By Lynn Ashby 24 April 2017
THE JUNGLE – Trees and bushes so thick you couldn’t walk through them, with high grass in other places. They are on each side of Buffalo Speedway as it turns into Willowbend just south of Loop 610 South. Ah, but the grandiose plans to turn this chunk of Houston into a campus of sparkling glass buildings housing Nobel laureates testing their test tubes, while others think deep thoughts and slowly, thoughtfully, walk through the halls of ivy (or probably kudzu), to suddenly stop, cry, “Eureka!” and race back to their labs to, uh, do something. Whatever. Maybe a new thingamabob. But few of us know what that Eureka is all about, which is why this development is not being developed.
In case you just got out of the ER after flying United, a brief background. In 2015, with no warning shot, UT Chancellor Bill (Bye-bye bin Laden) McRaven announced that the UT System was buying 332 acres of land, equidistant between the Texas Medical Center and the main UH campus, for about $450 million over the next 30 years. This would be its largest land purchase in recent history, with money borrowed from the Permanent University Fund. UH was aghast about this invasion of Longhorns into Cougar territory. Already bloodied by its long-running feud with the South Texas School of Law over naming rights, and its hemorrhaging of head football coaches, UH lined up alumni, lawyers and lawmakers to fight the project. With growing opposition in Houston, questions about financing at a time the Legislature is cutting funds for higher education, the mysterious purpose of the project, and after Gov. Greg Abbott (UT ’81) named new UT regents who opposed the deal, quoth McRaven: “Nevermore.” He tossed in the trowel.
And that was that, sort of. Then white (and otherwise) knights suddenly came to help. Not scientists, deep thinkers and Nobel laureates trying to get out of Cambridge and Palo Alto, but an even more fearsome foe: Houston developers. A just-released report from an advisory group of Houston civic and business leaders figured a vast development like the proposed UT think tank would spur growth in the area: new houses for highly paid PhDs, dorms, upscale shopping centers and – ta-da! – money.
So the battle is not over, and all the old arguments will be dusted off, like “the dump.” The chancellor acknowledged to state lawmakers in a letter that much of the Houston land was an abandoned oil field and a few of the acres are polluted by a former polymer facility on the site. But supporters say that is no problem. (If the projected campus really gets started, perhaps the first structure could be the Toxic Dump Lab, which would work to decontaminate the rest of the acreage.)
There is the question of what to call the place. UT already has a huge footprint in Houston, what with the UT Health Science Center, medical school, dental school, nursing school, M.D. Anderson plus 100,000 alumni (more than any other university). So do we follow the pattern of other branches (UTEP, UTSA, etc.) and call it The University of Texas at Houston, or UTAH? Would the Mormons object? School nickname? The Think Tankers. School song? It has been said that an intellectual in Texas is someone who can listen to the “William Tell Overture” and not think of the Lone Ranger. So how about the students stand and sing: “To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump.” But the biggest blockade of all is that McRaven has never been clear as to why it should be built at all. He referred to the project as an “intellectual hub.” Huh? At other times the goals of education, science and other stuff have been mentioned, and perhaps finding the Longhorns a decent quarterback.
But the buzz word that finally was touted was Big Data. I first figured they were talking about the Burl Ives role in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Big Daddy. No, Big Data, or BD as we laureates call it, means, uh, something smart and important. Maybe Big Data is literally that: lots of very large information such as billboards, advertising signs in Minute Maid Park and tattoos on fat people. And it must be very important: When the proposed project was still alive, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was quoted as saying: “Big Data is the oil wealth of the 21st Century. Texas needs to invest in Big Data, and I am excited that the University of Texas System is leading the way. I can think of no better place to start this initiative than Houston.”
But if the project is still possible, in order to drum up popular support, backers need to be specific. BD must solve problems and answer questions we can relate to. A few suggestions: Do you ever wonder why more and more people are backing into parking places? Isn’t it easier to just drive into the parking slot and back out, instead of trying to back in, maneuvering between two SUVs the size of school buses? Why, in the middle of a sunny day, do people drive around with their headlights on? Do they not know where they are going? Houston needs a good nickname and slogan. Bayou City, H Town, Houston’s Hot and Space City just didn’t catch on like Big D, the Windy City and Deer Park – Gateway to Pasadena. Not far from this jungle is another large area. Find out whatever happened to that massive project that was going to replace AstroWorld. We tore down a perfectly good amusement park for what? Scientists, go to your labs and discover a cure for unruly children in restaurants. Finally, find out what Big Data means, so we can pay for it. OK, we have now put BD on the road to success. As for objections from UH to the UT expansion, just decide it with a football game.
Ashby solutions at email@example.com