EDINBURG — Robert Nelsen, the president of the University of Texas-Pan American, does not like to think of the 85-year-old institution he has run since January 2010 being abolished by the Legislature.
But he intends to spend much of the 2013 legislative session encouraging lawmakers to do just that. “I hate that word,” he said recently from his office in this Rio Grande Valley town. “But that’s the technical word you have to use. 'Abolish.'”
Nelsen’s partner in this effort is Juliet García, the president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, who will make a similar push to put an end to her institution as it currently exists.
Both presidents have endorsed an ambitious plan by University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to consolidate their respective colleges and create a single university with multiple Valley campuses, including new administrative offices in McAllen. But it will be Texas lawmakers who determine if the plan — which would also incorporate a proposed medical school and tap into significant state financing sources that the two Valley universities are currently barred from accessing — is too good to be true.
The proposal requires the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. Such a hurdle can probably be cleared only with a strong, unified push from the Valley delegation, which has a tradition of bitter rivalries.
“The Valley has suffered a great deal from a nonregional mind-set,” García said. “The world has thought about us as one, but we’ve acted like Friday night football.”
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, conceded that such an attitude has been a hindrance in the past. “That exists. It’s a natural thing,” Lucio said. “This is a dream come true because it affords us an opportunity to come together as a delegation to work on a common cause.”
There have been early indications of a unified front. In December, Lucio and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, were in attendance when the UT System regents approved Cigarroa’s plan. But Hinojosa appears to be approaching the idea with more hesitancy.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” he said. “It feels like it’s being rushed. The idea and the vision is good, but there are unanswered questions. What is the structure? What does it look like?”
Details are sketchy, but UT System officials say the potential payoff is significant. They predict that the new university would have about 28,000 undergraduate students (there are currently about 8,600 at Brownsville and about 19,000 at Pan Am), research expenditures exceeding $11 million and an endowment of more than $70 million. They forecast that the new endeavor would create roughly 7,000 jobs.
It is expected that such a university would meet the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s criteria for classification as an “emerging research” institution, allowing it to compete for extra state incentive funds.
Perhaps most importantly, in the legislation creating the university, lawmakers can give it access to the Permanent University Fund, a major source of money that the Texas Constitution only allows some UT System and Texas A&M University System institutions to use.
Adding existing universities to the recipient list requires a constitutional amendment, which means a public vote, but a new university can be granted access by the Legislature at the time of its creation.
The only UT schools that do not receive money from the fund are UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American, which García compared to “running a race barefoot while everyone else is wearing tennies.”
The hardship of operating without access to the fund has been made more acute since the unraveling of UT-Brownsville’s partnership with Texas Southmost College in 2010. The institutions had operated as one for 20 years, and their split created a need for a new UT campus in the area, but there are few resources.
While examining options for moving forward in Brownsville, Cigarroa has also been striving to piece together another expensive proposition: converting the system’s Regional Academic Health Center based in Harlingen, currently a branch campus of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, into a full-fledged medical school.
He said that the students might benefit from a more regional mind-set.
“Having three separate universities that are not adequately aligned and are sometimes competing with each other does not foster the synergy we want to provide for students,” Cigarroa said. “That’s the simple thing to do, but that’s not what’s going to transform South Texas.”
But a single, regional university with the research capacity to support its own medical school could solve many problems, and would be strategically well positioned at the intersection of two continents. “This is an opportunity to think out of the box and do it right,” he said.
The merging of UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American and the establishment of the medical school will move through the legislative process separately. The former will not require any extra financing, increasing its chances of success, but the UT System is asking lawmakers for $20 million for the medical school.
Nelsen is confident that both proposals will pass and has encouraged people to picture them as a single initiative, because, he said, one without the other “wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”
“It needs to work together as a whole unit,” he said. Without the medical school, “we wouldn’t be able to do the research we need to do.”
As for who would lead the new university, he said that will not be decided until after the bill is passed. “I stay up at night wondering how it’s all going to work,” he said. “I think all of us do. But mostly, I smile.”
The initiative has rocketed to the top of the UT System’s legislative agenda, in part because the system’s chancellor and board chairman are both South Texas natives. It has initial support from key lawmakers from other regions, as well.
Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the House Higher Education Committee chairman, said: “It sounds like an opportunity to take lemons from the UT-Brownsville situation and turn it into lemonade for the whole Valley. But it’s early, so I will keep an open mind.”
Outgoing Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, said the issue would be a major test for the region’s nascent unity.
“Quite frankly, if politicians don’t put aside their differences and make this happen, there will be an accounting,” Peña said. “The Valley wants this, needs it, and it is too big an opportunity to fall by the wayside. It would be a monument to our inadequacy if it failed.”