Campus and Community / Faculty and Staff

Interim President Michael A. Olivas Bids UHD Farewell

Dear UHD Family,

There are so many things I want to say to all of you.

UHD Interim President Michael A. Olivas

I have been writing and rewriting my final message to the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) community as my time with you comes to an end after more than a year on the job. In the context of my 35 years in the University of Houston System (UHS), 15 months does not seem like a long time, and yet, it flew by even more quickly than the actual calendar. I have been making notes for the last few weeks, working and massaging my ideas, the complete list of which would swamp any epistle, and would sorely test your reading patience. But when I saw this New York Times story, “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love,” I knew I had found the scaffolding that I needed to convey my impressions. (It came out some time ago, but I just read the NYT copy yesterday. When it reappeared so helpfully, and fell into my lap, I took it as a providential sign, which is also the way I shall always remember my time here at UHD.) I will return to the story at the end of this message.

First, I never sought this role, and saw it as an extension of my service obligations, but I almost immediately knew it for the extraordinary opportunity it was. It came to me the third week of the spring 2016 semester. I was thrown in the UHD deep end immediately, with a UHS Board of Regents meeting the next week. At that time, we had to set tuition and fee levels, and move a number of items through. I pulled several all-nighters and went back to long ago bar-review study habits. Because it all was so quick, I did not have any time to plan ahead. I did not panic and began to get the hang of it — aided by my intrepid vice presidents, who taught me “Presidency 101,” despite their own shock and surprise. I had known Ed Hugetz and Johanna Wolfe fleetingly from their previous UH experiences, where we had overlapped, but all of a sudden, I was called up to pitch in the World Series. We all pitched in and muddled through, and UHD faculty and staff cheered me on, always being generous and supportive, even as they were confused about the sudden transition.

When we had our first meetings with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges examiners, I was prepared and able to advocate for us, thanks to the extraordinary campus preparation and readiness, leading to a wonderful conclusion. (The fact that I had undertaken more than a dozen and a half professional and one regional site inspections helped, making it clear to me that my unusual professional life and personal bent helped.) I kidded everyone that I arrived just in time to lead the parade, because virtually all the work had been done by all of you, whipped mercilessly by Dr. Faiza Khoja and her team.

Most people think that the most important things that occurred on my watch were the land purchase and the naming gift by Marilyn Davies as the first major patron of UHD. Don’t get me wrong, as they were important, and I am pleased to have been in the right place and the right time.

The land purchase (as well as subsequent parcel purchases about to conclude) was a function of my personal relationship with then-METRO Board Chair Gilbert Garcia, and more to the point, the longstanding partnership between UHD and METRO over the original land use and light rail. Had these predicates not been there, largely cultivated by David Bradley, vice president of Administration and Finance, and his able staff, I could not have seized the small opening that loomed, as Gilbert’s own service ended soon after.

In the events leading to the generosity of Marilyn Davies to give us funds for the newly named Marilyn Davies College of Business, the seeds had been sowed long before, when she and family members had either glancing or substantial experiences at UHD. More importantly, when she came upon our radar, Johanna Wolfe, vice president for Advancement and University Relations, and Dean Mike Fields stewarded her, so that we could find the right way to present ourselves. When she gave me the check, two months after my first meeting with her, she wrote me a very sweet note, in effect thanking me and the UHD folks for giving her and her family the opportunity to support our institutional vision. She said, “Now, we have the hard part: to turn your wonderful UHD students into spectacular students.” Who could have scripted a better way to say what most of us at UHD believe?

It seems funny to say so, but I genuinely believe that as important as these events will prove to be, that The Incalculable Value for me has been the more quotidian and exhilarating daily events: the seminars, meetings, conferences, and other human contact that stitch together all higher education institutions. For me, I will always treasure the Senator Rodney Ellis (now Harris County Commissioner) tribute to Texas Grants, Professor Sylvia Hurtado’s insightful advice to UHS faculty and staff, the Sheriff’s debate (it was glorious that our own graduate Ed Gonzalez won his race), and bringing state legislators to campus for the Texas Tribune Symposium on Public Education, and then taking our stories to Austin on UHD Day at the Capitol. Hosting the Ed Hugetz Film Festival was a glorious event and valentine to our Provost, whose interim service has been longer than my own, and without whom I could never had done this job. Being in the O’Kane Gallery to see student art and especially the poster art for the Film Festival and the beautiful art cards that are now available—I will always remember these in my mind’s eye. Hosting my cousin, UHD alum Tabitha Ward, who just became a medical doctor, as she honored more than a dozen of her faculty mentors was very special. It was especially moving when the faculty vied to tell stories about her academic accomplishments, and her baby daughter, who grew up on campus as well. At UHD, there are many Tabithas, and Elda Ruedas (who earned her doctorate in Physiological Optics and Vision Science from UH). They both are at Baylor College of Medicine in post-doctoral training, and overcame enormous life struggles to achieve. Although my own science literacy is limited, I took great inspiration from the UHD Student Research Conference and other displays of student achievements in the arts and sciences, including projects funded by our supporter Mayor Sylvester Turner. Working with Commissioner Ellis’ staff to plot gardens and playing fields was another step towards deeper community engagement, if that initiative takes root.

I was proud to bring UH Law colleagues, including my own former student Josephine Sorgwe to help our DACA and undocumented students understand their options, and even more proud to interact with my former higher education law students Teri Elkins Longacre, Jennifer Bloom, and Eric Bentley. Hearing UHD faculty and staff ably represented and served by them has been a justification—if I ever really needed one—that my own life has been worthwhile, if my students are any measurement.

And everyone at UHD knows that our students are our proudest accomplishments and treasures. I will never forget leaving the immigration meeting, completely disconsolate and fighting back tears of frustration, when one of our DREAMers came on the elevator and told me, “Presidente Olivas, Gracias para todos. Llegamos tan cerca.” Indeed, we did come close, and if comprehensive immigration reform occurs, all of us will be made whole, and we will have kept faith with these wonderful students.

The courageous reorganization of our core mission to recruit students with moderately-higher admissions standards has paid off, and all our metrics are moving—albeit slowly—in the right direction. I have enjoyed virtually all my contacts with our talented students and their organizations. Almost no day has passed when I did not learn of or interact with one of our nearly 50,000 graduates.

There has not been a day when I did not leave my office thinking that UHD was even better that day, and that the next day would also bring improvement. Those of you who have been here for many years must look around and take stock and pride in what this institution has accomplished. Trust each other, and glory in others’ victories, as befits a mature learning community. The future is bright for UHD, and I have tried my best, and have left it all on the field. But I promise I will always be your friend and colleague, and more importantly, your advocate, bragging about you and your achievements. UHD should not be the best-kept secret in Houston, not if I have anything to do with it. Or, if you have anything to do with it—none of us should keep the UHD light under a bushel basket.

Economist Robert Frank writes in the attached NY Times article:

One of the most important dimensions of job satisfaction is how you feel about your employer’s mission….But moral satisfaction alone won’t pay the rent. You’ll be more likely to land a job that offers attractive working conditions and pays well if you can develop deep expertise at a task that people value highly. [T]hose who become really good at what they do are capturing a much larger share of total income in almost every domain, leaving correspondingly smaller shares available for others. Moral: Become an expert at something!

I would remind you, and will always believe: everyone who calls UHD home is here precisely because he or she is enamored of the UHD mission. Everyone here, if they are mobile, could find work in a greener pasture. But I am confident that there is deep and wide expertise, spirit, and commitment at UHD among our faculty and staff.

You will always have my gratitude and my carino and my best wishes. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to move into the slipstream of the next chapter of my life, with Tina in New Mexico, for all the time we have left to us. The tears you will see are not of sadness or loss, but of the unrelieved and incalculable joy of my having found the job I have loved, among the people I love. Thank you all for your generosity.

Your friend and colleague,

Michael

Michael A. Olivas
Interim President
University of Houston-Downtown

PS: After today, please feel free to contact me at my UH Law Center contact information: molivas@uh.edu — (713) 743-2078