- Associated Press - Monday, November 24, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Just five years ago, the University of Houston - the university of the energy capital of the world - did not have an undergraduate program in petroleum engineering.

Now that program is growing rapidly, and UH is ahead of the game with the nation’s first subsea engineering master’s program, aimed at feeding workers into cutting-edge fields as oil production moves farther out to sea.

Bridging such glaring gaps between the university and the city it serves is helping UH shed its longstanding reputation as a mediocre commuter school. With improved academic performance, expanded research endeavors and a rejuvenated campus, the 87-year-old university stands poised to realize the great potential that many agree it’s always had.

The one-time “Cougar High” is set to lure two national research institutes, one of which would be built around the subsea program. UH has renewed a push to start a medical school, and it’s prepared to launch a fundraising campaign that officials are confident will bring in billions.

“We really are at a tipping point,” said President and Chancellor Renu Khator, the forceful leader credited with guiding UH through much of its transformation. “We’ve done a lot in seven years, but the potential, looking at where Houston is, for this university, is great.”

UH is looking more and more like the top-tier school it wants to be. The university has lured 10 members of the prestigious national Academies of science and engineering since 2009, when it had just four. Incoming undergraduates are sharper than ever - this year’s class scored five points better on the SAT than last year. And those students are returning at a higher rate, a sign that the university’s sluggish graduation rate could pick up.

Yet the recent progress has come at a cost. UH has become one of the state’s most expensive public universities, and the school recently felt friction with some influential stakeholders, worried that in its drive for elite status, UH was forsaking the working-class students it has always served.

Despite these concerns, donations are flowing in faster than ever and private developments are rising around campus, evidence of a community literally buying into a new narrative.

When Matt Franchek, now director of UH’s new subsea engineering program, interviewed at UH in 2002, a quote from a prospective colleague was telling: “This place is asleep.”

But Franchek - lured from Purdue University by the potential of the “engineer’s playground” that is Houston - found faculty ready to go when he got here.

“It just took the right investment, the right conversation,” Franchek told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1EY72XO). “They just needed encouragement.”

Mechanical engineering, where Francheck landed, is home to both programs UH is banking on to bring federally funded institutes to Houston, possibly within a year: superconductivity, the university’s oldest crown jewel, and the new subsea engineering program.

Franchek’s experience there wasn’t unique. Successful programs - from the business and law schools to engineering - existed in cocoons, said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, who heads UH Energy, an umbrella organization for the school’s energy initiatives. What was needed was a unified vision, a sharp focus and a bit of a push.

“Clearly our chancellor has that vision to sit there and say, where are the pressing problems that the world needs solved - and the world being the world of Houston,” said Krishnamoorti, who has worked at UH for 18 years.

Organized last year, the energy initiative aims to focus resources on the problems UH can address, beginning with superconductivity.

In the late 1980s, C.W. “Paul” Chu became a star in scientific circles when he discovered a material that could conduct electricity with no resistance at higher temperatures than believed possible. His superconductor - which carried the potential to change the way the world gets its electricity - was a win for UH unlike any it has seen since. The Texas Legislature bought in, founding the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH.

But it wasn’t until decades later that a former student of Chu’s found out how to use the material in the real world by spraying it onto a tape-like strip that can replace copper in electrical wiring. That breakthrough was just as big, but it wasn’t UH’s.

The university has lured Venkat Selvamanickam back to work on translational research, something the nation’s best universities, from Stanford to Duke, have done for years. Selvamanickam now heads a new arm of the Texas Center for Superconductivity aimed at improving manufacturing of the superconducting wire.

UH essentially closed the loop on superconductivity and brought it all back to Houston. In the last three years, Selvamanickam’s crew has increased the efficiency of the superconducting wire threefold, and UH hopes their work will help attract federal funding to launch a national manufacturing institute.

Selvamanickam works at UH’s new Energy Research Park, Schlumberger’s old headquarters just down Interstate 45 from the main campus. The research park embodies the university’s renewed commitment to research.

Franchek is eying the park for a similar hub for subsea engineering research, which he envisions as a living repository of offshore knowledge. UH hopes to have a multimillion-dollar institute - buoyed by a big-name donor and state and federal cash - by mid-2015.

Research in superconductivity and other fields was the driving force that put UH on the Tier One playing field it longed to be on. The school was designated a top-tier school by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2011, and has earned national accolades in engineering and business, among other things. The school was recently named a finalist for an award for innovation and economic prosperity next to some of the top public research institutions in the nation, including Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and Virginia Tech.

But UH was founded with a more blue-collar mission, as a community college for the working class. In recent months, some influential alumni and supporters - including some state legislators - have voiced concerns about whether UH is losing sight of that traditional goal. With costs rising steadily over the last several years and a push to get more students living on campus, some have worried that UH might leave behind the diverse, working-class, commuter students it has long served.

That tension was perhaps most clearly on display over the summer, when a dispute arose between state Sen. John Whitmire, a UH alumnus, and university leadership over a plan to require most freshmen to live on campus. In the face of Whitmire’s criticism, Khator killed the plan.

UH, however, faces an uphill battle in clearing its biggest remaining academic hurdle: a lagging graduation rate, with only about 20 percent of students earning a degree in four years. Raising the rate will be difficult if many UH students commute to campus, work and attend college part-time - something 28 percent of its undergraduates still do.

Lower-income students, common in a diverse student body like UH’s, tend to need more help getting to graduation, as well.

“Years of research has shown that students who work while going to school take longer to graduate,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “You have to have a strong commitment to access and equity and diversity that is equally as strong as your commitment for elevated prestige.”

Khator says that dual commitment is her top priority. The university remains one of the most diverse in the country; just 30 percent of its undergraduate students are white. At UT Austin, white students make up 48 percent of the undergraduate population, and at Texas A&M;, 68 percent. Most UH students are transfers from community colleges.

UH has made strides in educating that non-traditional group of students. A fixed tuition plan, aimed at getting students to graduation in four years, had big buy-in from the Class of 2018.

The university has hired academic advisers and tried to measure how effectively they guide students to graduation. The average student now graduates with 150 credits - 30 more than needed - because many were taking unneeded courses.

UH’s retention rate - the rate at which students return from year to year - has risen to 86 percent, 5 points above the national average. That rising rate, Khator said, is the seed of a graduation rate that will blossom in the coming years.

“If it’s a six-year graduation rate, it’s a six-year plan before you actually see the fruit,” Khator said.

But costs have risen with the elevated academic performance. Student fees have risen sharply - in 2014, students paid UH $126 million in fees, 32 percent more than they paid in 2008 - and the school is now more expensive than UT and A&M;, according to Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board data. Yet UH still lags behind the two schools it aims to count as peers, especially when it comes to graduating students. UH’s four-year graduation rate is less than half of the rate of UT and A&M;, where more than half of students graduate in four years.

At 10:30 on a weeknight, the newly opened Calhoun’s Rooftop Bar on the UH campus is packed.

People dance near a DJ stand, Houston’s ghostly gold skyline gleaming on the horizon. Others crush in around the bar, shouting for drinks.

This burgeoning new bar scene seems a far cry from what UH has long been - a place where students park, go to class and leave. Perhaps the most tangible evidence of the college’s renaissance is the way its campus has come to life. The university’s once tired campus has been reinvigorated. Since 2009, UH has spent more than $800 million on construction, topped off by a $120 million-plus football stadium that delivered a shot of spirit.

Next door to Calhoun’s, the scene at the Nook coffee shop is more subdued than on the rooftop, but it’s no less classically collegiate. Boisterous laughter from a group of bearded and bespectacled men embroiled in a game of Cards Against Humanity punctuates the laid-back vibe. Most of the students are focused on their laptops, earbud cords dangling from their ears.

These new, private developments signal that not just UH, but the outside world, is confident in its rebirth. Businesses are willing to bank on it. The strip center that houses these two popular establishments is an example, as are multiple private student housing developments on the horizon.

Nearly half of this year’s freshmen live on campus, and all but one of its eight residence halls are more than 90 percent full.

At night, parts of campus are lively. Students study in the library or hit the gym. Concerts and events are held in the lantern-bedecked Wilhelmina Grove and outside the two new Cougar Village dorms.

Earlier this year students complained that there weren’t enough food options late at night. So in September, UH contacted some food trucks and piloted a late night rotation. It was wildly successful, officials say, and now every Monday through Thursday from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., a truck parks outside the newly minted Cougar Village dorms, not far from the library.

Students wander up and depart, piping hot fried goods in hand.

Getting prospective students on campus has become key to recruiting the best high school graduates, admissions officials say.

On those tours, students can see the new residence halls and the half-rebuilt university center - complete with restaurants, an arcade and glow-in-the-dark bowling.

“Construction is a big seller for us,” said Djuana Young, executive director of admissions. “We say to a student, ‘Excuse our dust, but this is all for you.’ It really does make a huge difference.”

Admissions are a clear example of how the university’s reputation has changed. Applications are on the rise, and the university is attracting a higher-achieving high school graduate than ever before. Students are taking more classes - 96 percent are taking at least12 hours, or about four classes, a semester.

Even at the best high schools in the Houston area, the conversation about UH has changed.

At Houston ISD’s prestigious Carnegie Vanguard High, counselor and college coordinator Veronica Chapman has to remind students that UH has higher standards now. It’s no longer a fallback school.

Many at Carnegie Vanguard, though, still have their sights set elsewhere.

“One of the big stereotypes is that everyone wants to go to UT. That’s sort of the dream that many people aspire to,” said Connor Burwell, a senior whose own goal is a liberal arts school in the Northeast. “You graduate high school in the top 10 percent and you get your automatic acceptance and you’re set. For students in Houston that is still very real.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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