Updated, 6:40 p.m.:
The University of Texas System's plans for a new university and medical school in the Rio Grande Valley moved another step forward Wednesday after the system's board of regents approved a nearly $50 million land deal for the new school's Brownsville campus.
At its meeting Wednesday, regents unanimously approved paying Texas Southmost College at least $44.8 million in money and property in exchange for at least 66 acres of land for the Brownsville campus. The board also approved guiding principles for the new institution, which will have a presence throughout the Valley.
Regent Ernest Aliseda and Student Regent Nash Horne, the board’s newest members, also made their debut at the meeting. New Regent Jeffrey Hildebrand, a businessman from Houston, was unable to attend the meeting because of scheduling conflicts.
Aliseda, who grew up in South Texas, said the Valley's residents would benefit greatly from the university. He added that such a university would have inspired him to stay at home for his education instead of going to Texas A&M University for his undergraduate degree and then the University of Houston for his law degree.
"From my standpoint, when I left for college I told my parents I wasn't coming back," Aliseda said. "I do think if there was an opportunity to have a school that had more programs and also more graduate degrees, I would have definitely stayed."
The deal approved by regents established a dividing line between what will soon be formerly known as the University of Texas at Brownsville and TSC, which were partners for nearly 20 years but have decided to go separate ways. With this acquisition, the Brownsville campus for the new regional university will be about 320 acres, according to the UT System.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said the agreement was a vital step forward both for the new university and for Texas Southmost College.
“This is a reality and no longer a vision,” Cigarroa said, acknowledging that the new institutions in the Valley would not be possible if the Legislature had not passed Senate Bill 24, the bill that will merge UT-Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and UT’s Regional Academic Health Science Center in Harlingen to create a new university and medical school.
Members of the Legislature who played a key role in passing SB 24, including the author, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, were also present at the meeting.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said he felt great pride to be able to work with people who cared about Texas and its future.
“I can’t thank you enough again publicly, here, today on behalf of those that we represent in South Texas,” Lucio said, “the generations that will be so fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a world-class university and medical school, a dream that I have had since 1990 when I was first elected to the Senate.”
Hinojosa acknowledged that there have been differences of opinion over the years as he and Lucio have worked on improving education in the region, but that it was all part of the process.
“Education is the best equalizer we have in our society,” Hinojosa said. “Education is the key to the success of our young people and our nation. For us this is a dream come true.”
The UT System Board of Regents will meet Wednesday to vote on a nearly $50 million agreement with Texas Southmost College that will help it secure land for a new regional university in South Texas.
The land is space that has been shared by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, which decided to part ways in 2010 after being partners for 19 years. If the UT board approves the proposed agreement, UT-Brownsville would gain at least 66 acres from Texas Southmost College in exchange for at least $44.8 million in settlement money and UT property.
SB 24, by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, passed in the regular legislative session and authorized a new regional university that will combine UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American in Edinburg into one regional university. The acquisition from TSC, along with gifts from the city and possible future land purchases, would result in a Brownsville campus of about 320 acres, according to the UT System.
If the board approves the transaction, it would be the first time it used money from the Permanent University Fund — which only certain UT System and Texas A&M University System institutions have access to — to assist UT-Brownsville.
“You’re not going to see fireworks go off, but remember the constitution established the Permanent University Fund in 1876, and it won’t be until tomorrow that the Rio Grande Valley starts to receive [funds],” said Juliet García, president of UT-Brownsville.
The UT System and UT-Brownsville would partner to pay TSC at least $28.5 million. Under the agreement, UT-Brownsville would also give TSC its science, engineering and technology building, valued at $16.3 million. Although the two institutions are splitting, they will continue to share some buildings and services for a period of time, such as the library at UT-Brownsville.
García said it is crucial the board approve the settlement because it allows both institutions to live independently side by side and to understand what each is responsible for, including infrastructure and utilities.
"We did a little bit of Monopoly game at first. We did a little bit of trading in buildings and trading in land," García said of the process. She said the dividing line between both campuses will be Ringgold Road.
"Students will be able to walk on both sides of that line and never know they're going from one campus to another," García said.
The split between the two institutions was not easy. The partnership was initially set to last 99 years until leaders decided changes were needed. In November 2010, the board agreed to sever ties between the two schools by August 2015. Some said the separation would negatively affect both schools, which would have to divide their buildings and staffs.
Representatives from TSC did not respond to calls for comment by deadline.
Although they are officially parting ways, the schools will still be neighbors and are planning to share some space and services. For instance, under the agreement, students from both institutions will have access to the recreational center and library.
“The community needs both of us to succeed, and I think we’ve made the kind of transaction we can both be proud of,” García said.