The Emerging Texas Higher Education Turf Battle
James Windham –
Over the past couple of months there has been growing evidence of a looming turf battle between The University of Texas at Austin (UT) and the University of Houston (UH) over particular projects recently announced by each institution that figure to have implications for Texas higher education governance going forward.
First, UH announced that it has plans for a proposed medical school in Houston, which drew a response from Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes that such a proposal would be a “tough sell” for reasons that securing adequate funding for a new medical school will be difficult and the fact that UT is opening two new medical schools in 2017. He added that Texas is “in danger of expanding higher education programs and facilities beyond the state’s ability or willingness to fund them adequately”.
This was followed, as I have previously written (“Bold New Vision for the UT System”, November 2015), by the announcement by UT Chancellor William McRaven of a major new vision for the UT system that would include the development of a comprehensive “intellectual hub” in Houston on a 332-acre tract of land near the Texas Medical Center, which drew a stinging rebuke by the UH Board of Regents and system leadership that this represented a “Trojan horse” and that UH should “strongly protest this invasion”. Commissioner Paredes followed by indicating his concern about new competition between the two institutions.
Full disclosure: I am a UT alumnus. Now allow me to comment that what we are seeing here is further manifestation of the lack of a coherent strategy for Texas higher education governance and the roles that each of our public institutions should play. (I should add that this incoherence extends to elementary and secondary education governance as well, but more on that in a later post). Every effort in my memory to bring coherence to this issue, which dates to the proposal over 30 years ago by a commission chaired by Larry Temple to design either a functional or a geographic approach to higher education in Texas, has failed because of parochial politics. I see no resolution to that situation in the immediate future, given the current race among seven of our institutions, including UH, to achieve national “Tier One” status and given the treacherous political terrain for any statewide office holder or legislator who tackles the issue. It’s not a political winner.
We currently have co-flagship Tier One research universities in UT and Texas A&M, both of which have clear statewide missions of service and higher education leadership and which share the visionary constitutional benefits of the state’s Permanent University Fund. So, while we wisely continue to incentivize the pursuit of excellence by other regional institutions, I say let the competition play out until we find the necessary political leadership to develop the coherent long-term governance strategy that we desperately need.