In the space of a few days, University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven, a retired four-star admiral, went from full speed ahead on plans to expand the system’s presence in Houston to tossing out anchors for an abrupt stop.
When he announced last week that he was scuttling the project, for which the system had acquired more than 300 acres at a price of $215 million, McRaven said he had been unable to develop a shared vision. “The shared vision needed to be with the civic leaders in Houston. It needed to be with the Legislature. It needed to be with other campuses,” he said.
What the chancellor didn’t mention was that the shared vision also needed to be with Gov. Greg Abbott. It would be difficult, for reasons both political and practical, to succeed in such an ambitious endeavor without the support of the governor. But Abbott never expressed support publicly for the project — or opposition to it, for that matter. His silence was telling.
“If he didn’t say he supported it, he didn’t support it,” said one well-placed source who spoke to the American-Statesman on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Another sign that the state’s Republican chief executive was cold to the notion of a new UT System site in Houston — where the system already has a cancer center and a health science center — came during a Senate confirmation hearing in January for three people he nominated to serve on the system’s Board of Regents.
Two of the three — former state Sen. Kevin Eltife and former UT System Regent Janiece Longoria — indicated that they opposed the expansion project because of intense opposition from Houston’s legislative delegation and other forces, including the University of Houston, a rising institution that saw McRaven’s plan as encroachment on its territory and prospects. It’s virtually certain that Abbott’s nominees would be on the same page as the governor regarding a high-profile matter they were sure to be questioned about at the hearing.
Abbott, who earned his bachelor’s in business administration at UT, has generally sought stability and peace in dealing with his alma mater and its governing board, in contrast with the tense relationships that prevailed in the last several years of Rick Perry’s administration.
Abbott’s course on higher ed
Higher education leaders for the most part give Abbott high marks. They were pleased, for example, that he won legislative approval two years ago for a $40 million fund — one of his emergency items — intended to further his goal of elevating the national rankings of the state’s public universities. The program, which would receive no funding under the proposed House and Senate budgets for the next two years, awards matching grants for hiring Nobel laureates and National Academy members. Abbott wants continued funding and held a reception at the Governor’s Mansion on Monday for the first batch of recruits.
At the same time, higher education leaders regard as somewhat hollow Abbott’s call, while campaigning for governor, for Texas to have five universities among the top 10 public universities as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The state has none on that list, and it would take sustained appropriations increases of many hundreds of millions of dollars to even have a shot at his goal — an infusion he has not sought.
Instead of boosting funding, Abbott instructed higher education institutions to trim their appropriations requests by 4 percent for the 2018-19 biennium. And in a move that the executive director of the Legislative Budget Board called “a significant expansion of the power of the governor” at the expense of the Legislature, Abbott two years ago vetoed some budget riders — for agencies as well as universities — that had previously been regarded as informational and not subject to veto. That included $5 million for UT-Austin to study identity theft.
As for McRaven’s vision for the Houston property, that never came into sharp focus. The chancellor had charged a blue-ribbon task force of civic, business and education leaders with making recommendations, and the panel met numerous times during the past year. But he pulled the plug on the project before its recommendations saw the light of day. McRaven said the panel’s draft report, which has not been released publicly, recommends creation of an institute for data science that would focus on health care, education and energy.
The chancellor expressed hope that the concept might find traction at some of the UT System’s 14 academic and health campuses, but he said the system would sell off the land it acquired in Houston to recoup its investment. He said the decision to scuttle the project was his alone.
“The decision had nothing to do with pressure from anybody,” McRaven said. “It had to do with the fact that it was distracting and overshadowing the great work going on around the system.”
Failure of imagination?
UT board Chairman Paul Foster told McRaven in a letter on Friday that the regents still have “great confidence in and respect for you and your leadership” and admire “your willingness to step forward and assume responsibility” for the Houston initiative, which had been unanimously approved by the board in 2015.
Alex Cranberg, a former UT regent and member of the task force, told the Statesman he was disappointed that McRaven wasn’t “given the chance to show what could be done. This sad loss of a potentially game-changing opportunity for Texas higher education is a failure of imagination.”
UT-Austin boosters and University of Houston boosters “pushed hard to maintain their death grip” on proceeds from the Permanent University Fund endowment in the case of the former and territory in the case of the latter, Cranberg said.
Larry Faulkner, a former UT-Austin president who served on the panel, said McRaven was frank with the group about the possibility of failure.
“There are also people on the committee who are very savvy politically,” Faulkner said. “I think it was well understood what kind of pressure he was under and the significant risk that he might not get a consensus assembled that would allow him the freedom to continue to develop the idea.”