It’s not every day that University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) faculty and staff can listen to a candid conversation on higher education between the institution’s leader and a UH System (UHS) Regent. On Sept. 8, members of the campus community did just that during the 2016 Fall Conversation on the state of the university.
In place of a traditional fall address, UHD Interim President Michael A. Olivas hosted UHS Regent and alumna Paula Mendoza for a public discussion on the university, its recent successes and upcoming goals. The Fall Conversation took place in UHD’s Wilhelmina Cullen Robertson Auditorium before an audience of faculty, staff and dignitaries. Special guests included Max Castillo, former UHD president; Molly Woods, former UHD provost and professor emeritus; Welcome W. Wilson Sr., former chairman of the UHS Board of Regents, and UHS Student Regent Joshua Freed.
Mendoza opened the discussion by asking Olivas about his impressions of UHD and what surprised him the most upon his arrival.
Olivas was appointed as the University’s interim president in February by UHS Chancellor Renu Khator. The veteran educator and UH Law Center professor said that one of the biggest surprises at UHD was how much he has enjoyed being part of its day-to-day operations. He acknowledged being very aware of UHD. He had frequently driven by its campus and has a niece who is an alumna (who has since become a doctor). He didn’t become completely familiarized with the institution until he took the position of interim president. Since then, he’s become one of UHD’s staunchest advocates.
“I’ve fallen deeply in love with this institution,” Olivas said. “This is a wonderful place to be. I thought it was the best kept secret in Houston, and now, I want everyone to know what I know!”
Olivas offered kudos to the faculty and staff for their efforts at UHD and for their generosity in helping him during his first days on the job. He also touted UHD’s students as being the most diverse in the city. He particularly recalled the spring commencement ceremony at Minute Maid Park. It was his first UHD commencement, and he recalled his amazement at the number of first generation college students and the number of students and families who were born from outside of the United States.
Mendoza encouraged those in the audience to share Olivas’ experience by participating in future commencement ceremonies.
“One of the most gratifying things we do as Regents is to stand at Minute Maid Park and see the students of UHD graduate – and to see their families too,” replied Mendoza, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from UHD’s College of Public Service. “I think that is what represents UHD as a whole. That stadium is full. When you see all of the people celebrating their degrees, it really lets you know what UHD is all about. ”
Mendoza also asked Olivas about his priorities for UHD. He replied that the true measure of his success on campus will be the outcome of the University’s campaign to raise funds for scholarships, new faculty and academic resources. Likewise, he acknowledged his commitment to the University’s staff.
“We’re trying to emphasize staff development,” he said. “We have a growing staff and need to encourage its governance. We have so many people working here who do things that are essential to the operation of campus. Some of them are invisible because they’re behind the scenes. They are the backbone of this institution.”
Olivas also emphasized the need for faculty and staff retention. He indicated that UHD should not be a steppingstone but rather a destination for career-minded professionals ready to serve students.
“I don’t want to be the Triple-A farm club,” he said. “We’re in the big leagues. UHD is the second largest university in the city of Houston. This is a serious institution.”
Olivas closed by saying that much of UHD’s future development will be contingent not only on resources, but the energies of its community. He cited the immense growth at nearby University of Houston, which has been transformed by new buildings, residence halls, athletics facilities and other amenities. He sees the same thing happening at UHD, where its future is fueled by the University’s commitment to improve graduation rates, new student success initiatives and more selective admissions processes.
UH, however, also has benefitted from a strong sense of focus from its constituents, Olivas added. As UHD continues to evolve, Olivas encouraged faculty and staff to remain motivated in their mission to serve students and the institution.
“We’ve turned the corner on some very difficult decisions that had to be made regarding admissions,” Olivas said. “We’re aiming to pick up our graduation rates. Now, we have to chip in and share our story to let people know that UHD is a strong institution. If we do that, we will continue to attract strong students and have a significant role within the University of Houston System and the city of Houston.”