The year has come to an end with many accomplishments to celebrate: being awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, earning three national research centers and winning the Peach Bowl trophy, to name a few. I thank you for your committed leadership and for allowing me to be a part of the University of Houston’s winning team. As you wrap up the academic year, here are a few items of interest for you.
Campus Carry: Perhaps the most talked about item of the year on our campus has been the implementation of the campus carry policy, passed by the Texas Legislature last year. I want to thank the members of the Campus Carry Taskforce, chaired by Professor Marcilynn Burke, for a tremendous job of engaging us, listening to us, reading our 2,400-plus comments and eventually drafting a policy that addressed the concerns within the confines of the law. As the next step, I will present the policy to the Board of Regents for their "review and update" at their next meeting May 19. I thank you all for participating in this endeavor and for guiding me.
University Budget and Faculty/Staff Salary Increases: The May 19 Board of Regents meeting will include our annual presentation of the UH budget. Once the material is posted, you can see that our budget request to the Board includes a 2 percent merit-based performance pool for faculty and staff. It also includes a request to hire additional faculty and staff and to enhance the campus infrastructure. The largest portion of the new funds is being requested to support student success in terms of financial aid and programs. You will notice that the UH's budget now exceeds $1.1 billion dollars of which 21 percent comes from the state (16 percent in general appropriations and 5 percent in construction dollars). If we want to achieve our goals, then sustained growth in other areas, including philanthropy and sponsored research, becomes absolutely essential.
The Core Renovation Project: In the May meeting of the Board of Regents, we will also be discussing an ambitious new enterprise, called The Core Project, which you will find of great interest. After building several vital new facilities, we feel that it is time to renovate the buildings that form the general education core of the campus and are home to a substantial number of classrooms, labs, faculty offices and departmental headquarters and therefore are most heavily used by students. Thanks to the increase in deferred maintenance resources from the Legislature (through Higher Education Funds), we are in a position to discuss with the Board approving a $100-million initiative to renovate several buildings, including SERC, Roy G. Cullen, Agnes Arnold, Old Science, McElhinney and Science & Research 1, during the next five to six years.
UH Health: Our UH Health Initiative is looking forward to some remarkable milestones. A proposal to launch a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree should be completed this year. The Health and Biomedical Building II is under construction with the Student Heath Center also consolidating its clinics in it. As per the plan, a consultant to develop a business plan has been retained. His draft report is due in August, and after seeking input from the faculty, we hope to present it to the Board at its November meeting.
Neighborhood Initiative: Under the leadership of Vice President Elwyn Lee and the Rev. Bill Lawson, we continue to refine our Neighborhood Initiative. The Initiative will have 3-4 components: education, health, economic empowerment and possibly arts/culture. This is not a new idea, but a continuing commitment. Every day, I learn of existing programs where our faculty, staff and students have already been reaching out in the Third Ward and every time I do so, I feel inspired by their passion and dedication. The objective of the Neighborhood Initiative is not to add new tasks to our workload, but to link and coordinate the ongoing work in a way that is intentional and impactful. Our goal is to move the needle by enabling people in the Third Ward to be part of the impending development rather than be marginalized by it. If you are doing something that should be a part of the Initiative or if you have suggestions, please do not hesitate to share them with me or VP Lee.
Athletics: There are three sports facilities projects underway: the Baseball Clubhouse (under construction), the Basketball Arena (fundraising and design), and the Indoor Football facility (fundraising and design). None of the projects involves the expenditure of any state dollars. Our 2016 football season will begin with Cougars squaring off against the Oklahoma Sooners in NRG Stadium Sept. 3. Pitting two teams that were both ranked in the Top 10 last year, this is predicted to be one of the top games of the upcoming season and it should be an exciting experience. So far, Athletics has already sold nearly 19,000 season tickets (compare this to less than 14,000 total last year). If you are interested in football, you may want to get your tickets now.
Executive Searches: After a careful consideration and upon the advice of the search committee, I have appointed Jim McShan as the Senior Vice President of Administration and Finance for three years (pending approval from the Board). The search for the Vice President of Research and Technology Transfer has started. Provost Short is chairing that search and will keep you updated. I have also appointed Lisa Holdeman to supervise the Division of Marketing, Communications and Media Relations on an interim basis. A search for the full-time vice president for that division will begin in the fall.
Looking Ahead: Due to depressed oil prices, the state's available revenue is likely to face serious challenges as the Legislature begins its committee work in the fall. Both the Texas House and Senate have already held hearings on tuition and debt. We must begin the process of carefully and strategically looking at our budget efficiencies now to avoid painful choices later. At a time when everyone is moving ahead with new ventures, for us to stand still, even though on very solid ground, would mean regression.
Another challenge we face is academic. While we have reached several significant national benchmarks, like the chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa (indicating a student supportive culture) and Carnegie's designation as a top tier university (indicating a very high research culture), we are still not where we need to be in the U.S. News & World Report ranking on undergraduate education. It is primarily due to our relatively low graduation rates. Given the 2014 and 2015 cohorts' retention rates, we are on track to have a very competitive graduation rate in few years. But we have to remain committed to the goal of student success for all of our students.
On the employment front, Houston has fared better than most cities since the total job loss has been minimal. While the oil/gas sector has lost jobs, the hospitality sector has created almost as many new ones. Nonetheless, it is a difficult situation at the individual level. Therefore, I ask your help in guiding our graduating class toward secure and meaningful jobs.
Once again, thank you for your hard work. I hope you will join us for the second University-wide Commencement exercise May 14. Astronaut Scott Kelly will be our speaker, and our graduates will receive a spectacular fireworks salute in fiery Cougar red. Colleges will hold their own convocations, but it is the University Commencement ceremony that brings the entire campus together to provide the finale. I look forward to seeing you there, for commencement is as much a celebration of your continuing journey as the students' completion of theirs.
With personal regards,