Build with care

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Last Wednesday, Michael O’Donnell, associate vice chancellor of the UT System, testified before the Senate Higher Education Committee on SB 496, a bill by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. SB 496 would take the power of final approval for “capital projects” (large construction projects) from the hands of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and put it in the hands of the UT System Board of Regents. Yesterday, that bill passed the Texas Senate.

If SB 496, passes the House and becomes law, then the Board of Regents will have the authority to approve capital building projects across the UT System. On the surface, this shift of power is not dramatic. “Authorizing” a project is not the same as funding it, a task which will still fall to the Legislature, and, indirectly, to individual universities’ development teams, which must raise supplemental funds from donors. The bill won’t empower individual institutions to propose new building projects, as the regents already vet each institution’s list of proposed capital projects before they reach the THECB and Legislature. That is an arguably important step for the board to take, given the number of institutions in the UT System vying for funds.

Mostly, SB 496 is a bill that eliminates the bureaucratic redundancy of having to get building projects approved by the Board of Regents and then again by the THECB. But it just might empower the Board of Regents to make more deliberate choices about the way the UT System’s 16 campuses grow.

Also yesterday, the students of UT professor Larry Speck’s Architecture and Society class — this columnist included — took a test, which included an essay question asking students to discuss the ways a residential environment the student had lived in shaped their college experience.

The question was a way for students to demonstrate that they had done the reading and connected the principles they encountered to their everyday lives. But their answers may also be collected for research on the way students interact with their environment  — provided they signed the release passed out at the beginning of class.

Richie Gill, a Plan II senior, used responses to this test question from past semesters to identify how “socially successful” students were in a particular dorm. He also examined the effect of particular residential environments on student GPA. What did his holistic review of 12 of the 14 dorms on campus find?

The best dorm for a freshman student is — drum roll, please — the humble Moore-Hill, completed in 1956. Its rooms, at 190 sq. feet, are less than half the size of those in UT’s newest dormitory, Duren Hall, which was built in 2007. The less-than-luxurious quarters of Moore-Hill prompt students to leave their rooms and meet other Longhorns, while the wealth of amenities in Duren kept people from moving — literally and figuratively — out of their comfort zones, which Gill’s findings suggest affected not only their social lives but their GPAs as well. When Gill compared a student’s predicted GPA (based on a number of factors, including the student’s high school GPA and his or her parents’ level of education) with the GPA they actually achieved at UT, students in more social dorms had the most positive difference between their predicted and actual GPA. 

Of course, Gill’s project is just a senior thesis, not a fully-formed scientific study, and interpreting essay question answers is an inherently subjective process. But the results of the project, which are by no means conclusive, do suggest that we  should be more thoughtful about the buildings on our campus, as the designs of those buildings might affect student success. All of us — students, regents and UT administrators — care about the success of students on this campus. In the past decade, we’ve seen the expansion of the UT campus give us buildings like Duren, which is neither the most affordable nor the most effective dorm for bettering the student experience. Meanwhile the best dormitory for students on campus was completed in the mid-1950s.

So, since the regents may soon have more control over the type of buildings built on UT System campuses, they should demand buildings that make a difference in students’ lives. The University isn’t about to stop growing. We should make sure it grows in a direction beneficial to students. 

Wright is a Plan II junior from San Antonio.