President’s Update on Legislative Session/Mental Health Task Forces - University of Houston
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President’s Update on Legislative Session/Mental Health Task Forces

June 6, 2023

Dear Faculty and Staff,

More than 6,700 students graduated in 17 ceremonies from the University of Houston in May. Over the past year, more than 11,000 students received their UH diploma. Considering that the vast majority will live and work in Greater Houston, our efforts have a significant impact on shaping the future of our city. Let me remind you that every single one of us, regardless of our role and position, contributes to student success. Thank you for your contributions. As we wrap up the spring and begin the summer, I wanted to provide you an update on some fundamental issues.

Legislative Session

The Texas Legislature concluded its regular session last week. Vice Chancellor Jason Smith will be sending out a more detailed report; however, I'll summarize some critical outcomes for you below. Please be aware that these bills are awaiting Governor Greg Abbott’s signature to become law.

Budget Appropriation: The legislature has allocated a modest increase in the base formula funding, with the condition that undergraduate tuition will not be raised for two years. The funded pool is less than what the Texas university system chancellors had requested from the legislature; nevertheless, we are grateful to state leaders for choosing to invest in higher education among all the other priorities vying for their attention and resources. We primarily utilize these funds to invest in talent retention and to implement strategies that promote student success. While we are obliged to keep the undergraduate tuition frozen for two years, the UH System Board of Regents may still choose to increase tuition for graduate and professional students as some other institutions have done.

Texas University Fund: One of our legislative priorities this session was to request a permanent fund to strengthen our research capabilities, which includes building shared research facilities and hiring over 100 new researchers. The expected impact of this investment is to elevate UH to be among the top 50 public universities in the nation and, more importantly, to attract additional federal dollars to Texas for addressing our societal challenges, such as energy transition and health care innovation. I am pleased to announce that the legislature has approved a designated fund of nearly $4 billion to support emerging research universities in the state. One-third of the fund, amounting to $1.3 billion, establishes an endowment exclusively for the University of Houston. The annual income from the endowment will be used to strengthen the research infrastructure and attract more federal funding to the state.

The establishment of this fund will now be placed on the November election ballot for approval by Texas voters. The passage of this ballot initiative is not assured and must be approved by more than 50% of the voters to finally establish this critical source of funds for the future of the University of Houston.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Senate Bill 17, as finally passed, prohibits public universities in Texas from establishing or maintaining a DEI office or employing individuals who perform DEI duties beginning in January 2024. It also prohibits using DEI statements, or using preferences in hiring based on race, sex, color, or ethnicity. There are limited exceptions, including academic research, coursework, and guest speakers. The bill also mandates periodic reviews of each university’s practices and policies by the state auditor to ensure compliance and impose penalties for noncompliance. You can find a summary of this bill prepared by our General Counsel here, and full text is available here.

Governor Abbott will likely sign the bill within the next couple of weeks. Prior to it becoming effective in January, we will be collaborating with other Texas university systems to ensure consistent interpretation and implementation of the provisions of this legislation throughout the state. Please remember that as a public university serving an extremely diverse student body, our commitment to ensuring success for all students and building a community of care and compassion for our entire community does not change.

Faculty Tenure: Senate Bill 18, as passed by the legislature, allows universities to grant tenure but requires faculty to have a periodic comprehensive evaluation. We are prepared for these changes. The provisions for these evaluations in the bill closely align with the policy on post tenure review passed by the faculty and adopted by the UHS Board of Regents in late 2022. A summary of the bill from our General Counsel is available here, and a more detailed update from the Provost will follow in coming weeks. The final legislation can be found here. Please know that if you feel anxious, you are not alone. We have heard it from applicants in every search that we have undertaken. Let’s find opportunities in coming months to engage, understand and build a pathway to keep our University nationally and globally competitive.

Budget Process and Priorities

Now that the legislative appropriations are known, we will begin finalizing next year’s budget, which will be presented to the Board of Regents during their August meeting for approval. Considering the legislature has funded only some of our requests and our enrollment has remained flat, the new revenue is limited. However, we will prioritize it for talent retention and student success.

Mental Health Taskforce Update

In April, I announced three initiatives: (1) the Task Force for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention; (2) the Task Force on the Future of Agnes Arnold Hall; and (3) an expert review of CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). Reports from these task forces/reviews were submitted to me on May 15. You can read the full reports with recommendations here.

I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Dr. Robert “Bob” McPherson, Provost Diane Chase, VP Raymond Bartlett, VP Lisa Holdeman and Interim VP Claudia Neuhauser for leading the initiatives, as well as all the task force members for their invaluable time and wisdom. I also want to express my appreciation to the external reviewers from The Ohio State University, University of Central Florida and Arizona State University for their valuable insights and guidance.

Actions on Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention

  1. This fall, we will launch an aggressive internal campaign to raise awareness about available mental health resources.
  2. Starting in the fall, we will begin the process of designating and designing additional spaces for reflection, mindfulness and meditation throughout our campuses. All new building projects will incorporate such spaces.
  3. We will introduce a program this fall to provide families of our students with necessary and useful information on mental health and wellness.
  4. Many of the task force recommendations have academic implications that require broader engagement from campus stakeholders. The Provost will establish workgroups and/or integrate recommendations into existing academic processes.

Actions on Agnes Arnold Hall: Our historians tell us that Agnes Arnold Hall holds a significant historical and architectural value. In addition, it is home to over 450 classes every week. It was next on the list for core renovation, and we have accelerated the timeline for its renovation. Furthermore, we have allocated additional funds totaling $38 million to complete the project in three phases. The project will include a screening of all upper spaces, refreshing of offices and classrooms, and implementing building security measures as recommended by the task force. VP Bartlett and Provost Chase will follow up with more details.

Actions on Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): External reviewers have expressed their full confidence in the model approach and leadership of CAPS. One significant takeaway for me was that we should not be satisfied by serving those students who come to CAPS but follow a “best practice” to double the number of the student body served to 8% of the student body. Currently, only 4% of the student body reaches out to CAPS. This goal can be achieved with (1) the launch of an aggressive awareness campaign; (2) the adoption of a distributed model of CAPS staff embedded in colleges; and (3) having an innovative approach to building staffing support in CAPS. Based on the recommendations of the reviewers, we will implement the following:

  1. Secure an outside vendor to provide 24/7 mental health access to our students.
  2. Begin adding college-based mental health counselors, with at least three by fall.
  3. Increase CAPS staffing strength through internships, community networks and flexible qualifications.
  4. Allocate space in the Student Center for CAPS for ease of access, increased group sessions and initiate the design process to accommodate CAPS permanently in the Student Center.

To keep this update succinct, I have provided you a macro-level update. You will receive more detailed information from Provost Chase and/or VP Bartlett; however, if you have any suggestions or questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me, the Provost or your vice president. Enjoy your summer and thank you once again for your dedicated work.

With warm regards,

Renu Khator