UT System’s expansion into Houston sparks discussion

Caleb Wong

The UT System made its first land purchase in southwest Houston on Friday in an effort to expand the System’s higher education presence in Texas’s largest city, according to a press release.

The 100.27-acre land purchase is the first in a series of several planned purchases to acquire more than 300 acres near the downtown Houston area to develop educational opportunities and increased research funding.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) said in a letter to Chancellor William McRaven that a significant UT System presence in Houston could divert much-needed research dollars and faculty away from existing Houston institutions such as the University of Houston, Rice University and Texas Southern University.

“In all candor, in my 42 years of service in the Texas legislature, I have not seen such an affront to the legislative process and conservative deliberations of the higher education community,” Whitmire wrote. “I would strongly urge the University of Texas leadership to hold off on any action … until the Legislature reconvenes.”

The UT System seemed to acknowledge the contention around its expansion in the press release, promising that a task force “primarily composed of Houstonians” will be instructed to avoid duplicating the efforts and initiatives of existing Houston institutions.

In response to Whitmire’s letter, McRaven defended the System’s expansion, writing that the System is hoping to build off its already-strong presence in Houston and will work with the legislature and Houston community leaders on the expansion.

“The UT System already has a significant presence in Houston and is, in fact, the city’s second largest employer,” McRaven wrote. “We look forward to conversations with the Legislature about this initiative, as we do with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, other institutions of higher education in Houston and the business and civic leadership of the city.”

The Houston mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Tension over the System’s purchase has also brought up conflicting views about the allotment of the Permanent University Fund, a state-owned sovereign wealth fund that currently only funds the UT System and the Texas A&M University System. Whitmire suggested in his letter to McRaven that the PUF creates an imbalance of power between the UT System and other Texas-based university systems.

“One important decision to be made would be the future distribution of the Permanent University Fund, which has allowed UT to thrive and expand,” Whitmire wrote. “As the distribution is currently constituted, UT owning 300 acres in Houston and having access to the PUF would give them a distinct advantage over UH and its ability to compete for highly recruited faculty and research dollars.”

McRaven wrote in response that the fund has benefitted Texas higher education as a whole, not just the UT and Texas A&M systems.

“The University of Texas and Texas A&M have been magnificent stewards of this unique resource since its inception,” McRaven wrote. “The incredible strength of Texas higher education, research and the economy can be directly attributed to how UT and A&M have utilized the PUF. We are proud of our stewardship and the progress we have made to advance our state.”