November 17, 2008


A. Report from Cooper, Robertson & Partners, LLP consulting firm concerning the Brackenridge Tract..

Chair Hillis introduced David McGregor (managing director, Cooper, Robertson & Partners, LLC), Paul Milana (partner, Cooper, Robertson & Partners, LLC), Beverly Silas (president and CEO, Concept Development & Planning, LLC), and Florence Mayne (executive director of real estate, The University of Texas System) and said they would give a presentation and answer questions regarding the planning process underway regarding the future of the Brackenridge Tract. Mr. Milana spoke first followed by Mr. McGregor; transcriptions of their presentations are included in Appendix A and B, respectively.

After the two presentations, Chair Hillis invited Council members to come to one of the microphones to ask their questions. He commented that he was pleased to see the role the Brackenridge Tract plays in the academic mission of the University being addressed since the overall emphasis thus far had tended to focus primarily on the land’s commercial possibilities. Mr. McGregor responded that he thought that the generation of revenue from commercial uses of the land could contribute to the future academic mission of the University, and he thought the regents were considering commercial uses in keeping with their overall fiduciary responsibilities for the University. Chair Hillis said many faculty members had raised questions about the extent of faculty involvement in the information-gathering phase before decisions are actually made rather than just being asked to react to plans that have been already developed. He said there was concern that the faculty who are involved in the academic programs that use the tract might have to settle for the “lesser of two evils as opposed to actually contributing to the process.” He said he thought it was important to involve faculty members early in the process so that the plans presented are compatible with the University’s academic mission, which he felt had not occurred so far. Mr. McGregor replied that consultants are hired to make recommendations and not to make the actual decisions. He said the objective of involving Chair Hillis and other faculty members now was “for you to see what we’re thinking of and comment on it” during the option development phase.

Professor Molly Cummings (integrative biology) said she also appreciated that the consultants were considering how the Brackenridge Field Labs served the academic needs of UT faculty and students. She emphasized how important the labs were in meeting the undergraduate and graduate instructional and research missions now and in the future, especially for the new core curriculum degree requirement involving individual research experience for undergraduates. She pointed out that the current 3,000 majors in biology could not be accommodated by central campus laboratories, and faculty are counting on the Brackenridge Field Labs to be heavily utilized due to its proximity to the central campus. When she said she had heard that alternative sites were under consideration and wondered what they might be, Mr. McGregor replied that alternatives would be considered, but they had not been thus far. Professor Cummings asked for a more definitive answer as to how the faculty would be formally involved as the project goes forward. Mr. McGregor replied that Chair Hillis raised the same issue about the Brackenridge labs being needed to meet the individual research requirement for 3,000 majors. He said the exact process on involving faculty had not been established, but a meeting with faculty had been proposed for December 3-5. He expected there to be a monthly meeting during the design phase for Chair Hillis and other faculty members to attend and contribute ideas for the consultants to consider. He reiterated that in the end his consultant group would make recommendations and the regents would make the final decision. Professor Cummings thanked Mr. McGregor and said she would be at the meeting in December. Mr. McGregor replied that the faculty had a “pretty good representation with Dean Rankin, Larry Gilbert, Ed Theriot, and Kay Schwartz.”

Dean Paul Woodruff (undergraduate studies) said he had the responsibility to help implement the independent inquiry requirement, and this was a challenging problem. He said it was “extremely helpful if not necessary” to have an easily accessible natural lab space for students to use on their own or with a moderate amount of supervision. Dean Woodruff also pointed out that the tract provided an athletic facility for the women’s rowing team, which is a varsity sport. He recommended that the consultants meet with representatives of Recreational Sports regarding the need for continued student access to Lady Bird Lake, which the tract now provides. Mr. McGregor thanked Dean Woodruff for the suggestion, and he said the consultants had met with undergraduate student leaders about the proposal for a Leadership Institute to be located on the Brackenridge land.

Professor Alan Friedman (English) agreed with Chair Hillis that it was good to hear that the academic needs were now being considered in the planning process. Professor Friedman said he had reviewed the consultants’ web site and found that much of the information there appeared to be “boiler plate,” or what was just said about projects in general, with little included about the University and its concerns. He emphasized the need for early involvement of the faculty since the decision will have a major impact on “what the faculty do.” He said he would like to know how much of the consultants’ work was “driven by commercial and development pressures” rather than academic needs. Mr. Milana responded that the consultants were “looking at all of that.” He said market studies indicated that the tract could support Austin’s growth over the next 20-30 years. He said the workshop that occurred in early November focused on the benefits of mixed use development created by university and private sector collaboration. He said that his firm perceived “that the most memorable places, the places that people love the most, the places that maintain their value centuries after century are mixed.” He said the consultants were considering all possible opportunities because that would “enrich the future and maintain the highest values for the University.” He described the results as a “win-win.” Mr. McGregor added that the answer had been “no, but in two or three sentences” when the consultants were asked in public sessions if the outcome were already predetermined and a developer and plan were already chosen. He said the regents had asked the consultants not to meet with developers even though “there are 15-16 plans that have been floated for this place by various developers over the last 10 years.“ Secondly, the regents had contractually insisted that the consulting firm not participate in subsequent private development of the site. He said that his team did read the papers and were aware of development proposals that were being reported, which was included in their idea generation for the project. However, Mr. McGregor said that there was no fixed plan in place, such as 50% academic and 50% development. He said the firm was just now at the point of understanding the current situation and had not had time to develop “what might be.” He said the answer to that question was one to work though with Chair Hillis and the faculty representatives. He said he thought the regents were considering both the economic and academic interests and were seeking to make UT Austin “one of, if not the finest public research institution in the country.” He said there was awareness that this would involve a number of important factors that impacted on the decision regarding the Brackenridge Tract, such as providing affordable housing to attract outstanding graduate students.

Mr. Milana said a key principle was to provide a strong framework that provides for flexibility so that Brackenridge Tract can accommodate future uses that are unknown at the present time. Mr. McGregor said he thought that the proper term was the Brackenridge Campus and the distance from the central campus was an important factor. He said his firm had faced a similar problem at Harvard University, when that institution sought to develop a new campus in Alston. An important question, according to Mr. McGregor, is to determine appropriate academic uses that can thrive apart from the central campus, which he referred to as the “mother ship.” With the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies now, this is a challenging problem. Harvard chose to locate the Graduate School of Education and the School of Public Health in Alston; however, the first major building that was constructed was an interdisciplinary stem cell center, which required decisions as to which faculty needed to occupy the new structure. He said he doubted that sufficient time were available to deal with this issue given the UT Board of Regents’ deadline his firm must meet, but he said the University needs to begin to identify uses from an academic perspective that can well exist away from the main campus. Professor Cummings pointed out that the Brackenridge Campus is in close proximity to the main campus and would provide a site where classes could actually succeed; she said she thought the Pickle Research Institute was too far away to serve this need. She said the 10-15 minute commute to the Brackenridge Campus would be difficult to match, and she knew of no other equivalent location.

When Professor Brian Evans (electrical engineering) wanted to know if the findings of a survey regarding graduate students had been shared with the consultants, Mr. McGregor said it had. Professor Evans said he thought graduate student housing was a concern here at UT, where the wait list is six months to two years in length. He said this is a deterrent to recruiting top graduate students and recommended that an adequate number of units be provided to alleviate this problem. Mr. McGregor said allocating of housing on a first-come, first-serve basis is an issue. One idea would be to allocate a set number of units to each dean, which could be used to recruit that number of top candidates in the field of study. He also wondered why there were 56 undergraduates residing in the 715 housing units at the present time. Another idea that Mr. McGregor suggested was putting a maximum number of years a graduate student could reside in University housing; for example, he thought three years would provide time for completing courses and comprehensive exams. Professor Evans commented that there are 12,000 graduate students at UT Austin, and the available housing can only accommodate a small portion of the enrollment.

Professor Mark Alpert (marketing) said he hoped commercial development will be restrained on the Brackenridge Campus, and that flexibility will be maintained. He said the main campus had minimized private development, and he hoped the Brackenridge Tract would be treated similarly with the academic mission of the University being given top priority.

Mr. McGregor noted that the word commercial development has multiple meanings. He said that MIT and Harvard had worked together to create the Whitehead Institute, where private and public entities foster the development of research into products. He said the resulting institute and nearby abundance of land for commercial development has attracted new faculty and provided great internships for students. He said it might be good if another word could be developed and used rather than commercialization.

Secretary Greninger said she was glad the faculty were becoming involved but was concerned that the involvement might have been useful earlier in the process. When she asked how many meetings would be held with faculty, Mr. McGregor replied three to five. He said that work thus far with personnel involved with the field lab and graduate housing had taken one month, and he realized that the upcoming holidays would need to be taken into account. When Secretary Greninger asked if there were any way to extend the period or get an early start in January, Mr. McGregor said he thought the December 3-5 meeting would provide an opportunity to set up a schedule for the rest of the year.

Chair Hillis thanked the consultant team for giving the presentation to the Council and answering questions. He said he thought the session had been quite helpful. He asked Council members who were interested in coming to the December 3 and following meetings to contact him. He also noted that this was not the chair’s committee, but it would be a committee of the Faculty Council.

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