(Houston Chronicle) -- Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday heartily endorsed a proposal to build a data science institute in Houston on the 300-plus acres that the University of Texas System purchased last year.
In his lunchtime State of the City address, Turner asked local universities, UT and Texas A&M University to take up recommendations from a UT task force, which said that an institute for data science would bolster the city’s energy and health sectors. The group envisioned collaborations with industry and national laboratories, according to a report obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
"We cannot let this opportunity slip through our fingers because the initial approach was wrong," he said at the speech, referencing UT Chancellor William McRaven's surprise rollout of the land purchase in late 2015. Then, McRaven had no public plans for how to use the property.
University of Houston Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta said Thursday that the university was "excited to sit down and collaborate" with Rice University, Texas Southern University, Texas A&M University and UT. Turner called on those schools to come to the table and "make it happen." He urged business and science interests to join, too.
Turner said to UH, "If we are going to become Tier One, and we are, we must not be scared of competition. We must take them on and make it happen."
Fertitta's stance marked a reversal from UH's position in early 2016, when it declined to participate on UT's task force. "If all these other universities are involved, we have no problem with being a part of it," he said. "We don't want any one university to come in and dictate."
McRaven called off the project in March, before the idea for the center was ever presented, amid intense political pressure and opposition from UT regents and the University of Houston.
Turner, a University of Houston alumnus, said in an interview that he was approached by developer David Wolff to support the project. Wolff has tried to rally lawmakers, UT alumni and other Houston leaders to favor the idea.
Supporters of the proposal say cutting-edge data science would keep Houston at the forefront of energy and health industries. The proposal’s authors imagined the institute’s work leading to more efficient and sustainable energy distribution and smarter health care delivery.
Paul Hobby, co-chair of the task force and founding partner of Genesis Park, called Turner's statements "good news for Houston" in an email. "I appreciate the Mayor's leadership," he said, declining to comment further.
Resurrecting the proposal, however, may prove logistically and politically challenging, analysts said Thursday. Texas lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, have been critical of UT’s $215 million land purchase, which occurred without consulting them. Gov. Greg Abbott never gave his support for the project.
Meanwhile, state universities this session are preparing for steep financial cuts in a tight budget cycle overall.
McRaven, when cancelling the project in March, said it was taking away from UT’s existing universities and health institutions, echoing concerns raised by UT’s own regents. McRaven’s failed venture cost him political capital among several state lawmakers and Abbott’s office, according to various state officials.
And UH boosters have not eased off of their criticism of the purchase.
They call UT’s purchase an invasion that would present unfair competition for faculty, students and research funding. Unlike UH, UT can access the lucrative Permanent University Fund, a state-owned investment fund that funnels billions to A&M and the UT exclusively.
UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta slammed the purchase as UT’s “arrogance” in April. “What happened there is the case of someone having PUF funds and too much money,” he said.
"You've got a fired-up alumni base that continues to look at the project as a potential UT in Houston campus, which they see as an existential threat to the viability of UH," said Jay Kumar Aiyer, a Texas Southern University public policy professor.
The project hinges on participation from UT and UH -- and more state revenue benefiting public universities, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor.
"If UH balks at this idea, it's effectively a no-go, (and) the same with UT," he said. "In theory, it could be done, but there are a host of barriers that stand in the way of it actually coming to fruition, ranging from the political opposition from UH to the tight revenue situation that the state finds itself in right now."
Turner said Thursday that he had spoken with Fertitta and UH Chancellor and President Renu Khator about the project. Representatives for Fertitta and Khator did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the University of Texas System declined comment.
This article was originally published on The Houston Chronicle.