The University of North Texas System Board of Regents may be on the verge of combining the University of North Texas System Health Science Center in Fort Worth and its flagship institution, the University of North Texas in Denton.

At their upcoming August 16 board meeting, the regents will consider a proposal to study the possibility of merging the two institutions.

The talk of consolidation is part of a growing trend in Texas higher education. The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents recently approved an effort to move the Texas A&M University Health Science Center under the Texas A&M University administration. The University of Texas at Austin is pushing for the creation of a new medical school that would be overseen by the university rather than the University of Texas System.

Given this pattern, UNT System Chancellor Lee Jackson told the Tribune that the system would be “remiss” if it did not consider combining the assets of its two largest research campuses. He also noted that having a medical school under the umbrella of a research institution is the norm outside of Texas.  

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Under such an arrangement, the university’s research statistics would increase significantly, which could be a boon to its rankings.

“That is part of it,” Jackson said of the reasoning for the change. “If that were all of it, you’d do nothing except achieve a public relations victory.” He said that a combined institution would also encourage collaboration and open up grant opportunities that the schools cannot pursue separately.

Jackson said that, although the organizational chart may change, nothing would physically move out of Fort Worth or Denton, and neither community would suffer. The proposal on the agenda for the upcoming board meeting merely calls for the regents to approve the study of the concept. Jackson said he hopes that will give the communities time to consider the matter before he returns to the board in November with “at least some preliminary conclusions.”

Combining the institutions would take several steps, including review and approval by the Legislature and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. One of the biggest hurdles may be the state’s funding formulas, which consider universities and health science centers differently. If it turns out those formulas need to change — and then are not adjusted during the legisatlive session in 2013 —to make combined institutions worthwhile, it could pump the brakes on big plans around the state.

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

Not every system is taking the consolidated approach. The Texas Tech University System appears to be moving the other direction. In May, the board approved a measure to begin making the existing El Paso campus of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center a separate, stand-alone health sciences university.

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“Having a freestanding health sciences university in El Paso will be a tremendous asset to the community and will further our efforts to address the shortages of health care professionals in the region and the entire state,” Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance said in a statement at the time.

At UNT, at least for now, the institutions — except for UNT-Dallas — are hoping to hang together. In a statement, UNT President V. Lane Rawlins said, "Combining the medical and public health programs at the UNT Health Science Center with the comprehensive academic programs available at UNT in one institution would provide UNT students with a richer, more rigorous educational experience filled with even more great opportunities.”

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