Select Committee on Higher Education, 1985-1987

In 1985, Governor Mark White named a “select committee” to review all the colleges and universities in the state of Texas, and make recommendations on how to increase access to higher education throughout the state while maximizing budget efficiencies. As one can probably imagine, it was a Sisyphean effort from the start.

The chair of the committee was Larry Temple, an attorney and member of the Coordinating Board of Education. After a full audit and consultation by an outside consulting group, the select committee made a recommendation for several universities to merge. Two were UH University Park and Texas Southern University. Immediately, TSU sent off a six-page letter decrying the proposal–they did not want to be subsumed, and saw the “merger” as nothing more than a convenient way of getting rid of a historically Black university which the state no longer wanted to fund. Instead, they counter-proposed that TSU should “merge” with UH Downtown, arguing that it would be a “natural” realignment. President Terry of TSU wrote that “Texas Southern should be allowed to bring the Downtown College of the University of Houston under its administration…many of the students in the Downtown College come from the natural constituency that formed the population of Texas Southern University before the establishment of that school.”

Not only was TSU’s representation of UHD entirely wrong (UHD was no longer a “college” at this point, nor was it a branch of UH University Park), but it seemed to be wrong on purpose.  Anyone involved in higher education in the mid-80s in Houston would have had intimate knowledge of the changes at UHD over the preceding 10 years. Especially someone who was president of a university that was in direct competition with UHD in many areas. But also, they would have knowledge of the reputation of UHD as a kind of “bad egg”; the school was routinely dismissed or punished by the Coordinating Board in the years after the unapproved merger with UH.

The select committee thought a TSU/UHD merger was a viable and attractive option, and so suggested it to the UH System. The system, understandably, was infuriated. Subsuming TSU was one thing; losing a university of the system in order to be subsumed was quite another. The Chairman of the Board of Regents, Debbie Hanna, sent back a scathing statement to the select committee (without, it seems, knowledge of the original TSU letter–there is no mention of the fact that TSU actually proposed this; it lays the blame squarely on Mr. Temple). “We find this recommendation extremely difficult to justify in any terms: economic, social, or educational…to merge this unique and extraordinarily successful institution into any other is to destroy something of enormous and irreplaceable value to the people of Houston.”

Ultimately the merger (and most of the other mergers suggested by the Select Committee) was abandoned. In the final report in 1987, no mention is made of it at all.

To see and read all of the correspondence and reports from the Select Committee, visit the Legislative Reference Library’s file on the committee.

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Purchase of STJC by the University of Houston, 1974

It has been difficult to find the “true” story behind the purchase of the South Texas Junior College by the University of Houston, although the outline is quite straightforward: in 1974, South Texas was in talks with HCC to merge. But in a very quick turn of events, UH bought the College in August, foregoing the state coordinating board’s approval with the reasoning that they were not merging at all. President Hoffman and the University of Houston attorneys argued that UH was merely buying assets to expand its own downtown operation which had been closed due to building projects. In a private memo from spring 1974, one of President Hoffman’s staffers remarked that if HCC and STJC were allowed to merge, it would be disastrous for the University, which might never get another foothold in downtown (earlier that year they had lost their property there when it was bought to build the Houston Center).

The state coordinating board was furious when they were informed of the purchase, but it was a fait accompli.  President Hoffman worked swiftly and tried to use his influence to make the way easier for the changeover, but South Texas had been, until its purchase, a private junior college, and now would need to orient all of its business operations and procedures to being a public junior college in just three weeks. This was a massively complex undertaking, since all of the students registered to begin classes in August needed to be vetted and approved by the state as eligible candidates for in-state tuition. Molly Wood, then the Registrar, recounted how they worked every day and every night for seven days under the supervision of a state auditor to get nearly 5,000 students verified for eligibility. In the end, though, in late August 1974, the College opened its doors as the downtown branch of the University of Houston. That year, commencement was held with the regular UH graduation in Hoffheinz Pavilion, and everyone at One Main was a “Cougar,” but it was not an easy arrangement. One reason for this was that the faculty of the Junior College had all moved over into faculty positions, per the terms of the purchase. The faculty of UH did not think that their colleagues at UH’s “downtown college” should be afforded the same treatment or tenure, since many of the faculty from STJC had only their masters degrees.

The solution was relatively simple, however: the next year, University of Houston Downtown College became its own administrative unit, adopted the Gator as its mascot and its marketing colors went from red and white to green and white. The student newspaper reinvented itself as the Bayou Review, and Dr. Dykes formally resigned as President of the College, passing the torch to Dr. J. Don Boney, formerly the head of HCC. As an African-American and with a PhD in urban education, Dr. Boney personified the kind of commitment to the community on which the College had always prided itself. As Elliott Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees said, the College was “dedicated to making high quality educational self-improvement and citizen-enlightenment opportunities available to every diligent Houstonian.”

Under Dr. Boney, the College went from a junior college to a four-year institution in 1979, though the fight through the state legislature and coordinating board was incredibly difficult (thanks, of course, to the still-fresh insult of not petitioning the state for the right to merge with UH in the first place). Cementing its place, however, as a fully-fledged university within the UH system was key to the institution’s health and success in later years: open enrollment and low-cost, UHD could continue to offer the under-served and nontraditional students of Houston an education that focused on their needs and programs that they wanted.

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McBride Building/Championship Park

The semi-circular terraced park on the other side of Main Street from the M&M building wasn’t always an open space. Until 1982, there was a small multi-storey building there, without access to Main Street (entrance was at the corner of Girard and Wood). (See the building here, across Main) This building was called the McBride building after its owner, Geter McBride. The company housed within “McBride Southwest Moving and Storage Company” had an address of 2 Main, and took up approximately 13,000 sq feet of frontage along the confluence of White Oak and Buffalo Bayou.

The story goes that before the purchase by the University system, the building sat along the old MKT rail line, which is now the White Oak bike trail, and the track curved just there at the McBride building to continue down to the ship channel along Buffalo Bayou. A train moving too fast down this curve ran off the tracks and directly into the McBride building, sending a jet of flame from the natural gas line that rose higher than the 11th floor of the M&M. Insurance paid for the repair to the building, but then, a short while later, another train collided with the building and the insurance company would not pay again. In the early 1980s the building was in sad repair and the UH System attempted several times to buy it. Since a final purchase price could not be agreed upon, the University took the owners to court and had the building purchased by way of condemning it. It was then torn down and 10 years later, made an easement for Harris County Flood Control District, who wanted to construct concrete and stone bulkheads to create an embankment. Charles Tapley, a well-known architect in Houston, lobbied extensively to not only create bulkheads, but to beautify the area. With his help and the help of Terry Hershey, the area was re-imagined and renamed Championship Park. The original idea was to dedicate plaques to all the Houston-area championship sports teams. Unfortunately, since the park was owned not by the City but by the County, a champion for Championship Park never emerged. There are, however, still two cypress trees planted in the park–one dedicated to Terry Hershey and the other to Rudy Tomjanovich, head coach of the World Champion Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995.

Early History of the University of Houston-Downtown

Written circa 1987; scanned from an original typed copy signed only LME

South Texas Junior College, a private junior college offering only academic courses leading to the AS and AA degrees, had prospered until the very early 70’s when the Houston Community College System came into existence. Not able to compete with the far lower tuition, the junior college experienced rapid declines in enrollment dropping from approximately 5,000 students in 1970-71 to 2,500 in 1973-74.
The problem was compounded by a president who had replaced the president of many years, Dr. W. I. Dykes. The new president, Dr. Reagan, virtually depleted the fund balances of South Texas and made sweeping moves which demoralized personnel. Long-time administrators were replaced by others, and he ranked the faculty with no prior consultation of the Faculty Senate. The faculty rebelled, went directly to the Board of Trustees with documentation sufficient for Dr. Reagan’s removal from office. Dr. Dykes was persuaded to come out of retirement and resume the presidency until the crisis could be resolved.
Realizing the college’s dire financial straits, Dr. Dykes in consultation with Mr. Elliott Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, determined that affiliation with another higher education institution was the only alternative. Houston Community College’s President, Dr. J. Don Boney, was approached in Fall 1973. Dr. Boney was very interested and worked diligently to have South Texas Junior College become a campus of the Houston Community College System. HCC was at the time only one of three community college systems in Texas, at that time, to have no tax base and no independent board of trustees (Houston Independent School District trustees served as the community college system’s trustees). The politics and logistics of merger developed into a quagmire of obstacles. In early summer, 1974, negotiations ceased.
In July, 1974, Dr. Dykes and Mr. Johnson approached Dr. Philip Hoffman, President of the University of Houston and Chancellor of a newly evolving University of Houston System. Dr. Hoffman involved Mr. Douglas Mclean, Vice President for Finance. These four individuals, with no consultation outside the group, crafted an agreement subsequently approved by the South Texas Board of Trustees by which the University of Houston System assumed all assets and liabilities of South Texas Junior College and declared it the fourth campus of the University of Houston System. The University of Houston System Board of Regents approved.
The two boards, and the four negotiators–Hoffman, Mclean, Elliott and Dykes–were the only ones who knew of the action until early August. Dr. Hoffman called Dr. Boney to give him early warning since he had previously been in negotiations for a merger with the community college system; some South Texas personnel were informed. Then in a newspaper headline, the Houston community, state and governmental officials, and others learned of the new addition to the University of Houston System.
Especially noteworthy was the fact that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board was informed by the media even though they were charged by the State Legislature to approve all proposed additional campuses. With a new Coordinating Board Commissioner, Dr. Kenneth Ashworth, functioning in a new environment that emphasized ceasing the proliferation of universities and curtailing program duplication, there was consternation at the state level. Had the state not been in the beginning stages of a transition of Commissioners from Bevington Reed to Ashworth, the “slight of hand” by which the University of Houston-Downtown came to be might have had a different ending. But, with a thinly veiled excuse of reestablishing the University of Houston’s Downtown School, an adult education branch campus which had existed until a few years previously when the downtown location’s lease was lost, the University of Houston-Downtown (then known as the University of Houston Downtown College) was not officially approved, but was ignored and allowed to exist.
The Downtown College acquisition met with similar consternation at the University of Houston. Outrage prevailed. President Hoffman was censured by the Faculty Senate. Had it been known by more than the inner circle that University of Houston resources, both human and financial, would be used to support the first year of operation of the new campus, the resulting hostility can only be imagined.
Dr. Hoffman called Dr. J. Don Boney in early fall, 1974, and told him he wanted him to become the first permanent president of the Downtown College. This transpired August 1, 1975. Dr. Boney took over a campus acquired strictly as an “opportunity purchase” with no thought to its role within the system, population to be served, or mission. The campus began the transition–private to publicly funded, two-year to four-year, unranked to ranked faculty.
For two years all energies were focused on the development of baccalaureate degree programs, hiring faculty and staff to support the burgeoning student body, developing administrative support systems, and implementing a new organizational structure. The new structure was implemented before asking Coordinating Board approval, further “blackening” the reputation of the campus.
In 1979 yet another back-room deal, again without Coordinating Board approval, was cut. This time Dr. Hoffman was not in on the contrived strategy. On the floor of the Texas Legislature, then Lieutenant Governor Hobby introduced a bill, legislatively authorizing the Downtown College. This legislation made the campus legitimate and knowledge of the inner circle at UHD working with Lieutenant Governor Hobby is still closely held. While not endearing the campus with the System or Coordinating Board, it was probably the most significant event in the College’s history.
Upon Dr. Boney’s death in August, 1979, Dr. Schilt assumed campus leadership in 1980 and was the “great healer” with the University of Houston System. In order to get the first four-year degree programs approved, the University of Houston and the Coordinating Board were placated by an emphasis on career-focused degrees. Non-duplication was stressed. The first approvals were for degrees in Business Services Technology, Business Management Technology, Engineering Technology, and General Studies. These titles somewhat disguised our business and liberal arts offerings.

Moving to the modest offerings of today with titles which are fairly understandable has taken much effort, patience, confidence building, and persuasion. A base is laid for future progress but only finesse and political savvy can bring program expansion to desired for fruition.