UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven drops plan for a campus in Houston

5:39 p.m Wednesday, March 1, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Bill McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, walks away from the podium after speaking at a news conference at Ashbel Smith Hall on Wednesday to announce his decision to not develop a new campus in Houston.

University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven has abruptly killed the system’s controversial plan to develop a campus in Houston on 307 acres it purchased last year, a project pushed by the chancellor but one that was running into increasingly strong headwinds from members of the Legislature.

“We are through with this project and through with our expansion into Houston,” McRaven said at a hastily called news conference Wednesday, adding that debate over the project “was overshadowing the extraordinary work underway on the 14 campuses of the UT System.”

The chancellor said the decision to pull the plug was his alone, but there is no doubt that he was facing opposition not only from the Houston legislative delegation but also from the University of Houston and even from some members of the UT System Board of Regents. Newly appointed UT Regents Janiece Longoria and Kevin Eltife testified at their confirmation hearing that they couldn’t back a campus in Houston if it didn’t have local and legislative support.

And McRaven had taken considerable heat from lawmakers for not consulting with them before putting the land under contract for $215 million — an expense to have been funded with bonds backed by the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund, a higher education endowment overseen by the UT board.

IN-DEPTH: A tough legislative session for UT System, Chancellor McRaven

McRaven had insisted since he announced the initiative last year that it was essential for the UT System to take bold steps, even risky ones, to retain its place as one of the nation’s great public university systems. The Houston project was the most prominent of nine so-called quantum leaps that the system is pursuing under his guidance. They include initiatives involving national security, brain health and student success.

But for the retired four-star admiral and Navy SEAL who planned the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, the failure of the Houston project is the biggest setback since he became chancellor in January 2015.

McRaven said Wednesday that the system would divest itself of the land and that he didn’t expect it to lose any money through that process.

“I accept full responsibility for the lack of progress on this initiative. I am grateful to the Regents, my system staff and the university presidents for their engagement over the last year,” McRaven said in a memo to Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster.

The University of Houston had been especially critical of the UT System’s aspirations in Houston, regarding the move as encroachment on UH territory and its prospects for continued expansion of its research and education portfolios.

“The University of Houston is pleased that UT is not expanding in Houston,” said Tilman Fertitta, chairman of that school’s governing board. “This was a group effort by elected leaders, our Board of Regents, our administration and supporters to stand our ground against an unnecessary duplication of resources that didn’t align with the state’s plan for higher education.”

State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, whose district includes the land at issue, said he was “encouraged that UT listened to the voices of concern and decided to pull the plug on proceeding with the Houston development.”

He said, “There must be a methodical and inclusive process when decisions like this are made, especially when it affects our present universities.”

McRaven had repeatedly said a full-fledged UT System university in Houston wasn’t in the cards. Rather, he saw the project as a venue for the system’s other campuses to have a presence in the state’s largest city for educational opportunities as well as research partnerships with Houston’s robust energy, health care and finance sectors. The UT System already has two institutions in Houston: the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center and the UT Health Science Center.

The chancellor said at Wednesday’s news conference that an advisory task force of civic, business and other leaders in Houston had recommended establishing an institute for data science at the site. Such an institute, focusing on health care, energy and education, might find a home at other UT System campuses, McRaven said. The chancellor previously had spoken of his interest in establishing a leadership institute at the Houston site.

One sign that the project was in serious trouble came during a state Senate Finance Committee hearing in January. Multiple senators questioned McRaven sharply about the project.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, was the most vociferous.

“I believe your style is it’s your way or the highway,” Whitmire told McRaven. “In all due respect, I don’t think you give a damn what the Legislature thinks.”

That marked the start of an unusually testy exchange:

McRaven: “As far as my respect and admiration for this body and elected officials around this country, that is absolutely wrong. I spent 37 years in the military, and I’m not going to tout the uniform, but I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I raised my right hand to do that, and I think I did that pretty well for 37 years.”

Whitmire: “That’s not the issue this morning.”

McRaven: “Sir, you said I do not respect this body.”

Whitmire: “That’s my opinion.”

McRaven: “I recognize that’s your opinion, and I can tell you that’s not true.”

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