For two decades, some South Texas leaders have felt like scorned lovers in their efforts to bring a medical school to the border region: kept just out of reach, showered with thin promises, and in recent months, upstaged by another — that flashier, fancier Austin.
So forgive them if some are relishing in their current scenario: being courted by two university systems.
In a hastily called press conference last week, University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa showed up at UT-Pan American in Edinburg to unveil plans for morphing South Texas’ Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) into a full-fledged, free-standing medical school.
The announcement came right before a previously scheduled meeting where regional leaders were set to discuss recent med school overtures from the Texas A&M University System, and in particular, from A&M Chancellor John Sharp. And it came two weeks after a contingent of Valley elected officials and health care leaders traveled to College Station to meet with Sharp.
That trip coincided with growing irritation among some Valley leaders over the time it was taking to formally establish a UT medical school in South Texas — the RAHC was created more than a decade ago as a precursor to it — and at least a small dose of resentment over how quickly the UT System seemed to be embracing efforts to open a medical school in Austin.
UT officials say their commitment to a South Texas medical school is enduring, and cite their ongoing investment in the region’s health care education centers.
"The plans for each medical school are unique using different funding streams, faculty programs and infrastructure," Cigarroa said in a statement. "...We have a defined date for graduating the first medical school class in South Texas. One has yet to be defined for Austin."
Asked if Cigarroa’s announcement was hastened by med school nibbles from Texas A&M, UT System officials responded: "The UT System has been working on plans to expand medical education and research in South Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley for years. The Texas A&M University System discussions do not factor into our plans whatsoever."
Since creating the RAHC in 1999, the UT System has invested $79.5 million in infrastructure and approved a $30 million allocation for Lower Rio Grande Valley programs, Cigarroa said, including $4 million for biomedical research in diabetes and obesity, $10 million for clinical simulation facilities, $1.5 million to increase residency programs and $9.5 million for faculty recruitment. The Board of Regents passed a resolution in May announcing their "strong intention" to build a South Texas medical school, Cigarroa added.
But A&M officials appear serious about wanting to play in the Valley too; in a statement, Sharp said that his system had been “asked to consider serving the Valley with our health science center and we responded positively and enthusiastically.”
He added: “We are exploring all options to better serve the medical needs of the Valley, which is a critical part of our state’s future.”
Valley leaders say they all share the same goal: establishing a medical school that will provide needed health care training, jobs, and a motivation for young doctors to stay in South Texas. They say competition is a good thing, and adding Texas A&M to the medical school discussion is a valuable exercise.
But they acknowledge that this new twist could set the stage for a showdown.
On one side, there’s Cameron County, home to existing University of Texas health education facilities that would be leveraged for a medical school, and to state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, a strong supporter of sticking with the UT plan.
“If you look at any medical school that has been created, it never happened overnight. It takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years for things to completely happen the way you want it,” Lucio said. “We’ve kept our patience, we’ve waited in line. We’re at that point now where we can take the step we’ve been waiting for.”
On the other, you have Hidalgo County, home to medical mecca McAllen, a heftier tax base and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who lauds Cigarroa’s efforts, but has been highly skeptical of the UT regents’ commitment to a Valley med school.
Having two universities interested “is a good position to be in,” Hinojosa said. “It forces UT to pay attention to us and either help us fund the medical school or let somebody else do it.”