South Texans Feeling Momentum for University Plan

Dr. Juliet García, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, Dr. Robert Nelsen, president of the University of Texas-Pan American
Dr. Juliet García, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, Dr. Robert Nelsen, president of the University of Texas-Pan American

Standing in the Capitol rotunda on Wednesday, University of Texas at Brownsville President Juliet García talked about the fortuitous timing of coming to Austin one day after Gov. Rick Perry endorsed a plan to let South Texas have access to the Permanent University Fund.

"There is something providential about all this," García said.

She was joined by University of Texas-Pan American President Robert Nelsen and faculty and staff from their respective institutions, for Rio Grande Valley Higher Education Day at the Capitol. Their top objective was to promote a proposal to combine the two universities to create a new institution that would include a new medical school and have access to the Permanent University Fund.

Spirits were high after the plan received what was for many, an unexpected endorsement from the governor in his State of the State address the day before.

Referred to as "PUF," the Permanent University Fund is a major source of revenue for some institutions in the University of Texas the Texas A&M University systems. Neither UT-Brownsville nor UT-Pan American have been granted access to it in the past, and changing that for the proposed new university would require the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature.

Jim Aldridge, a psychology professor at UT-Pan American, said that the desire for PUF access has long been on the minds of Valley educators. "We’re not talking about minor irritations here, we’re talking about major frustrations," he said. "We would watch the other UT campuses get these wonderful new facilities, and we had to beg for a fourth of that."

Perry made it clear that he is hoping that will change this session. "I'm calling for the Legislature to pass, by a two-thirds vote, a bill necessary to give South Texas access to the Permanent University Fund," he said in Tuesday's address.

"That was huge," Nelsen told the Tribune. "To have him come out and recognize South Texas and recognize that we’re really accomplishing things there, we just need a little help and we can do even more, that was amazing."

"It was a good surprise," García agreed.

Similar reactions have been pouring in from local leaders.

Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos called it "the best news the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas have received from any governor."

“This is the right thing to do at the right time," said UT System Regents Chairman Gene Powell, a Weslaco native, in a statement. "This move will create extraordinary educational and economic opportunities for all of South Texas.”

R. K. Whittington, the president and trustee of the South Texas Medical Foundation, also expressed his support. "With the leadership of the Governor and our Valley legislators, we hope their colleagues from across the State will support the University of Texas plan to create a new multi-campus regional university and medical school in South Texas and make PUF funding available to that institution,” he said in a prepared statement.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, issued a statement thanking the governor and noting that state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and he intend to soon introduce legislation on the matter, as do their colleagues in the House.  

Democratic state Reps. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, and Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, were on hand on Wednesday to support the effort. Recalling the governor's comments from the day before, Canales said, "It brought me to my feet. It was just a reflex."

He said that if the lawmakers approve the plan, the effect on the Valley will by "immeasurable and profound."

Aldridge, who was cautiously optimistic about the proposal's chances, said there remain some who believe the plan is "too good to be true," and he added that they will probably think that until two-thirds of the lawmakers actually approve a  bill.

"And remember," he said, "this just opens the gate. There’s a lot left to be done, and we have to be careful that it is done right."

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