Reeling in the Medical Schools

University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth.
University of North Texas Health Science Center, Fort Worth.

Public medical schools and health science centers in Texas have long been stand-alone entities, completely disconnected from the large research universities contained within the same university systems. For example, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston is not run by the administrators of the University of Texas at Austin, though elsewhere in the country such an arrangement would be commonplace.

And the tide may be turning in Texas, as well.

The Texas A&M University System regents recently gave Chancellor John Sharp the authority to begin looking into repositioning the Texas A&M University Health Science Center under the administration of Texas A&M University. In Austin, efforts are underway to establish a medical school that would be overseen by the administrators of UT rather than the University of Texas System.

This week, the University of North Texas System regents gave Chancellor Lee Jackson the go-ahead to study combining the University of North Texas System Health Science Center in Fort Worth and the University of North Texas in Denton. The hope with that plan, like the others, is that by combining institutions, a school would post bigger stats, boost its reputation, and foster more collaboration between its institutions.

But all of these plans might be for nothing unless there are some changes to the state’s funding formulas for higher education, Jackson says. Currently, health science centers and research universities are weighted differently, and if the proposed consolidation turns out to mean a loss of revenue, it likely will not proceed.

“If this is a national model, if this is how research universities organize, if Texas is going to be serious about research,” Jackson says, then the Legislature might need to consider “making the formula a little more sophisticated.”

Changes to higher ed funding formulas have proven difficult in recent sessions. The last two featured strong but unsuccessful pushes from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to tie a portion of universities’ funding to their outcomes rather than basing it entirely on enrollment. In 2013, that measure is expected to have more momentum in its favor.

Jackson said he hopes that backing from UT, A&M, and UNT might win the support for the changes necessary to make these combined institutions worthwhile.

Similar proposals have been presented in the past, but internal politics prevented them from moving forward. “We’ve always had, in our history, medical school presidents who were so successful, so senior, and so respected that they could fight off any of these proposals,” Jackson said. “They were real powers in their own right. None voluntarily would do this.”

Even if the formulas are changed, the new or newly consolidated institutions would have to be approved by the coordinating board, the Legislature, and various accrediting bodies.

And not everyone is going along with the trend. Rather than pulling together, the Texas Tech University System appears to be pulling apart. Earlier this year, the regents approved a measure to convert the already existing El Paso campus of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center into a separate, stand-alone health sciences university.

But as far as UNT is concerned, Jackson said they “would be remiss” if they didn’t at least consider the possibility of consolidating.