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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

5 of 5 Stories

The University Center
Public Six universities share a common campus in the Houston suburbs

By William Trombley
Senior Editor

The Woodlands, Texas

  The $12 million University Center in The Woodlands, Texas, has the latest in educational technology for both campus classes and distance education.
  The $12 million University Center in The Woodlands, Texas, has the latest in educational technology for both campus classes and distance education.
SIX O'CLOCK on a spring night, the sky is darkening over Houston's northern suburbs, and students are parking their cars and scurrying to the University Center, a handsome building that stands in the midst of Southern Pine groves. Here, six different universities offer 50 bachelor's and master's degree programs under the auspices of the North Harris Montgomery Community College District.

The unusual collaboration between two-year and four-year institutions allows students in this booming suburban area, 30 miles north of downtown Houston, to complete their degrees without driving through the region's massive traffic congestion to reach one of the six campuses.

"This is all about access," said Gail Evans, executive director and dean of the University Center. "These are people who might not finish their degree work if we weren't here."

Barbara Johnson, a 54-year-old business administration major who lives nearby, agreed. Johnson worked as a bookkeeper while raising two daughters and "never thought of going back to college—money was tight and you just never thought about it," she said.

Now the children are grown and Johnson, with urging from her husband, decided "I didn't want to go back to the kind of job I'd had before." She enrolled at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, 40 miles north of The Woodlands, but has been taking classes at the University Center, close to her home. Johnson will graduate in June, and a job in computer information systems with a local high tech company awaits her.

"I might have been willing to drive to Sam Houston," Johnson said, "but I'm not sure. I have a vision problem that makes driving at night difficult. This is just a whole lot easier."

In addition to Sam Houston State, the consortium includes the University of Houston, the University of Houston Downtown (which is a separate institution), Prairie View A&M, Texas A&M and Texas Southern University. Both Prairie View and Texas Southern are historically black institutions. Enrollment at the University of Houston Downtown campus is 31 percent Hispanic.

About 1,800 students have enrolled at the University Center this spring. Most have jobs, so they take late afternoon and evening classes. Last fall, more than 70 percent were 25 or older. About 65 percent are upper-division (junior and senior) undergraduates; the rest are graduate students. Many of the degree programs are in areas of business, computer science and education.

"Many of our students are making career shifts," Dean Evans said. "We offer the kinds of things people need to move forward in their lives."

Fifty-three-year-old Calvin Robertson had "always worked with my back," he said, doing landscaping jobs, until arm and neck injuries made that impossible. Two years ago he enrolled at Sam Houston State as a business major and has been taking most of his course work at the University Center.

"At my age, I know my (job) choices will be limited," Robertson said. "But most businesses need a finance person and at least I'm not going to be involved in physical labor."

The Woodlands center is one of five now operating in Texas. A sixth, in San Antonio, was approved recently by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Some have both public and private partners, while others include only public campuses. The state calls them Multi-Institutional Teaching Centers (MITC's, pronounced "Mitzi's"). Only the center at The Woodlands is managed by a community college district.

Like other Sun Belt states, Texas faces explosive growth in higher education enrollments over the next decade. Both the coordinating board and the Texas legislature are encouraging the formation of these centers as a less expensive option than building new stand-alone, four-year campuses.

"I hope we see more of them," said Don Brown, Texas commissioner of higher education. "They look like a promising way to get the most out of the facilities and resources that we put into higher education."

"In the 1970s and '80s the board resisted off-campus sites because we were concerned about their quality," Brown added. "But now we're so concerned about our low (college) participation rate and about the geographical and racial gaps that exist, that we're much more flexible in our attitude toward ventures such as these centers."

Many other states are encouraging the creation of university centers, and other kinds of partnerships, as they seek alternatives to building expensive traditional campuses.

"This idea is really taking off," said Joe Champagne, dean of the university center in Macomb County, Michigan, which was one of the nation's first. "We're getting calls and visitors from all over the country."

Largest of the centers is the Auraria Higher Education Center in downtown Denver, where 33,000 students attend classes on a 127-acre campus. Participating schools are the University of Colorado at Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver and the Community College of Denver.

Mandated by the Colorado legislature in the late 1960s, Auraria went through years of turf battles. "There was all kinds of petty stuff," said Jerome Wartgow. From 1980 to 1986, Wartgow was executive director of the agency that manages the enterprise. "Each institution wanted its own name on buildings: Nobody would call it ‘Auraria', nobody would answer the phone, ‘Auraria.' That kind of stuff."

But Dean W, Wolf, vice president for administration, says things are better now. "The concept was so unique, it took a number of years for everything to jell and for people to understand what it takes to make this work," Wolf said. "Now the institutions have come to understand their role and now they work together pretty well."

Unlike Auraria, many university centers are in geographically remote areas, far from any four-year campus. For example, in Bend, Oregon, just east of the Cascade Mountains, nine public and private institutions have formed the Central Oregon University Center, on the campus of Central Oregon Community College

This semester, 550 students are enrolled in 26 bachelor's and master's degree programs. The center has ten full-time faculty members, some of whom live in Bend while others commute from their home campuses. Although he considers the center a success, Dick Markwood, who has been director for six years, said "local politics" are troublesome.

"The community is absolutely committed to having a free-standing, degree-granting institution," Markwood said. "As long as that's out there, it's going to be a problem. Nothing we do is ever quite enough and every mistake we make is magnified."

James Mingle, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, said many university centers have encountered this problem. "They don't satisfy over the long term," he said. "There are local pressures for a full-blown campus, with a football team and all that."

This is not likely to happen at the university center north of Houston.

"This sucker's not wired to be a full university campus," said Nellie Carr Thorogood, vice chancellor for organizational development and institutional renewal for the North Harris Montgomery Community College District and chief architect of the center plan. This was agreed to in a "memo of understanding" signed by all the partner schools before the center opened.

Officials of the 22,000-student district, fifth largest in the state, decided to explore the possibility of a university center, after a 1995 survey found that 187,000 people in the district's service area had some college experience but had not completed a bachelor's degree.

Thorogood and district Chancellor John E. Pickelman visited several locations and decided they liked the Macomb County, Michigan, model the best. There, nine public and private four-year universities are in a consortium that is managed by the local community college district.

George P. Mitchell, the wealthy oil man who developed The Woodlands, had been holding land open for a possible four-year campus. But Mitchell was persuaded that a partnership of several universities made more sense and he agreed to donate ten acres of land and to contribute $2 million toward construction. In 1995, district voters approved a $78 million bond issue, including $9.5 million to build and equip the University Center. It opened in fall, 1997 with 686 students and has grown steadily.

The three-story, 78,000-square-foot building has some of the latest technology available, including a dozen two-way voice video interactive classrooms and seminar rooms; an 84-seat "smart" lecture hall, with data, Internet and power at each seat; and a 24-station computer classroom.

For several months in 1994, Nellie Thorogood met with representatives of Houston-area colleges and universities, both public and private, looking for partners for the new center. "Everybody said it looks like a great idea, if you can get it worked out," she said in an interview, "but I don't think any of them thought we could do it."

But Thorogood was able to persuade the four major public institutions in the Houston area—Texas A&M, Sam Houston State, the University of Houston and the University of Houston Downtown—to become partners in the center. These schools were quickly followed by Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern.

For some time, the discussions also included Rice University, the best-known private institution in the Houston area, but in the end Rice dropped out. "We worked and worked at that," Gail Evans said, "but they couldn't see how to get the bachelor's degree off campus…It was just not possible to work it out within their culture."

Slots also were held open for Houston Baptist University and Our Lady of the Lake University, in San Antonio, but so far they have not joined the partnership.

After long, hard negotiations, the community college district and the six universities agreed that the two-year district would manage the new facility, but that each governing board would retain policy-making authority over its institution.

A steering committee—the University Center Council—was established, with representatives from each partner. Every effort is made to govern by consensus, both Thorogood and Evans said, but if agreement cannot be reached, the community college district has the final say because it owns the building and the land.

It was agreed that the center would provide central services such as registration, financial aid counseling, building maintenance and security, and that the six universities would pay a share of the center's operating budget (now $870,000 a year) based on the number of student credit hours each generates. Since Sam Houston State has about 70 percent of current enrollment, it pays by far the largest share of the budget.

"Two key factors" have led to the center's success to date, Dean Evans said. "One is that we offer full degree programs, not just courses." A similar center in Dallas faltered because it concentrated on individual courses, not degrees, according to officials of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The second reason for success, Evans said, is that "we have tried to avoid duplication of degree programs, and for the most part we've been successful."

That has not always been easy. At first, "everybody wanted the MBA (Master's of Business Administration), because that was a real ‘cash cow,' and they all wanted the bachelor's degree in business and some of the education degrees," Thorogood said. "There was a good bit of back and forth but I think everybody's pretty happy now."

"What Nellie pulled off there, in getting a working relationship with all those institutions, laid the groundwork for all the [centers] that happened later," said Glenda Barron, assistant commissioner for community and technical colleges at the state coordinating board.

The partner institutions seem largely pleased with results to date.

"It's a way to provide greater higher education opportunity—not having to drive 30 miles to get to class," said Max Castillo, president of the University of Houston Downtown. "But it does create some challenges for the home institution, especially making sure you have the faculty resources" to handle both on- and off-campus work.

"There have been fewer problems than I would have anticipated," said Don Coers, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Sam Houston State. "We can do a lot of good things for students with these community college collaborations."

"I think it's working well," said Lois Phillips, assistant vice president for extended learning at the University of Houston and that institution's representative on the University Center Council. "By having each school do something different, that takes the load off of any one institution."

Phillips' university now enrolls 3,000 students in various off-campus programs and distance education classes. She, too, raised the issue of asking the faculty to do too much.

"Our biggest problem is stretching our faculty," Phillips said. "We try to use regular, full-time faculty as much as possible, or adjuncts who have taught on campus recently…Finding enough people to do all this can be a challenge."

Somewhat surprisingly, the four-year universities do not seem to mind being partners in a venture that is run by a community college district. It is helpful that Dean Evans has a university background—she was associate dean of the College of Business at the University of Houston Downtown before taking the University Center job in 1997.

  "This is all about access," says Gail Evans, executive director and dean of the University Center.
"There have been some tense moments," said Molly Woods, vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Houston Downtown. "But Gail Evans understands how universities work, and she is able to convey that knowledge in the correct way."

However, the sailing has not been entirely smooth during the center's first three years.

Evans and Thorogood would like to increase the number of daytime undergraduate classes ("We don't want this to be thought of as a night school or a 'weekend college,'" Thorogood said), and also would like to strike a better balance among the partners. At present, Sam Houston State has 70 percent of enrollment and everyone else is under ten percent.

They have asked Texas A&M, which now offers only a few master's degree programs, to add some undergraduate classes but have had little luck so far.

"We have 35,000 undergraduates here at College Station (the main Texas A&M campus)," said William Perry, the university's executive associate provost. "Our faculty feel stretched already. Our student-faculty ratio is higher than we would like. So there is a real question how much our faculty can contribute off campus."

Evans and Thorogood are especially concerned about Texas Southern University, which is generating less than four percent of the total student credit hours. But Evans pointed out that Texas Southern has had administrative and financial problems, aggravated by the murder of the education school dean, so their limited participation is not surprising.

Although space is at a premium in the late afternoon and evening, some classrooms are empty during the morning and early afternoon. To fill them, the University Center has been quietly providing classroom space for overcrowded Montgomery Community College next door.

"This is being a good steward of the public's money," Evans said, "but we haven't talked much about it because we spent a long time convincing people we were not part of Montgomery Community College."

Some students worry that they will be unable to get courses they need to complete their degrees. "The student concerns are valid," Evans said, "but we're working with the universities on this. It's a slow educational process but I think I can assure students that the courses they need will be there."

It has not been possible to agree upon a common academic calendar for all six participating universities. And some students still encounter problems when they try to transfer credits from one of the community colleges to one of the universities. "Early on, we had a lot of that ‘my course is better than your course' kind of thing, but it's better now," Evans said.

The partners also have disagreed on whether, and under what conditions, to admit new schools to the consortium. The community college district would like to expand membership as rapidly as possible, but the current partners are less eager.

"Our group wants to keep other partners out until we get our feet a little more on the ground," said Molly Woods, provost at the University of Houston Downtown.

Said Don Coers of Sam Houston State, "We are interested in bringing in new partners, but we are concerned about scheduling problems. We don't want to have to compete for tight time slots."

"They would like to have more institutions in the group, to share the cost," Nellie Thorogood said, "but they have not developed a solution to the ‘we got here first' problem."

Still, the early success of the University Center has surprised many.

"I really think it's working pretty well," said Riley Venable, an associate professor of education at Texas Southern University, who is teaching a graduate course in educational counseling at the center this semester. "I was skeptical at first. I expected a lot of turf battles, and there have been some, but many fewer than I anticipated."

"It's been very advantageous for us," said Joahanne Thomas-Smith, vice president for academic affairs and provost at Prairie View A&M. "It gives us a new and exciting way to reach a population we would not reach otherwise."

"It's really a challenge and I think the jury is still out," Molly Woods said. "But the main thing is that we have lots of people out there who otherwise couldn't finish their degrees, so you'd have to say it's a success so far."

Photos by Todd Yates, BlackStar for CrossTalk

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