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Victoria leaders express concern about UHV changes

By Melissa Crowe
March 15, 2014 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated March 15, 2014 at 10:16 p.m.

Sasha Carrera waits for a class to begin at the School of Nursing while sitting in the sun on the mall leading up to the UHV Center.

Victoria leaders are struggling to find answers about a plan to overhaul the University of Houston-Victoria's operations.

Victoria County Judge Don Pozzi said the lack of transparency and cooperation signals a gap between the community's and UH's goals to grow a destination university in Victoria.

"Look us in the eye," Pozzi said. "Don't say, 'This is what we're doing; there you are, like it or leave it.' That's not communicating."

The UH regents voted Feb. 26 to strip UHV's ability to offer programs in Sugar Land and transferred its nursing school to the UH System.

UHV's nursing and business administration schools are primarily in Sugar Land and account for 53 percent of its academic budget. While the UH System has promised to compensate Victoria for the loss, Crossroads public officials and community leaders are wary.

"There's a lot of emotion and dissatisfaction in this because of the way it was handled," Pozzi said. "We're going to have to explore ways to move forward and see to it that we maintain a nursing program at this university."

Former Mayor Will Armstrong said he did not want to comment about whether UH's promise has any credibility.

"I don't want to say I don't trust them, and yet, I have some reservations," Armstrong said. "I think it behooves us to trust them if they say they're going to do something, and they've said this publicly."

Others, including Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns, said the community's fragile trust was being compromised.

"I've got a lot of confidence in the Victoria people and from the officials here with the college," Burns said. "I don't have a lot of confidence in the Houston people."

Burns said the issues started when the university system opposed UHV's growth into a four-year university.

"I was pretty aggravated way back when," Burns said. "We had to force them to do the downward expansion, and I think that level of trust is something we've got to develop."

After the ouster of the UHV president who championed downward expansion, State Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, drafted a bill to bring UHV out from under the Houston system. Victoria began looking for a new university sponsor after UH officials refused a 300-acre donation to expand the Victoria campus.

Armstrong called Houston's refusal "a colossal mistake."

Along with the 300 acres, the city and county were committed to a $10 million road.

"There has been some misunderstanding in Houston about the potential for our area, and it's to their advantage to grow us a destination university here," Armstrong said. "The community is ready to help them in every way possible."

Burns and others are open to new options.

"It's the old expression, 'Dance with the one who brought you,'" Burns said. "If they're not going to treat us like we want, we need to be open (to other universities). I'm not saying go solicit it. I think they'll come to us."

In San Marcos, Texas State University has grown to an enrollment of 35,000.

Melissa Millecam, communications director for the city, said there has "always been a very close relationship since the beginning" between the university and the city.

"The city was the first donor of the land to create the university to begin with," she said. "However, the university is a state agency and has its own independence and can develop without too much consultation with the city."

The city and university are mutually supportive, even partnering to develop a master plan, something Victoria and Houston have not done.

"There's a concerted effort to keep everybody talking to each other," Millecam said. "There's not unanimous agreements. ... But with the comprehensive master plan that the city accomplished, which was a process that engaged everybody, everyone got to decide how things would move."

Dennis Patillo, a Victoria businessman, said he is hopeful the Sugar Land task force will spark a long-term collaborative plan involving UHV.

"There is an absolute dearth and need for communications," Patillo said.

He called the Sugar Land plan "ambitious" and said Victoria needs the same level of attention.

"If I had my druthers, it is time to really focus on the future of this community's role in higher education," Patillo said.

Given the lack of information and communication from the UH System, Patillo said drawing a conclusion would be a disservice to the community.

"In order to be productive, you need to be open to forgetting what may have disappointed you in the past and hope that everybody learns from those experiences," he said. "My driving principle is to make higher education available in our community."

Pozzi, the Victoria County judge, said the community has the enthusiasm to be involved but hasn't had an opportunity to do so.

"I think community plays a huge role in the development of a destination university," Pozzi said. "I do not think that the community has been included enough in that role."

Mayor Paul Polasek said UH's silence is not productive.

"It creates uncertainty, especially in the minds of the community and me," he said. "We'd all love to see them grow and prosper, but this activity creates uncertainty."

Polasek said he is disappointed in the way UH has not been transparent.

"I would like our citizens to have as much educational opportunity as possible," Polasek said.

In other communities - including the East Texas town of Tyler, where the University of Texas at Tyler was created in the 1970s - residents benefit from homegrown destination universities.

Tom Mullins, president and CEO of the city's Economic Development Council and Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce, said much of the university's success stemmed from community support.

"Legislators don't even think much about the (smaller) campuses that are part of Texas' major universities," Mullins said. "They always struggle for resources and funds."

Since UT-Tyler expanded to offer four-year programs in 1998, it has added master's and doctorate programs and has contributed to the area's economic development efforts, Mullins said.

"The No. 1 issue for business to grow and expand nationally is available labor and the ability to get that workforce trained," Mullins said.

The community's investment in higher education and the support from the University of Texas system is paying off.

Last year, Tyler Junior College opened a $50 million nursing school, and advanced nursing degrees were offered at UT-Tyler. The junior college took on an $8 million expansion of its technical campus, the public supported a $160 million bond issue for the school district, and the university received $22 million in state funding for a four-year full pharmacy school.

"It impacts your whole community psyche when you have that level of energy and intellectual growth and all that activity that students provide in a community," Mullins said.

As for the future of UHV, Victoria County Commissioner Clint Ives called the loss of the nursing program "a blow" to the community.

"Victoria has always prided itself on a top-rated nursing program," he said.

He said he expects to see the university "pull through this difficult time."

"UH, 40 years ago, took a chance on Victoria," Ives said. "We need to stay true to the guys who took a chance on us."

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