A&M, UH chancellors to talk transfer in Victoria

Gabe Semenza

April 23, 2011 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated April 22, 2011 at 11:23 p.m.

An influential legislator wants the chancellors of the University of Houston and Texas A&M systems to meet in Victoria in June.

The purpose of the meeting: to discuss issues regarding House Bill 2556, which aims to move the University of Houston-Victoria into the A&M system.

"I've come to determine that we need to explore a resolution to the current dispute," said Rep. Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican who serves as chairman of the Texas House Committee on Higher Education, the group to which the bill was assigned. "I want to see if we can start exploring possibilities."

Supporters and opponents of switching university systems applauded Branch's decision. In addition to the chancellors, Branch also invited to the meeting Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican; Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee; and Rep. Geanie Morrison, the Victoria Republican who authored the bill.

"There is a lot going on in the Legislature right now," Branch said by phone, referring to budget and redistricting talks. "Let's let the UHV students get through this semester. We don't have time right now to work out all the details of the bill."

The relationship between UHV and the UH System remains complex. Students enrolled in UHV programs at UH-Sugar Land and UH-Cinco Ranch, for example, count toward UHV's population, but the UH System claims it owns the buildings there.

If a switch occurred, would Texas A&M University-Victoria students and staff continue to use those buildings?

By scheduling a meeting of all parties, Branch accomplishes two notable feats: He creates the time needed to solve the complexities of a transfer - if it occurs - and avoids what could have been an ugly legislative battle.

The UH System has made it clear it does not wish to lose UHV. If Morrison's bill went before a committee hearing, both sides would have presented cases for and against the switch - and thus publicly rehash longstanding frustrations.

"We're way down the line from a transfer," Branch said. "But my sense is the time between sessions goes quickly. Pre-filing for bills in the next session begins already in November 2012."

While Branch has yet to set an exact date, time and location, Victoria leaders on both sides of this bill seem excited for the June meeting.

Morgan O'Connor and Kay Kerr Walker, former UH System regents who oppose the efforts to switch systems, said they welcome the meeting. Both women said they were curious to learn what the A&M System proposes to offer that the UH System does not and just how interested the Aggies are in Victoria.

While the Legislature might not act on the bill this session, the issues raised seem to have forced serious talks. The debate is about whether the UH System neglects UHV's needs while pursuing those closer to Houston.

Calls on Friday to Hegar's office and the A&M System went unreturned. UH System Chancellor Renu Khator appeared open to the meeting.

"I am always willing to discuss ways in which the UH System can best serve the needs of the state," Khator said via email.

It's that apparent willingness to now meet that Morrison said encourages her. The June meeting is a sign the bill accomplished one of its most important intentions: to shine light on Victoria's ability to help close the state's education gaps, she said.

"House Bill 2556 is forcing the stakeholders who would not previously come to the table to make them understand what the vision is for Victoria, and that we are determined to make Victoria a first-class destination university," Morrison said via email. "My intention is for this meeting to begin the facilitation of the transfer of the University of Houston-Victoria into the Texas A&M System."

Morrison praised community support of the bill. Crossroads residents en masse contacted Branch via email, telephone and in-person visits, she said.

Dennis Patillo, a Crossroads Commission on Education member and bill supporter, said advocates of the switch could not have asked for a better scenario.

"This is an absolutely wonderful result," Patillo said. "You file the bill to get the process started."

Patillo praised Morrison for her work to push the legislation to this point and commended Branch for acting on complicated legislation.

"Chairman Branch listened to our community and both principals to work out the best resolution for the students. He views the bill with such importance that he wants to continue the dialogue," Patillo said. "I'm glad the two university system chancellors will be here in Victoria working on our community's behalf."



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