The recent dustup between University of Houston Chancellor Renu Khator and Texas Senator John Whitmire over the school’s proposed requirement that, with some exceptions, all freshmen would be required to live on campus, poses some interesting questions about the role and aspirations of this and other similarly situated universities.
Under Khator’s inspiring and impressive leadership over the past several years, the University of Houston (UH) has made great strides toward its mission to become what is known as a “Tier I” institution of higher education. Why is this objective considered important? For a couple of reasons aside from the prestige it brings. The widely accepted opinion is that Houston should have such an institution for its beneficial impact on economic growth and other research and intellectual property by-products and that Texas is trailing other states, notably California, in its pursuit of higher education excellence due at least in part because California has nine universities with such designation, while Texas currently has only three—Rice University, The University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M University.
In furtherance of the objective to correct this competitive imbalance, the Texas Legislature has offered incentives to seven state institutions to, in effect, compete for the designation, which admittedly is a better approach than simply politically anointing the candidates, and UH has been aggressively involved in this competition. The problem for UH is one that I anticipated and is partly illustrated by the recent flap over freshman housing and that is that the school has almost since its inception been identified as largely a commuter college primarily serving the needs of an urban, often part-time student constituency and this role has entrenched itself as a primary element of its identity. In fact, many years ago an observer once suggested that UH will be “the City College of New York of the 21st century”. This is the crux of Sen. Whitmire’s objection to the new freshman housing policy. And frankly, while this historic role is an important one not to be disrespected, it might not be consistent with the aspiration for Tier I status as a major research institution.
There is another somewhat related issue that is almost certain to come into play. In Texas higher education philosophy and policy, “access” will almost always trump “excellence”. For UH to reach Tier I status it will no doubt be required to increase admission standards and move toward a more highly selective admissions policy. This will cut against its role as an urban part-time student institution serving large inner city and often minority constituencies and no doubt will bring additional pushback of the nature of Sen. Whitmire’s objections from these communities.
Sen. Whitmire makes a great point and, in a way, it is my point as well. Texas has long struggled with a master strategy for higher education and has resisted almost all attempts to develop one in a grand top-down manner, which means that the 34 state-supported institutions and their 15 appointed boards of regents are relegated to fighting politically for their roles and support from one legislative session to the next based on regional clout and provincial interests. We have two flagship research university systems in the state that are of Tier I status and are highly recognized centers of excellence. Why do we need more of these? Why should we diffuse available funding in pursuit of them? Why shouldn’t we pursue a strategy of concentrating our investment in these centers of excellence as research institutions while designating strategic and market-based roles to be filled by the other public institutions that serve important regional and/or functional needs for the state? It has been a long time since we attempted to address these questions. I think it is time to revisit them.