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Faculty and Staff Update

Dear Faculty and Staff Members –

I hope you enjoyed Spring Break and found time to enjoy another lovely Houston spring. Our own campus is blossoming and beautiful – and you may have noticed that, after a long delay, the Cullen Family Plaza Fountains are once again functioning. It is inspiring to see so many of our students enjoying the welcoming areas around these wonderful water features. If the fountains are not on your daily walk, please take a few minutes one day and come by.

Here is an update on some important items.

Legislative Session and Its Impact on UH

We are more than halfway through the 85th Texas Legislative Session. There are a number of bills—budgetary and otherwise—that impact us, both directly and indirectly. We have been monitoring each one very carefully, and here is an update of the most critical ones.

You may know that the state is facing a significant revenue shortfall. Unless the legislature decides to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, public higher education in our state is likely to take a hit. The Texas Senate has already passed its budget, and the House will pass its version this week. But the two are far apart in their levels of support as well as their approach in funding universities. The Senate proposal defunds all so-called “special items,” but adds new dollars to the enrollment-driven funding formula system. On the other hand, the House version only cuts “special items” by 11 percent, but adds no money to the funding formula to accommodate enrollment growth. In either version, we receive fewer dollars than expected and fewer dollars per student than we received prior to 2011 when the last budget reduction occurred.

The rising cost of a college degree is also on the minds of our Texas legislators. The Senate Higher Education committee has already considered a two-year freeze on tuition while supporting a performance-based funding related to graduation rates and other student success measures prior to raising tuition after the two-year freeze ends. We have already been on the path to increase our performance on most of these student success measures, but the tuition freeze will nonetheless pose challenges.

Finally, one of our own legislative priorities – closing the funding gap for health-related programs (particularly for our College of Pharmacy) – is addressed in legislation that has been filed in both the House and the Senate. We expect that this legislation will be heard in committee soon. We hope to get equity during this session.

Of course, we will continue to aggressively and passionately make our case in Austin, but it is prudent to plan for a possible budget reduction now. I have sent a letter to all vice presidents asking them to prepare all academic units for a 5 percent budget reduction and all non-academic units for a 7 percent budget reduction. While the Cabinet and I will continue to explore campuswide strategic areas to enhance efficiencies, I ask you to please review any and all services and programs at your unit level that could lead to savings. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please forward them to me or the Provost.

As per Gov. Abbott’s letter earlier, a hiring freeze remains in effect until the end of this fiscal year. For additional information, please see our Texas Legislature site.

Federal Budget and Its Impact

We continue to monitor proposals to reduce federal support for higher education and other regulatory requirements that may impact us. Currently, the proposed reductions to Pell Grants are of great concern as are those to NSF, NIH and NEH budgets. National organizations like American Council on Education (ACE) and Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) continue to engage decision-makers and stress the value of higher education for the nation and for individuals on our behalf. Our current and future students are expressing concerns regarding new travel and visa restrictions as well as about any potential changes in the immigration policy. If you are not prepared to handle such inquiries, please direct students to ISSS.

A Safe Campus

Sexual assault on college campuses continues to be a serious issue. During the past few years, UH has diligently tightened our policies, upgraded our training modules and provided additional monitoring/reporting mechanisms. However, some recent news stories force me to raise the subject once again today. When we hear of incidents at Baylor, Penn State or UC Berkeley or when we read about the recent survey from the UT System, where one in every 10 female students reported being raped on campus, we realize how crucial it is to continue our efforts to address this issue. I urge you in the strongest terms to familiarize yourself with our policies and resources. And take note of the various activities we have planned on campus during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. So please don’t tolerate any abuses of our policies. Don’t be a bystander – speak up, take action and make a report. Keeping our campus safe is the responsibility that we all share together.

Campus Inclusion and Freedom of Expression

Recently, I met with the leaders of many student organizations to initiate a dialogue about “going beyond the diversity of numbers.” I found their maturity and pragmatism refreshing, and they had many suggestions how we could make our campus more inclusive. Recent surveys report that students support freedom of expression, but ask for civility and respect in exercising that freedom. I realize that given the political rhetoric, our students feel anxious and fearful. I ask you to please use your best judgment handling such situations and guiding our students to exercise their freedom of expression while maintaining a climate of civility and respect. If you have any questions or need assistance handling specific situations or individuals, please reach out to our Equal Opportunity Services unit.

Steadfast Focus on Student Success

Thanks to your combined efforts, Provost Short reports that our 6-year graduation rate is expected to reach 54 percent this year. While we are still far from reaching our goal of being nationally competitive, each step takes us closer. I applaud you all for your commitment. We must continue to stay focused on our core mission—our students! On the enrollment side, freshmen applications are up, but graduate applications are showing the same signs of stress being experienced nationwide.

National Rankings and Recognitions

Our UH Petroleum Engineering Program, launched in 2008, is now ranked No. 12 in the nation, and our Honors College has cracked the Top 10 Honors Program list! We all know how much hard work it takes to compete at the highest level like that, so wholehearted congratulations to both.

On another note, the latest member of the National Academy of Engineering to join our faculty is Dr. Jerome Schultz in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who began this spring semester. Thanks to the determined efforts of our academic leadership, he becomes one of five NAE/NAS members to have joined UH during this academic year.

Neighborhood Initiative

A $2 million grant from the United Health Foundation is allowing Drs. Ezemenari Obasi and Dan O’Connor – members of our recently launched HEALTH Research Institute – to take their research to Third Ward and directly help 5,000 residents fight obesity and diabetes. This is the latest of many joint initiatives between the University and our neighborhood. Under the guidance of the University Neighborhood Partnership Forum, we have four strategic areas of partnership: education, economic empowerment, health and the arts. If you would like to know more and/or get involved, please read the summary from Dr. Elwyn Lee.

Commencement 2017

The University-wide Commencement exercise is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday, May 12 in TDECU Stadium, with former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as our speaker. Thanks to your dedicated work, thousands of students will graduate with a UH diploma this year. Our graduates identify “mentoring or caring by a faculty/staff member” as the No. 1 reason for their success. Please know that you are making a difference at the University of Houston.

Cranes on Campus

Work on the nine-story Health and Biomedical Sciences Building II (HSBSC II) in the University’s Health District continues on schedule and the College of Pharmacy is slated to begin (partial) move-in at the end of this summer and the remainder of the floors will open at the end of October… Our oldest residence halls, the Quadrangle, are scheduled to be closed and demolished at the end of the 2017 fall semester then replaced with a larger, more accommodating edifice that will open in 2019… And, finally, the Hofheinz Pavilion site is undergoing an extensive, year-long renovation and will be transformed into Fertitta Center when it reopens for the 2018-19 season. During the construction period, we will be playing our 2017-18 basketball games at nearby TSU arena (and possibly some other venues).

Once again, I thank you for your dedication. These are uncertain times for higher education, but such times require a steadier hand steering the ship, and I trust in your ability to do so for all of us.

With warm regards,

Renu Khator