the UH System can do anything it wants with its member universities and centers.

"They make those decisions," Alvarez said. "No, it doesn't concern me."

These issues likely will arise during a June meeting in Victoria of Khator, Hegar, Morrison and McKinney, the A&M System chancellor. They are set to discuss HB 2556 and possible solutions.

McKinney and Hegar declined comment this week.

"Since I have not been contacted about this, I can only say that I am extremely concerned about the possible impact on UHV, specifically the students and faculty," Morrison said. "I can't say in any certain terms how this impacts the negotiations to move UHV into the A&M System. However, it would be naïve to think that it would not have significant implications."

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