The Rio Grande Valley may be getting a new university — sort of.
At Thursday's meeting of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced a major plan to consolidate its existing institutions in the region to create a new university with its own medical school. Regents unanimously supported the plan.
The system already has a strong presence in the Valley, with universities in Brownsville and Edinburg and a regional academic health center in Harlingen. The system has been engaged in an effort to leverage these assets into a full-fledged medical school.
"Maybe we were thinking too small," Cigarroa said of the system's previous approach.
Progress on a new medical school could be helped if the facility were attached to an institution with the size and capacity to grow into a major research university. Neither UT-Brownsville nor UT-Pan American is designated as an "emerging research university" by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a prerequisite for gaining access to extra state incentive funds set aside to grow more tier-one research institutions.
But when the existing universities and the health center are combined, in an institution that Cigarroa referred to as a "University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley," a new university with campuses in Edinburg, Brownsville and Harlingen and an administrative headquarters in McAllen would probably be eligible for that tier-one race.
If it is created, the new university would start out with nearly 28,000 students, 1,500 faculty members and 3,700 staff. It would have research expenditures of $11.4 million and an endowment of about $70.5 million. The system projects that it would create about 7,000 jobs with an average salary of $63,000.
In order to become a reality, it would also require support of two-thirds of the Legislature, which Cigarroa acknowledged would be a challenge. "Of course, there are risks to launching any enterprise of this scale," he said.
In addition to his request for approval to pursue the vision for a unified university, Cigarroa asked the regents to allocate an additional $100 million over the next 10 years to help the effort to convert the regional academic health center into a medical school.
Scott Kelley, the system's executive vice chancellor for business affairs, said he was comfortable with the finances of the plan and projected long-term cost savings of up to $6 million in the elimination of redundancies between the existing institutions. He said that no additional money from the state would be required to create the new university.
Ken Shine, the system's executive vice chancellor for health affairs, said additional funding would still be needed for the new medical school.
The proposal for a new consolidated university that includes a medical school was also endorsed by Juliet Garcia, president of UT-Brownsville, and Robert Nelsen, president of UT-Pan American. Nelsen spoke passionately about saving lives in the region. "We can do it if we unify the Valley, and with this vision we are talking about unifying the Valley," he said.
Gene Powell, the chairman of the board of regents, encouraged the other regents to support the proposal. "It is a rare opportunity for us to do something that's not been able to be done for a hundred years," he said.