The first House Higher Education Committee hearing on a bill to create a new University of Texas System school in the Rio Grande Valley was marked by broad support for the measure from legislators and academic officials Wednesday.
House Bill 1000, authored by state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, would allow the UT System to combine the resources of the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and a regional academic health center in Harlingen to create a new regional university in the Rio Grande Valley.
The new institution, which would include a medical school, would have access to money from the Permanent University Fund, a major source of revenue that only some public universities can access. Neither UT-Brownsville nor UT-Pan American currently has such access.
“This isn’t just good for South Texas, it is good for Texas,” Oliveira told the committee Wednesday. “I can’t think of anything I’ve ever authored in my 29 years in the Legislature that will have as much impact as this."
Oliveira lauded the other members of the Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation, the committee and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa for their work to move the bill forward.
Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, co-authored the legislation, which remains in committee.
Cigarroa said the 15 institutions in the UT System are behind the plan and that students, faculty and staff at both Valley schools have passed resolutions in support of it.
After being appointed chancellor in 2009, Cigarroa said, “The very first retreat I had with the presidents, all 15 united in saying we have to plant a larger flag in South Texas.”
The university would transform education, health care and the job landscape in the region, he added.
An emphasis on math, science and health professions that exists among students and prospective students is critical to the success of the Valley, Oliveira said. The doctor-to-patient ratio in the valley is about half the national average, he said.
Access to PUF funds would allow the the region to take full advantage of its academic potential for the first time, said Robert Nelsen, the president of UT-Pan American.
For example, the university produces about 50 physician's assistants each year, but they get many more qualified applicants who can't be admitted because of space and resource constraints, he said. A new university and more financial resources would allow South Texas to educate more physician's assistants and infuse the region with much needed health care providers.
“At UT-Pan American, we have 129 gross square feet for every one of our students,” Nelsen said. “At UT-El Paso, they have 203 gross square feet. At Austin, they have 355 gross square feet. Why do we have so little? Because we’ve never had access to PUF.”
The House and Senate must pass the bill with a two-thirds majority in order to grant the new university access to the PUF. In his State of the State address, Gov. Rick Perry backed the proposal and urged lawmakers to be sure and reach that two-thirds support.