Is UT’s campus site in Houston a dump? Chancellor says no.

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UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, left, and board Chairman Paul Foster at a July 2016 regents’ meeting

State Sen. John Whitmire is plenty upset with University of Texas System officials for purchasing more than 300 acres in Houston for a new campus. His ire is just one of many challenges facing system Chancellor Bill McRaven and Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster during the current legislative session, as my story online and in today’s print edition details.

A large part of the Houston Democrat’s beef: The acquisition was undertaken without advance consultation with lawmakers. He also complains that the UT System, with its access to the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund, a higher education endowment, would have a distinct advantage over his alma mater, the University of Houston, in competing for faculty members and research dollars.

But Whitmire also doesn’t think much of the land itself.

“Are you familiar with the history of this piece of land? It’s environmentally unsound. It’s an oil and gas abandoned field,” he told McRaven and Foster during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last month.

“There’s a reason you’re able to get 300 acres locked up southwest of the dome,” Whitmire said, referring to the Astrodome. “Because no one else wants it. . . It’s a dump. This is nothing but you, in my judgment, bailing out some land speculators.”

McRaven responded at some length a couple of weeks later in a letter to Whitmire, a copy of which the American-Statesman has obtained. The site has never been a landfill, but much of the property is indeed part of an abandoned oil field, with plugged wells, some former oil-field ponds and a former polymer facility, the chancellor wrote. Cleanup is expected to cost less than $2 million, and the sellers agreed to a price reduction accordingly, the chancellor wrote.

Except for limited detention of storm water, nothing will prevent full development of the property, McRaven added.

“Your comments at the hearing, however, would lead a listener to conclude that the Property and the surrounding area are blighted and unlikely to ever be developed,” he wrote. “In fact, the Property is adjacent to apartments, neighborhoods, and commercial buildings, and it is highly likely that these adjacent developed lands had similar characteristics.”

The $215 million price for 307 acres is below the $233 million appraised value, McRaven said. The sellers are Buffalo Lakes Ltd. and related entities. Buffalo Lakes was formed in 2002 by John Kirksey, who cobbled together the land over 15 years. Kirksey’s major partners are Joel R. Scott and Kyle Tauch, the chancellor added.

During the Senate hearing, McRaven said expected to receive recommendations on developing the tract from an advisory panel in Houston by the end of January. In his letter to Whitmire, he said he expected the recommendations by the end of February. When asked about the timing in a subsequent interview with the Statesman, he said: “I don’t really want to put a date on it right now.”

On the virtues of small and midsized private colleges like St. Edward’s University

RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When it comes to higher education, public universities and community colleges tend to draw most of the attention. No surprise there: More than 90 percent of college students in Texas, for example, attend public institutions.

Private schools nonetheless play an important role in higher education. Richard Ekman and S. Georgia Nugent are on something of a campaign to help those schools tell their stories. Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a group of 650 small  and midsized private schools in the United States. Nugent is a senior fellow with the council and a former president of Kenyon College in Ohio.

The pair were at St. Edward’s University, a member of the council, last week as part of a workshop at which teams from various private schools gathered for brainstorming on ways to revise the curriculum, boost enrollment, cut administrative costs and tweak teaching in ways intended to better prepare students for the workplace.

In other words, these small and midsized schools are doing some of the same things the big public universities are doing to survive and thrive in an era of rapid change. The workshop at St. Edward’s, which drew academics and administrators from schools inside and outside Texas, was the sixth in a series of eight sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges.

When I met with Ekman and Nugent at St. Edward’s, they were eager to talk up the virtues of the schools they represent, including the close-knit residential model.

“There are a lot of structural advantages in smaller colleges,” Ekman said. “Kids don’t get lost.”

Nugent, who has taught at Princeton, Brown and Cornell, said the focus on teaching is greater at such schools than at big-time research universities.

“If you’re a faculty member” at a major research school, “your first priority has to be research,” she said. “It’s not teaching.”

Tuition and other charges at private schools often exceed those of their public counterparts, but the private schools on average provide more financial aid, Nugent and Ekman said. Financial aid packages at private four-year schools average $33,795, compaired with $20,558 for public four-year colleges and universities, according to the council’s analysis of U.S. Department of Education data.

What’s more, private colleges have higher four-year graduation rates, at 53 percent, compared with 34 percent for public schools. Hispanic students and black students are more likely to graduate on time from private colleges.

Nugent and Ekman conceded that the term “liberal arts,” often applied to the private schools, is confusing and off-putting to some. Nugent said the term has nothing to do with politics, instead harkening back to skills that in classical antiquity were regarded as essential for a free person. Liberal arts colleges emphasize undergraduate education and offer a full complement of classes in literature, language, sociology, math, biology, computer science and other disciplines, with an emphasis on developing a student’s intellect as opposed to vocational skills.

The long and short of service on the UT Board of Regents

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Janiece Longoria, Rad Weaver and Kevin Eltife at their Senate confirmation hearing. Photo by Jay Janner

When Robert Estrada’s six-year term on the University of Texas System Board of Regents wound up stretching to nine years, he declared that the experience reminded him of the film “The Long Goodbye,” adapted from a novel by Raymond Chandler.

Estrada served until February 2008, when his replacement, Janiece Longoria, was sworn in. She served the remaining three years of a six-year term and exited the board in 2011. On Wednesday morning, she returned to the board in what might be dubbed “The Short Hello.”

Longoria, a lawyer from Houston, along with former state Sen. Kevin Eltife of Tyler and San Antonio businessman Rad Weaver, enjoyed a swift process of nomination, confirmation hearing and Senate approval, the latter of which came Tuesday evening. The three were sworn in Wednesday morning by a UT System staffer who is also a notary in time for the start of a two-day board meeting.

Gov. Greg Abbott nominated the trio on Jan. 23, and their Senate confirmation came 15 days later. In contrast, Abbott’s three previous nominees, in 2015, weren’t approved by the Senate until a month and a half after he named them.

One of Wednesday’s outgoing UT regents, Wallace L. Hall Jr., had charged that the swift pace this time was an effort to short-circuit his legal case before the Texas Supreme Court concerning access to records from an investigation into admissions practices at the Austin flagship. Hall was concerned because he likely wouldn’t have any right to see confidential student records once he was replaced on the board.

Alas, the Supreme Court ruled against Hall’s bid for the confidential records before his replacement was confirmed. The swearing-in of Longoria, Eltife and Weaver to six-year terms also marked the departure of Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich from the UT board.