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After 20 Years, a Messy Divorce in Brownsville

As the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, which have operated as one institution for 20 years, prepare to separate, major questions concerning logistics and governance remain to be answered.

Students cross a bridge over a resaca on the University of Texas Brownsville and Texas Southmost College campuses on Monday.

BROWNSVILLE — This weekend, along the border’s southern tip, homecoming at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College will be bittersweet for many. It will be one of the last, at least for the unique partnership between a community college and upper division university that operated as one institution for 20 years.

“Everything this year is going to be that way,” said Juliet V. García, who has been the only president in the history of the joint institution.

The partnership was conceived in 1991 as a cost-effective way to attract upper-level degree programs to one of the state’s most underserved regions. Often referred to as a “community university,” UTB/TSC had open admissions like a community college, but allowed students to seamlessly continue toward a bachelor’s degree or beyond.

One year ago, the regents of the University of Texas System voted unanimously to terminate the longstanding arrangement by 2015 or sooner, citing a lack of responsiveness from the community college board, which did not fight the decision.

Since that time, faculty, students and administrators said they have gone through the various stages of the mourning process for the institution. Now, as the schools prepare to divide into a separate community college and four-year university, there is much that still needs to be resolved.

“It’s a divorce. I don’t know how else to put it,” said David Oliveira, a trustee on the TSC board who opposed the split. “We’re dividing up the assets. And the children of this divorce are the students.”

Even the institution’s shared mascot is a casualty of the separation: Students that end up at the community college, which predated the partnership by about 65 years but now must be reaccredited, will continue to be Scorpions. A competition is underway to select a new mascot for the university. Starting this week, students are being asked for the first time to identify with one side when they register for classes so that future enrollment number can be gauged.

The institutions are interwoven at every level, even subterranean. University facilities currently provide power to college-owned buildings.. Detailed inventory is currently being taken of each side’s holdings, down to who purchased each piece of furniture, with dissection set to begin early next year.

The faculty members, all of whom are currently considered employees of the university, also will have to be separated. For some, based on the courses they teach, their ultimate affiliation is a foregone conclusion, but many occupy a gray area.

“I think that at the end of the day, if we can project to 2020, it will all turn out good. But will there be hurt feelings along the way? Absolutely,” said Elizabeth Heise, president of the UTB/TSC’s Academic Senate, adding that many of her colleagues have put their houses up for sale.

Lily Tercero, the newly selected TSC president, said issues such as tenure and contractual obligations are being studied. By February, she expects to announce what programs the community college intends to offer. “We’re dealing with people’s lives, and we care about people’s lives,” she said. “We want to be sure that we do what we can to be fair and equitable.”

Some have questioned the advisability of trying to stretch resources at a time when state support of higher education is dwindling. As Fred Rusteberg, a local bank president, said, “Our region has very few resources, so we cannot afford to make a mistake.”

Francisco “Kiko” Rendon, the current TSC board chairman who ran on a platform of lowering costs for community college students, said, “A year and a half from now when we start publishing the new tuition rates, the community will start realizing why those painful changes took place.”

Rendon said higher education in the area would benefit from the split. “They needed it to raise their level of excellence,” he said of UTB, “and we needed it to be able to refocus on the basic community college mission, because it was being forgotten.”

García also sees opportunity. She hopes to see a modern four-year university built that produces, among other things, top-quality teachers and bi-literate graduates. Francisco Cigarroa, the UT System chancellor, has also made the development of UTB one of his top priorities, and the system’s regents have recently invested more than $30 million in the area.

The university will also tighten its admission policies. Mary Rose Cardenas, a former TSC board chairwoman who helped craft the original partnership, predicted open admissions would be the greatest loss to the community as the relationship between the institutions changes.

The exact nature of that relationship remains one of the biggest questions. While many on both sides anticipate a positive interaction, it will depend on the same personalities that led to the split in the first place. “If we can keep it objective and rational, then it will be one level of negotiations,” García said. “If it gets emotional and subjective and vindictive, then the rules are all out the window.”

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