University of Texas System regents decamped to a four-star hotel just west of Austin on Wednesday for a two-day retreat focused on the budget priorities, mission and leadership of the system administration overseeing 14 campuses.
Among the highlights: The new, 19-story headquarters building for the administration’s Austin-based staff will wind up saving $81 million in current dollars during the next 30 years.
“This is a great project,” said Paul Foster, chairman of the Board of Regents. “I think it’s widely misunderstood.”
His remark was an oblique reference to criticism from some state lawmakers about the size and cost of the building.
The price tag for the new building in downtown Austin came to $133.1 million, said Scott Kelley, the system’s executive vice chancellor for business affairs. He said that investment saves $81 million in the long run thanks to the sale of O. Henry Hall to the Texas State University System, the leasing of a block-sized parcel for mixed-use development and reduced maintenance expenses at O. Henry and four other aging buildings that previously served as system offices.
State Sen. Kel Seliger, the Senate Higher Education Committee chairman who called the building “a monument to the Board of Regents” during a legislative hearing this year, told the American-Statesman that he had no quarrel with the regents spending money to hold a retreat at the Hotel Granduca Austin in the Westlake area rather than at UT System offices.
“A lot of people do that — get out of their familiar surroundings,” said Seliger, R-Amarillo. “The Republican caucus of the Senate does that.”
The regents took no action on revising the administrative budget, instead peppering staff members with questions about various initiatives, including several championed by Chancellor Bill McRaven that he has dubbed “quantum leaps.” Regent Jeffery Hildebrand asked McRaven what effect it would have if $10 million allocated to UT-Austin to ramp up its national security program were withdrawn.
“It would have a tremendous impact,” sharply curtailing efforts to recruit experts in the field and take the university’s program “to the next level,” McRaven said.
The start of the public session of the regents’ meeting was disrupted by activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who protested the use of endowment funds for what they called abusive research on dogs at Texas A&M University. Emily Raap and Danielle Alexander, who were forcibly removed by university police, were arrested on charges of hindering proceedings by disorderly conduct.
UT System officials said the A&M System is entitled to a third of payouts from the Permanent University Fund under the Texas Constitution and that UT regents have no control over how A&M spends that money. A&M officials declined to comment.
The regents didn’t discuss, at least in their public session, McRaven’s performance and future job status. The retreat comes at a pivotal time in the relationship between the chancellor and his bosses. The retired admiral stopped short last month of saying whether he wants to continue as the system’s CEO after his three-year contract expires at the end of the year, explaining that he first has to find out if the board wants him to stay.
The regents, who are appointed by the governor, serve without pay on a board that is considered perhaps the most prestigious in all of state government. UT regents oversee one of the largest university systems in the nation, with 14 institutions, more than 228,000 students, more than 20,000 faculty members and nearly 80,000 health care professionals, researchers, student advisers and support staff.