Sheriff O'Connor lends support to UHV/A&M switch

Gabe Semenza

March 15, 2011 at 6:01 p.m.
Updated March 14, 2011 at 10:15 p.m.

In the sixth part of an ongoing series, the Advocate answers questions related to HB 2556, legislation filed last week by Rep. Geanie Morrison.

If passed, the bill would change the University of Houston-Victoria's name to Texas A&M University-Victoria, and move everything and everyone under its umbrella into the A&M system.

Sheriff says move has merit

Publicly, Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor has never said whether he supports efforts to switch university systems - until now.

For months, he studied the dynamics, offered insight to local leaders and insisted on giving the University of Houston System the benefit of the doubt.

During a sit-down interview from his office on Tuesday, however, O'Connor said he now supports efforts to move UHV into the A&M System.

"There are plenty of facts to merit it," O'Connor said. "UH has done well for many years, and I'm not trying to berate the system. I think A&M is a better fit for Victoria."

O'Connor knows all about disgruntled universities. The A&M grad served on the Texas A&M System's board of regents - as a regular member and vice chairman - from 1993 to 1999.

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

O'Connor helped to broker an agreement, re-establish trust and help the Laredo campus to flourish. As a rookie regent, he had three questions for Laredo leaders:

What's the problem?

Is this salvageable?

What can we do to regain trust?

"In my opinion, the UH System should have been down here doing the same thing. They should have been down here hustling," O'Connor said. "Instead, the UH System has lost the trust of Victoria stakeholders."

O'Connor shared his Laredo experience - and other lessons learned at A&M campuses elsewhere - with the Crossroads Commission on Education. He suggested commission members give the first-term UH System chairwoman the benefit of the doubt, even though many had lost faith in her predecessor and the administration.

"My advice was to pose specific questions about the vision UH has for the Victoria campus," he said. "Well, those questions were gathered and sent out. It took a long while to get a response. I saw those responses, and they were generic and non-committal. In my opinion, it doesn't look like the UH commitment is there."

O'Connor acknowledged his A&M bias. He also said he spoke for this story as a former A&M student and regent, and not for the system.

While O'Connor said he does not plan to lobby for the system switch, he said he is willing to testify before the Texas Legislature if called upon.

"If I'm asked for my opinion, I'll give it," he said.

Does A&M own Victoria County land?

Texas A&M University does not own land in Victoria County, according Tim Coffey, real estate manager for the A&M System.

The Texas A&M Foundation, however, does - at least 500 acres near Inez, public records show.

The nonprofit foundation matches donors and their interests with the university's priorities.

The 500 acres it owns are a small part of the much bigger Keeran Ranch. Herman and Minnie Belle Heep donated the land to the foundation in 2009.

The A&M System has a physical presence in 250 of the state's 254 counties and a programmatic presence in every county.

The system owns more than 65,000 surface acres and 55,000 mineral acres in Texas, records show.

Was Morrison's bill referred to committee?

Morrison's bill on Tuesday was referred to the House Committee on Higher Education.

The nine-member commission will determine whether the bill makes it to the next stage - a vote in the Texas House of Representatives.

No public hearing has yet been scheduled.



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