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University of Houston students face off against administrators over how to spend student fees

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

University of Houston students face off against administrators over how to spend student fees” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A few weeks after the University of Houston’s president rejected a recommendation on how to spend student fees, students on Wednesday will try to convince the university system’s board of regents to allocate a portion of those funds to pay for student services instead of the university’s athletics program.

Last fall, the university’s Student Fee Advisory Committee, a state-mandated panel of students charged with recommending how student fees should be allocated each year, suggested the school reduce the approximately $8.3 million in student fees it sends to the athletic department by $1.5 million. They argued that the university’s shift to the Big 12 Athletic Conference last year increased the department’s revenue and the school should depend less on student fees.

“UH has finally received the invitation we have long deserved, and with it, a substantial increase in revenue has been experienced, and is expected to continue,” the committee’s recommendation states. “In light of the revenue increases, the university’s approach to the athletics subsidy, and past commitments athletics has made to wean off student service fees, the committee has elected to put athletics on a subsidy reduction plan in line with the university’s.”

About half of the student fees allocated toward athletics go toward repaying debt from the construction of a new football stadium and basketball arena, as approved by a 2012 student referendum. The other half goes toward the athletic department’s operating budget.

According to the student fee committee, UH students who take six or more credit hours are paying $260 in student fees per semester this academic year. That funding is used to fund a variety of student services and departments on campus.

The committee recommends which departments receive funding from student fees after a semester-long review process.

Committee members said a portion of the student fee money that goes to athletics programs should now be used to fund student services on campus, particularly the campus child care center, the counseling center and certain programs that help students dealing with drug or alcohol addiction. Last year, two UH students died by suicide on campus within six weeks of each other.

“Athletics and athletics program on campus is a means to an end, not the end itself. The primary mission statement of the institution is to provide quality higher education,” sophomore Yusuf Kadi, co-chair of the committee, told The Texas Tribune. “The way you do that is by having high-quality services because if students do not receive support in times of mental health troubles or other issues, that’s more likely for them to drop out and not make it through the program.”

The committee also recommended the school conduct an external review of how the athletics department uses student fees. Members felt the athletics department was not transparent with the committee about how it uses the money and could not adequately explain how it used it to benefit the student body.

Earlier this month, UH President Renu Khator rejected the student fee committee’s recommendations, the first time she has done so in 16 years.

In two memos attached to her rejection letter, administrators argued that athletics funding from student fees has remained flat over the past 14 years, even as operating costs and university support for athletics have increased.

They also said that reducing the amount allocated toward athletics would put the university below the average amount of student fees provided to athletic departments at peer institutions within the Big 12 Athletic Conference. Administrators pointed to the University of Central Florida and the University of Cincinnati, which allocate about $23 million and $9 million, respectively, in student fees toward athletics.

“Nonetheless, I applaud your focus on Athletics and would like to work with you to find a way to help Athletics achieve the dual role of being nationally competitive and self-funded,” Khator wrote in her letter to the committee.

The debate over how to allocate the funds comes as the University of Houston is trying to raise its national profile as an athletics powerhouse. Khator has also publicly set a goal to have UH ranked in the top 50 public universities in the country, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.

According to a database from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication, nearly 40% of UH’s athletic department is funded by the institution, with 11% coming from student fees. The athletics department is also funded via ticket sales, donor contributions and television contracts.

Other public universities in the state do not depend as heavily on university funds to subsidize their athletics programs. At Texas Tech University, which is also in the Big 12 Conference, just 6% of athletics funding comes from the university, with more money coming from donors, TV contracts and other funds distributed by the athletic conference.

Student fee committee members said they were shocked Khator rejected the recommendations.

They said their recommendations were meant to slowly reduce funding for the athletic department. The committee recommended reducing base funding by $1.5 million, but providing one-time funding of $1 million for next year, so the school’s athletics programs would only see a $500,00 reduction in fiscal year 2025. That one-time funding should eventually be reduced to zero, the committee said.

Student services “are needed and they should be priority number one, and athletics should be placed lower on the scale,” said Jesus Nieto, a graduate student who also serves on UH’s student fee advisory committee. “Not everything is about rank. Not everything is about bringing the name of the school to a national level.”

In an email, a university spokesperson said outside of student fees, the university this year reallocated $5 million from the athletic budget toward a first-year student experience pilot program partly focused on resiliency and mental health awareness. They also put funding toward enhanced safety and security measures at Agnes Arnold Hall, where the two students committed suicide last year.

On Wednesday, members of the Student Fees Advisory Committee and Khator will present their recommendations to the university system’s regents, who will make a final decision.

Student groups are also holding a protest Wednesday in support of the committee’s recommendations. Student government leaders have expressed support for reducing the amount toward athletics.

The debate over the use of student fees also comes as Khator is warning the university community to prepare for a tight budget next year due to flat enrollment this year. The Houston Chronicle reported last week that the university will not provide merit increases to faculty and will impose a 2% base budget reduction on departments in order to fund an earlier attempt to increase base salaries.

Texas public universities are not allowed to increase tuition for the next two academic years, an agreement that university system leaders made with state lawmakers in exchange for additional funding in the last legislative session.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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