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Renu Khator

Complaint filed against Whitmire

I think this is more a political stunt than anything else, but we’ll see.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

A conservative group has filed a criminal complaint against state Sen. John Whitmire, accusing him of coercion in an exchange of text messages with University of Houston President Renu Khator that was published in the Houston Chronicle.

In the Aug. 16 conversation, Whitmire told Khator he would “stop dead and pass leg (legislation)” unless she killed a plan to require freshmen to live on campus. Khator agreed to withdraw the proposal and asked Whitmire to forgive her.

The complaint, filed Aug. 29 with Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit by the Conservative Action Fund, cites the exchange. Representatives of the unit, which investigates claims against elected officials, could not be reached for comment Monday.

“Senator Whitmire directly attempted to influence – and did in fact influence – a public servant (the UH President) ‘in a specific exercise of [her] official power,’ ” the complaint says. “He achieved such influence by means of ‘coercion,’ that is, by threatening to ‘take … action as a public servant’ in the Legislature if UH did not bow to his demand.”

Whitmire dismissed the complaint as “absolutely silly.”

“I haven’t even given it a second thought,” Whitmire said. “Obviously a group of lawyers have got too much time on their hands.”

The complaint seems intended, in part at least, as a defense of Gov. Rick Perry, who was indicted last month on similar charges. Perry threatened to, and later did, veto funding for the Travis County-based Public Integrity Unit, if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg did not step down after being arrested for drunken driving.

Here’s the letter they sent. I’ll leave it to the lawyers in the audience to analyze. I agree with the story’s suggestion that this is more about Rick Perry than it is about John Whitmire, but if Rosemary Lehmberg thinks it merits the attention of a grand jury then so be it. I will just note again that we have only the barest of outlines of the case against Rick Perry. Assuming the indictments survive the motion to dismiss, we’ll finally start to see what the evidence against Perry looks like. I’m going to guess that it will add up to just a wee bit more than what is being cited against Whitmire, but I guess you never know. Campos and Hair Balls have more.

UH goes smoke-free

Good for them.

The University of Houston, which educates more than 40,000 students each year on its 667-acre campus, will become tobacco-free June 1, school officials announced Thursday.

The new policy, approved by UH Chancellor Renu Khator, bans the use of tobacco products in all university buildings and grounds, including parking areas, sidewalks and walkways. It will apply to all employees, students, contractors and visitors to the campus.

“We are very well aware that this will be an inconvenience to the UH community of smokers,” said Kathryn Peek, assistant vice president of university health initiatives and co-chair of the school’s tobacco task force. “But nobody has to quit smoking. What we’re trying to do is eliminate second-hand smoke on the campus.”

For smokers, UH will provide 20 designated open areas for tobacco use mostly situated away from buildings and walkways. People will be able to smoke there, but after a year the task force will decide if it will allow those exemptions to continue.

[…]

UH is a recipient of more than $9.4 million in funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, which began requiring its recipients in 2012 to have tobacco-free policies in and around all locations where research is conducted.

The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University banned tobacco on their campuses in 2012. Texas A&M is awaiting approval of the president to establish a tobacco-free campus. All are CPRIT grant recipients.

“CPRIT accelerated the university’s tobacco-free campus policy, but that isn’t the sole reason,” Peek said. “This was a student-led movement from the beginning.”

Good to know CPRIT has been good for something. More seriously, I’m somewhat amazed that UH didn’t already ban smoking in these places. Most public places have been smoke-free for so long that I suppose I just took that for granted. This has been in the works at UH since June but it’s just coming up now. Better late than never, I guess.

Another reason why graduate school sucks

I just shook my head when I read this.

English Department teaching fellows at the University of Houston ended their sit-in Monday after UH Chancellor Renu Khator committed $1 million a year to improve their wages – potentially enough money to bring the roughly 70 teaching fellows up to the living wage for which they’d petitioned.

In an official statement, organizers of the sit-in called the decision “an extraordinary moment.”

Graduate students and faculty had launched the excruciatingly polite sit-in outside the chancellor’s office on April 3. Currently, the teaching fellows are paid $9,600 to $11,200 a year to teach the freshman composition classes that are part of the university’s core curriculum. Faculty noted that the fellows hadn’t received a raise in 20 years and that the stipends weren’t competitive with those of peer universities.

I came to Houston in the fall of 1988 to be a PhD student in math at Rice. The stipend they gave me, which did not include any teaching requirements, was something like $1,000 per month. I don’t remember the exact figure – it’s been awhile, after all – but it was enough for me to live on. It boggles my mind that there were graduate students here that were making no more than I did when Ronald Reagan was still President. Good on Dr. Khator for helping them out and all, but wow.

Metro and UH make nice

Good.

Construction of a light-rail line that would cross University of Houston property can continue now that UH and Metro officials settled differences that threatened to delay the project.

UH announced in a statement Tuesday that university officials have agreed to allow the Metropolitan Transit Authority to start the next phase of construction of the southeast line along Wheeler Avenue. In exchange, Metro will address concerns involving access to UH’s facilities.

The Metro board has agreed to pay $1.5 million to take the steps included in the agreement, according to spokesman Jerome Gray.

“We have worked diligently together to reach an agreement,” UH President Renu Khator said in a statement. “We have come to a resolution that both the university and Metro are happy with and that is in the best interests of the community.”

See here and here for some background. Details are still a bit sketchy, but the Examiner has a little more.

According to the agreement, Metro will be able to do the initial infrastructure work for installation of the light-rail along Wheeler Avenue from Calhoun/Martin Luther King Jr. to a point east of the Scott Street intersection.

A use agreement on the UH property along Scott where most of the needed land is located is still pending, however.

“We have worked diligently together to reach an agreement,” said UH President Renu Khator. “We have come to a resolution that both the university and Metro are happy with and that is in the best interests of the community. We look forward to completion of the Metro line and to the continuation of our partnership.”

Metro has agreed to provide an alternative access road to ease traffic problems caused by the construction of the rail along Wheeler, Richard Bonnin, UH executive director of media relations, said. Additionally, he said, access issues caused by construction of the line near the university’s Child Care Center and Department of Public Safety are being addressed by the transit agency.

I’m just glad they got this done. One less thing to worry about.

Meanwhile, on a not really related but still important note, Metro is having a special board meeting today to pick a referendum for the ballot.

The METRO Board of Directors will meet at 9 A.M. on Friday, August 3, 2012 to select a referendum proposal regarding METRO’s General Mobility Program. The Board has been listening to public input for the past several months at meetings throughout the METRO service area. Based on that input, Board Members have presented six possible referendum proposals and will now select one to be presented to voters in November. After voting on a referendum proposal the board will reconvene on August 17, 2012 to approve the ballot language and call for an election.

WHEN: 9 A.M. on FRIDAY, AUGUST 3, 2012
WHERE: Board Room, 1900 Main, Houston 77002 (Downtown Transit Ctr.)

For more about METRO’s 2012 General Mobility Program (GMP) Referendum Web page, click here.

The Chron story fills in some more details. Obviously, this is a big deal. I have no idea which way the Board is leaning, but I’ll say again that I favor Christof Spieler’s proposal, as a starting point if nothing else. Houston Tomorrow agrees with that assessment, and has sent this letter to the Metro board to express its support for the Spieler proposal. I hope it can build up a little momentum going into today’s meeting. Be that as it may, be there if you can. A joint statement from Houston Tomorrow and the CTC in favor of the Spieler proposal is beneath the fold.

(more…)

UH prof writes letter in support of resolution with Metro

After I published about UH holding up construction on the Southeast Line over concerns about the route, I was forwarded a letter sent by UH English professor Irving Rothman to UH President Renu Khator asking her to get this issue resolved. Here’s the letter.

When I first arrived in Houston with my family in 1967, there was no easy transportation from my home in Meyerland to the university campus. I would take a bus to the Medical Center and then transfer to a second bus that transported me to Bellaire, Texas, where my wife would meet me in our car. Today, the situation has considerably improved. The 68 bus can take me directly from my corner bus stop to the university in one hour, a trip that takes about 25 minutes by car.

In the past, I have had students who could not attend class because their cars had broken down and they were far from bus stops. One student, during the gas crisis, with her mother out of work, did not have enough money to buy gas for transportation to the campus and sent me an e-mail apologizing for her absence. Rapid rail at relatively low cost per ride would offer more options for travel.

For the University of Houston to withhold the sale of minor parcels of land is shortsighted when one considers the greater advantages of Metro rail travel.

[…]

I hope that the University can immediately reconcile its differences with Metro, as reported in the Bellaire Examiner, and provide the needed parcels of land required for the completion of the system. We are an urban institution serving a diverse student body with faculty who also seek convenient transportation.

We’ll see what happens. If you’re connected with UH, what have you heard about this? Leave a comment or drop me a note. Thanks.

Higher tuition coming

Well, what did you expect?

The 63,000 students of the University of Houston System could be paying higher tuition as early as the fall semester, Chancellor Renu Khator told a Senate committee Monday.

Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, Khator said that a tuition increase is one of a number of strategies she and her fellow administrators are considering as they grapple with a projected $81 million budget cut for the biennium.

“The item is open; let me put it this way,” she told lawmakers. She said the system’s board or regents would make a decision in April or May.

That would be in addition to whatever furloughs and pay cuts UH might need to impose as well. Though the story doesn’t suggest an amount, State Rep. Mike Villarreal suggests the increases would be in the $1000 per year range. The “Texas Century” sure is off to a roaring start.

Higher enrollment, fewer resources

I just have one question about this.

At a time of record enrollment in Texas’ colleges and universities, a state budget proposal released this week would see these institutions suffer a 7.6 percent funding cut from the last biennial budget.

University presidents called the proposed cuts, which total $1.7 billion, “dramatic” and “drastic.” The current budget was balanced on the back of higher education, which absorbed 41.5 percent of the cuts despite comprising just 12.5 percent of the budget.

This proposal for the 2010-2011 biennium, rolled out Tuesday by Texas Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, would see far less of the overall cut come from colleges and universities — but the cuts still are disproportionate, said University of Houston system president Renu Khator.

Khator and other Texas university presidents must serve rising numbers of students on falling revenue. Universities saw their combined enrollment jump 35 percent, to 557,550 students, from fall 2000 to last fall. Community colleges saw a 67 percent enrollment leap over the same period, to 720,379 students.

In what universe does this make sense? Everyone says – even the Republicans – that higher education is important, that it fuels growth, that we need to get more kids in college and more kids to graduate from college if we want Texas to be economically competitive in the future. If we actually believe that, then what the hell are we doing?

UH gets a boost in its rankings

Good news for UH:

The University of Houston’s quest to become the state’s next top tier university — a designation that would put it alongside Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University — received a major boost Tuesday.

The latest rankings from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching move UH to its highest category, for universities with “very high research activity.”

That ranking is updated every five years, based upon criteria including research expenditures, number of doctorate degrees awarded and the size of the university’s research staff.

UH previously ranked in Carnegie’s second tier, for “high research activity.”

Rice, UT-Austin and A&M are the only other Texas universities on the list, which is considered an indication of Tier One status.

That’s a nice accomplishment, which is the result of a lot of work. My congratulations to UH for achieving it, and my best wishes for completing the journey to full-fledged Tier One status.

The bad news:

[E]ven if UH were to qualify for the Tier One funding this year, it and other public colleges and universities are likely to sustain cuts — maybe significant ones — in basic state support for higher education.

That’s because the state is facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, and higher education is expected to be one of the main targets for cuts.

[UH President Renu] Khator acknowledged concerns that Tuesday’s announcement could be interpreted as a sign UH doesn’t need additional money from the state.

It does, she said, and the Carnegie designation proves that it will use it wisely.

“We have shown the state that the investment is worth it,” she said.

Sadly, the state isn’t interested in making any investments right now. Dan Patrick’s property tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, you know. Better luck next biennium.

UH’s academic argument for the Big XII

Interesting strategy.

The head of the Big 12 insists there are no plans to add Texas teams to the conference, but Renu Khator, chancellor and president of the University of Houston, apparently didn’t get the message.

She’s still pushing for membership in the Big 12 or another high-powered athletic league, saying the school deserves a spot because of its rising academic ambitions.

“Sometimes you get defined by the company you keep,” Khator said. “You compare your progress against the schools in your league. Being associated with the highest group is always a good thing.”

[…]

“For years, the University of Houston has improved its research and academic functions in its drive to rank among the premier universities in Texas,” the letter states. “We believe that its inclusion in the prestigious Big 12 conference would assist in this endeavor.”

[…]

Five Big 12 members, including UT and A&M, belong to the elite Association of American Universities, which represents the nation’s top research institutions. UH, Tech and Baylor all hope to join the group someday.

UH and Rice, meanwhile, compete in Conference USA, a collection of 12 schools in Texas and the South. Among C-USA members, only Rice and Tulane are in the AAU.

I think until such time as UH achieves either Tier 1 status or AAU membership, its best argument for inclusion in a BCS conference like the Big XII is going to be its athletics. That’s assuming that the Big XII has any desire to add members, which in turn assumes that the Big XII is in a position to be thinking about its long term stability. Let’s see what things look like next year, when Nebraska and Colorado are officially bidding adieu. Mean Green Cougar Red has more in a long and thorough post that is largely pessimistic about UH joining the Big XII.

Is the Big XII in UH’s future?

Now that we know the Big XII will survive, one question that now arises is whether it will try to replace defectors Nebraska and Colorado, and if so with which teams. Already, there’s a drumbeat for UH being included. Richard Justice runs out to the front of the parade.

The Big 12 almost certainly will add two teams at some point. It may be two years from now, maybe longer. TCU would seem to be a slam dunk for one of the invitations, and UH needs to position itself for the other.

To do so will require work on multiple fronts, to do things UH has been unable to do in the past. But this is a new era at UH.

I’ve kind of lost count of the number of New Eras there have been at UH since I came to town in 1988. I can’t help but feel like I’ve heard this all before – IF they can maintain recent success, and IF they can upgrade their facilities, and IF they can draw bigger crowds, then it will all come together. If they can in fact do these things, then UH makes some sense; there’s enough UT and A&M alums here to make Houston a part of the Big XII TV market already, so that’s not much of a factor. Let’s just say I’m not going to hold my breath on this.

UH President Dr. Renu Khator gets some space on the op-ed pages to chime in as well with a rah-rah piece for her school. I noticed that the one thing neither she nor Justice mentioned was the concept of rivalries – UH rivalries, I mean. As that was a large subject of discussion when everyone thought the Big XII was headed for the junk pile, and especially when it looked like A&M might part ways with UT, that seems a curious oversight. Not to put too fine a point on it, but UH’s biggest rival these days is Rice, whom UH would be leaving behind in this scenario. Yes, I know, UH sees UT as a rival. I have news for you: UH and UT are rivals in the same way that Rice and UT are rivals. The rivalry means a lot more to one school than it does to the other. If all that lip service to rivalries meant anything, then the UH-to-the-Big XII advocates should be calling for Rice to come along as well. As TCU is also being mentioned, bringing Rice along would give the conference 13 members, so we may as well go whole hog and grab SMU, too, to balance out TCU and get things back to an even number. And since that would make the Big XII moniker as accurate as “Big 10” and “PAC 10” are right now, a new name for it would be in order. I have a suggestion for that, too.

Anyway. If you want to see the UH thing happen, there’s a University of Houston Should Join The Big 12 Facebook group for you. There’s a similar group for TCU, too, if your tastes go that way. If you want to read more about how Dan Beebe pulled this off, read Kevin Sherrington and especially Dan Wetzel, who reminds us that this is a temporary peace. Sooner or later, something like what the PAC 10 was trying to do will come up again. Burka, the Trib, and Sean Pendergast have more.

Post-mortem on UH-Downtown name change

It’s safe to say that UH-Downtown will remain UH-Downtown for at least two more years, since there’s no time to get a name change bill through the Lege at this point. The Chron takes a look at how the attempt to change it this year went down the tubes.

One possibility, Houston Metropolitan University, was rejected by faculty as too cheesy. Another, University of South Texas, prompted a letter warning of possible trademark infringement from South Texas College of Law President James Alfini.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board. The school is soliciting proposals from companies to suggest new names.

Maybe that will have a better outcome. It seems clear to me that a lack of trust about the process, as well as a belief that UH-D doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the rest of the UH system were the main factors. If this is going to be pursued further, a process that involves students, faculty, and alumni will be essential to getting any kind of buy-in. I don’t know if they need to do this or not, but they do need to get everyone on the same page.