UT Regents Hope to Rescue Higher Ed Partnership

After a month of contentious debate, the future of a higher education partnership that has flourished in the southernmost tip of Texas for the last two decades remains up in the air.

In 1991, the recently constituted University of Texas at Brownsville, part of the University of Texas System, and Texas Southmost College, a junior college founded in 1926, formed an agreement that allowed students to move seamlessly through the higher education pipeline. Per the terms, after receiving an associate's degree from TSC, a student could progress directly into UTB without reapplying and begin working toward a bachelor's degree — allowing a greater number of students access to programs and opportunities. The arrangement was to last 99 years, but now both parties appear ready for a change.

A re-examination of the deal stemmed in part from an ongoing dispute over $10.8 million in rent owed to TSC. The existing agreement allows UTB to lease space in some of TSC's historic buildings, but the Texas Legislature failed to fully fund the lease payments for several years. The matter still hasn't been resolved since the state left the UT System holding the bill following the 2009 legislative session.

But there are other issues putting a strain on the partnership, as UTB-TSC President Juliet Garcia wrote in an October op-ed piece published in The Brownsville Herald: "First, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that accredits higher educational institutions to offer degrees requires that there be only one governing board. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has had difficulty interpreting reports that come from two institutions that report separately but function as part of a united pair. The federal government has had difficulty reconciling financial aid reports accounting for UTB-TSC students, who are technically in two different institutions."

In September, after nearly 15 months of deliberation, a new arrangement was proposed by the UT System, but TSC officials rejected it and pledged to counter with one of their own. This week in Austin, the UT Board of Regents will try to figure out whether the matter can be resolved. 

Under the plan proposed by UT, the two schools would have merged to become a single four-year open-enrollment institution governed by the UT System's regents while retaining the junior college's local tax district. It would also have lowered costs for some of TSC's current offerings (while UTB is among the state’s cheapest options for a four-year degree, TSC is among the most expensive for a two-year degree).

Proponents argued that the plan strengthened and modernized the partnership and made the new institution, as a larger single entity, eligible for more formula funding from the Legislature. Critics feared that the plan lost sight of the community college’s mission and ceded control to the distant UT System while still asking local taxpayers to foot a chunk of the bill, as they currently do for the locally governed community college. At a public hearing, Dagoberto Barrera, a retired teacher and TSC alumnus, warned the TSC Board of Trustees to beware entangling with “the monster in Austin.” 

“Surrendering to the giant is not an option," he said.

Not everyone on the TSC side of the debate is in sync. When board chairman Francisco “Kiko” Rendon attempted to assure community members at an Oct. 4 meeting that “the partnership is not in jeopardy,” a fellow trustee disagreed.

“There are some of us that feel that delay is tantamount to dissolution,” David Oliviera said.

Ultimately, delay is exactly what the TSC trustees did. In a unanimous vote on Oct. 21, they rejected the UT proposal before them and announced that they were returning to the drawing board to prepare a new partnership agreement.

As explained by trustee Robert Lozano, the new proposal will adhere to the school's core principles, including the “creation of a new UT System university known as UTB/TSC with open admissions … continued local oversight to preserve the junior college role and mission … [a] phase-out [of] the TSC taxing district … [the] assumption of bond debt … [and] commitment to competitive tuition and fee rates for associate and certificate programs.”

“I want to clarify that this is a counterproposal to the one UT had sent,” said trustee Adela Garza at the meeting. “This is ours.”

No such proposal has been been presented, however, and it's unclear whether one will be drafted in time for the contract to be approved in the next legislative session. In the meantime, the schools will continue under the original partnership agreement, which officials on both sides agree don't much like. As Garcia wrote in the Herald in support of the now-defunct UT proposal, “I believe the old partnership model simply will not work to meet the needs and opportunities for our community and should not continue.”

Through a university spokeswoman, Garcia and the TSC trustees declined to comment on the matter until after the UT regents meeting on Wednesday.

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