The announcement last week that The University of Texas System has ended its planning for development of its proposed 332-acre Houston “intellectual hub” to focus on so-called “big data” in energy, health care, and education left me with mixed emotions. Rollout of the land acquisition transaction left a lot to be desired, with poor advance notification of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and a number of interested parties–not least the University of Houston–and the strategic planning seemed dysfunctional in terms of advance planning regarding the purpose and use of the property. While noting these mistakes by UT Chancellor William McRaven, I commend his boldness and visionary thinking that led him to the project. I didn’t then–and don’t now–believe that such a project in Houston has no place in the mission of UT, as some have suggested. After all, UT is the state’s flagship university and has a statewide charter in our constitution, already manifest in a major presence and investment in research, service, and teaching in the Houston area. The notion expressed by several (who should know better), that this plan was an “invasion” of Houston by UT, was hyperbolic nonsense.
As I wrote shortly after the original announcement in late 2015, the turf battle that emerged and the furor that was caused was, more than anything else, further manifestation of the lack of a coherent strategy for Texas higher education governance, especially with regard to the roles that each of our public institutions should play. Every effort in my memory to bring coherence to this issue, which dates to a proposal over thirty years ago by a commission 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 1) the current race among seven of our institutions, including the University of Houston, to achieve national “Tier One” status and 2) the treacherous political terrain for any statewide official or legislator who tackles the issue. It is not a political winner.
Meanwhile, however, as well noted by a Houston Chronicle editorial in the wake of the decision to end the project, we have a need for boldness and big ambitions that should transcend parochialism and small bureaucratic thinking, and I wonder along with the Chronicle whether or not this failed plan sows doubt about our openness and capacity for big ideas and bold strategic thinking.