New University in South Texas Awaits Perry's Signature

While residents of the Rio Grande Valley know that they are poised to get a new university, there are several details they do not know, like what its mascot or official colors will be. The president has not yet been chosen.

“I’m calling it UT-TBD. That’s the stage we’re at,” said Robert Nelsen, the president of the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.

But the matter is not entirely a mystery. The institution, which will open once its accreditation has been secured, will be a part of the University of Texas System and is expected to start out with 28,000 students, making it among the county’s largest institutions serving primarily Hispanic students. It will have a medical school, which, like the rest of the university, will have locations throughout the Valley. The system’s plans include physical presences in Brownsville, Edinburg, Harlingen and McAllen.

But first, Gov. Rick Perry must sign Senate Bill 24, by state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, which would give the go-ahead to the UT Board of Regents to abolish the University of Texas at Brownsville and UT-Pan American, out of whose metaphoric ashes the new university will rise.

“This is not about merging the two universities,” said state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. “It is about creating a new one. We have an incredible opportunity now to become one valley and one region.”

The university’s academic offerings will largely be located on the existing Brownsville and Edinburg campuses, both of which are expected to grow. And SB 24 requires that the first two years of the medical school’s classes be primarily offered in Hidalgo County, where facilities will have to be built, and that the second two years be primarily offered at what is currently the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen. Administrative offices will be distributed throughout the region, with the primary headquarters likely to be located in McAllen.

In December, Francisco Cigarroa, the UT System’s chancellor, revealed his plan to replace the two smaller universities with a single, larger institution. The design included a full-fledged medical school as part of the university. Such a combination was virtually unheard of in Texas until recently, when the University of Texas at Austin announced plans to build its own medical school.

The proposal needed the support of at least two-thirds of state lawmakers, which would allow the new university to access the Permanent University Fund, a major source of revenue that only certain institutions can tap. The two existing Valley universities were the only two UT System institutions ineligible for the fund’s proceeds, a major impediment to their growth.

With the proposal getting the required support from lawmakers during the 83rd legislative session, it now awaits the signature of Perry, who has signaled his support. After the bill passed, he issued a statement calling it “a historic moment.”

Once the bill is signed, Cigarroa said, “the real work begins.” The chancellor anticipates it will take 12 to 18 months to get the plan for the university laid out, reviewed and accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The system is working to determine how quickly the regents can allocate money from the Permanent University Fund to new buildings and faculty recruitment efforts. The new medical school is expected to graduate its first class in 2018.

“We’re going to start moving fairly fast, but not overly fast where we don’t get the input that’s necessary to make a university great,” Cigarroa said.

Faculty members from the two universities have begun holding informal meetings, said Elizabeth Heise, the president of UT-Brownsville’s faculty senate.

“There’s a lot of anticipation of something new, and people are excited,” she said.

Recently, rather than designing a new university, much of the work at UT-Brownsville has been dismantling an old one. For the last two decades, the university has operated with Texas Southmost College, a two-year school, as a single entity. That partnership recently unraveled. The completion of the split will come no later than 2015, so the university is in the process of vacating the property owned by Texas Southmost College.

On the final day of May, Heise and her UT-Brownsville colleagues packed up their offices and turned in their keys. Most faculty members will be without offices for the summer as they are moved to a new nearby campus that the UT System plans to expand. For others, it was a final farewell — the university previously announced that 89 faculty positions had been eliminated because of the split.

How and where departments will be combined and operated is still unclear. “We don’t have any of that information,” Heise said. “That’s work I expect to be doing in the next few months. I hope there are answers when we come back in the fall.”

“It’s going to be very difficult for a while,” Juliet García, the president of UT-Brownsville, said of the split, which largely prompted plans for the new university, something she said “changes our trajectory in such a magnificent way.”

She added that issues that may seem trivial, like the university’s new name and mascot, would be watched closely. “You can kind of define yourself by your name,” García said. “Is it going to be a geographical limitation or is it going to be an expansion?”

In 2012, UT-Brownsville’s vote to determine a new mascot — Texas Southmost kept the Scorpions — yielded its highest student voter turnout of all time. They chose the Ocelots.

The students at UT-Pan American are the Broncs. “Somebody suggested the new university should be the Broncelots,” García said. “That’s terrible.”

Nelsen also acknowledged that the loss of UT-Pan American’s identity would be difficult.

“I fell in love with Pan Am, and it hurts to think we’ll lose its name,” he said. “It’s a great name because it’s about spanning the Americas and it means something. But we’ve never really succeeded in doing that, and now we’ll have a chance and the funds to really do it.”

Most of the decisions, including who — Nelsen, García or someone else — will be named president, will be up to the board of regents. Cigarroa said he expected they would go through “an inclusive process where everybody is able to contribute their input.”

And lawmakers’ work on the matter did not end entirely with the recent session.

Although SB 24 passed, a bill authorizing nearly $200 million in bonds for construction projects at UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American did not.

With a special session in progress, there is hope the bond proposals could be revived. That is up to Perry, who determines which issues lawmakers can consider in the 30-day period.

Other issues, like the need for the creation of new taxing districts to help support the medical school, will also be evaluated during the interim, with the intent to address them in the next regular session.

“Probably 90 percent of our job is done, unless the governor vetoes the budget,” state Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said of his fellow lawmakers.

“We’ve completed phase one, which is a giant step forward, and I’m so glad to be a part of it. People may never remember, but that’s okay. I know what we accomplished.”

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