Campus and Community / Faculty and Staff

UHD In Time: My 42 Years at the University of Houston-Downtown


This article was authored by Merrilee Cunningham, an associate professor of English and an award-winning poet. Her work has been published in literary journals and magazines such as “On,” “Versus,” “Visions,” “The Ball State Review,” “Renaissance and Reformation” and “South Central Bulletin of the Modern Language Association.”

In 1974, I was hired eight days after South Texas Junior College became the University of Houston-Downtown College (en route to growing into UHD in 1979). I was brought in during a hiring spree of new professors. I was thrilled to join the faculty in the historical center of Houston as an assistant professor.

I remember that I taught many sections of English 1302, a course that I still love teaching and that I have taught for UHD as part of the Honors Program. We were all in one building then. In fact, the 10th floor where I presently office, was sublet to a long-term renter, the president of the University. It also had an apartment and briefly hosted the Faculty Club. The My 42 Years at the University of Houston-Downtown UHD IN TIME By Merrilee Cunningham, Associate Professor of English Faculty Lounge was on the third floor and frequented by historians, math profs and my esteemed colleagues in English.

There were fewer than 3,000 students to be served by 108 full-time professors, so we took our time asking our commercial renters on 10th floor to vacate since we didn’t need the space at first. Our relationship with Houston Community College was great, partly because, after our first year, J. Don Boney was our president as he had been theirs.

In my more than four decades here, I’ve seen the delivery of curriculum evolve. I took advantage of our TV studio and taught an ITV Shakespeare course for years. Students could participate at campuses throughout the greater Houston area. I realized that technology was going to make the learning experience better. I began doing research and publishing with fellow professor Ruth Robbins to see if I could play a small part in making it better.

I’ve taught some wonderful students who went on to get doctorates and law degrees. Some became professors here and elsewhere. One of my favorite drama students was the scholarly Luke Fedell, who now teaches for us. John Locke took my 1302 class and wrote a paper on homelessness in Houston that was the best work either I or the Mayor of Houston had seen on the subject. Recently, my former student Nancy Adossi just completed her Ph.D. It is wonderful to see her metamorphosis from a student into an esteemed colleague. My students come by to see me on occasion with a shy “Do you remember me?” and for some reason, they are always the students that I do remember. Sometimes, universities need program developers. One such program developer was professor Lisa Read, who called me into her office and wanted to know if I would help sponsor a summer program in England. That was the start of UHD’s Study Abroad Program. We now have fabulous offerings every year as professors take students to study in countries all over the world. Professors Robert Wilson, Susan Baker and I took more than 100 students to Paris one summer in what was my absolutely favorite trip abroad with students. It was probably my favorite because I got to go with my family as well. Baker’s day at the Louvre might be one of my favorite days in my long life. Spending 10 hours in the Louvre with an art history professor is my kind of fun.

In Homer’s epics, Odysseus was both the great tactician and the great strategist. We have had both kinds of administrators at UHD — and we have needed both. Over the years, we have made friends, deals, and trades and have built buildings, programs, enrollment until we are more than even the sum of our substantial physical parts. We now have a serious campus right in the middle of town. We did this with partnerships and foresight of administrators like Chaney Anderson, Michael A. Olivas, William Flores, Max Castillo and faculty like Jeff Jackson.

The short and the long of it is that the helm of the ship of the University has been gripped by many forward-thinking individuals. One of the questions that I do ask myself is why have we let some things go undone that seem so obvious. Why have we not reached out to Rice University to create a boat house for our two crewing teams on the banks of the Bayou? Why did we not plan for two Metro train stops instead of only one, so we could travel by rail from the One Main Building to the Shea Street Building? How can we link to the Downtown tunnels, so that working students could comfortably arrive at campus in time to take a couple of courses before or after work? But these are questions for the future at UHD.

UHD is no doubt getting better with age. Credit the cumulative work of the professors, students and administrators, and the recent implementation of new student success initiatives. Our wonderful city and community partners also are making UHD a great place to be.