By Melissa Montoya
The challenge of separating the University of Texas at Brownsville from Texas Southmost College has provided an opportunity to think big — and plant a larger UT flag in the Rio Grande Valley, according to Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa.
On Thursday in Austin, the UT System Board of Regents voted to establish a new Valleywide emerging research university that would combine the future South Texas School of Medicine with the Regional Academic Health Center and the region’s two universities, the University of Texas-Pan American and University of Texas at Brownsville.
Cigarroa’s combined university would include four campuses across the Valley: Edinburg, Harlingen and Brownsville and administrative headquarters in McAllen, he said. With the merger, the board also agreed to spend $100 million during 10 years to transition the RAHC in Harlingen into a full medical school as part of the new university.
“This will be extremely important in helping us in recruiting the necessary leadership, to recruit additional medical school faculty, to enhance biomedical research and to work with our hospital partners to establish the core residency programs throughout the Rio Grande Valley,” Cigarroa said.
The dissolution of the partnership between UTB and TSC wasn’t the sole reason to create a new university, but it was a factor, according to officials at the meeting.
“The challenge of separating UTB and TSC provides us with an opportunity to build a university of the 21st century,” Cigarroa said during a presentation to the board.
“When we listen to parents, to students and to community leaders, it has become clear to me that we need to create a new vision that will provide greater opportunities for the UT campuses in the Rio Grande Valley,” Cigarroa said. “It is my firm belief that South Texas should be given the opportunity to establish a new university that has the potential to become a Tier-1 university over time.”
The project, titled “University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley,” still needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the Texas Legislature before the UT System could launch the new university. Officially, the new emerging research university has not been named.
The UTB Faculty Senate met Monday and announced the Brownsville university would eliminate 248 staff positions — in addition to 89 previous job cuts spurred by the partnership dissolution with TSC. On Tuesday, UTB Provost Alan F.J. Artibise said the university would next determine which positions would be eliminated and that the cuts were necessary given predictions that enrollment would drop nearly half from more than 13,000 students to approximately 7,500, in part because of the separation.
“We know how much money a student pays in tuition and how much money we get from the state of Texas for each student,” Artibise said Tuesday in explaining how UTB’s revenues were expected to decline after the separation from TSC.
However, the proposed new university would have an enrollment approaching 28,000 students, Cigarroa said, but he based those numbers in part on 2011 figures. The size of the merged universities and medical school would be comparable to the University of Texas at San Antonio, which had 30,000 students last year.
“The total operating budget in South Texas would be, today, about $419 million,” Cigarroa said.
Currently, UTB and UTPA qualify for the Higher Education Assistance Fund, but the new university would be eligible for the Permanent University Fund, resulting in a larger endowment for the project. The PUF was established to use a portion of state oil and gas revenues to fund higher education in the state, State Rep. Rene Oliveira said.
“It’s a funding source that we have long wanted to be a part of,” said Oliveira, who is drafting legislation that would allocate a portion of the fund toward the future university. “Any funding that we would get would be coming out of the University of Texas’ share, so we aren’t looking to get any dollars from any other institution.”
Proponents of the school say a new institution and medical center will bring growth to one of the state’s poorest regions, as well as increase the number of doctors needed for its growing population.
“I believe this will be a great opportunity for businesses in the Valley,” Cigarroa said.
Economist Jon Hockenyos, founder and president of TXP, an economics consulting firm that recently evaluated the potential impact of a medical school in Austin, forecasted that anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 jobs would be added to the region by 2022 because of the new university and hospital facilities, with each new position earning an average salary of $63,000.
During Thursday’s meeting, Garcia and UTPA President Robert Nelsen made impassioned calls to the board to approve the measure.
Garcia said the establishment of the new school would provide affordable higher education to a larger number of students.
“Your action expands that window of opportunity for students who have come to us to fulfill their parents’ hopes of the American Dream,” Garcia told the board.
Nelsen followed Garcia with more praise for the proposal to create a new, merged university, saying it could improve the education and quality of life in the region.
“If we don’t get it right in the Valley, we’re not going to get it right anywhere,” said Nelsen, fighting back tears. “We can do it through this vision. … Lives are literally at stake.”
Oliveira agreed that the university and medical school are vital to the region to serve future generations of students.
“In the Valley, we are building one new elementary school every month and every two months, a new middle school,” he said. “We need to have more opportunities here in the Valley, and this can be truly visionary and give our young people an opportunity that might not otherwise be there for them.”
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said in a press release Thursday that South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley have had a need for a medical school for a long time. Obtaining online public health degrees and online nursing degrees have been the only options since there are no medical schools in the area.
“The Rio Grande Valley, as well as the rest of the state, will greatly benefit from the creation of a new medical school in South Texas,” Lucio said. “Moving forward on this will be one of our top (legislative) priorities this session.”
In concluding his remarks to the Board of Regents, Cigarroa said the vote would be historic.
“We have a monumental opportunity for the Board of Regents to make history, to think bold and big, and to expand educational and health opportunities in South Texas beyond what we envisioned in the framework,” Cigarroa said. “I think we were thinking too small. It is very possible to realize significant strategic, financial and operational benefits by creating a new bicultural emerging research university, a new ‘University of Texas for the Americas.’”
UT moves to merge Valley universities,