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In Rio Grande Valley, Perry Signs South Texas University Bill

In two emotional events Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry ceremonially signed a bill that will create a new university in the Rio Grande Valley. He also addressed demands to add bonds for campus construction to the special session agenda.

Gov. Rick Perry, r, with Presidents Dr. Juliet Garcia and Dr. Robert Nelsen at the ceremony at the former UT-Pan Am in Edinburg, TX on July 16, 2013.

BROWNSVILLE — In two emotional ceremonies — one at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and the other at the University of Texas at Brownsville — Gov. Rick Perry ceremonially signed a bill that will merge the two institutions to create a new university that includes a medical school and spans the Rio Grande Valley.

The passage of Senate Bill 24 was among the most heralded accomplishments of the regular session, and a number of lawmakers attended both ceremonies, which also featured leaders of the universities and the University of Texas System.

Perry described the ceremonial signing — he officially signed SB 24 on June 14 — as "one of the greatest moments in my governorship."

Despite the excitement, few new details were offered about the university. Officials expect the name to be announced by the end of the year. In the meantime, the system is using the moniker "Project South Texas" to refer to the initiative.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa called the new university a "work in progress," noting that a transition team led by UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen and UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia has begun the planning process. He said that group would collaborate with faculty and staff.

And to get broader input, Cigarroa also announced that he will be hosting town hall meetings around the Valley in the coming month.

Some details are known: The medical school plans to admit its first students in 2016. The doors of the new university are projected to open in 2015, and the first diplomas emblazoned with the name of the institution are expected to be handed out that December. Students currently enrolled in either UT-Brownsville or UT-Pan American will be automatically admitted.

The initial student population is projected to be around 28,000, and UT System Board Chairman Gene Powell predicted that "in a few short years," it would grow to be among the state's largest universities and the country's largest Hispanic-serving institution.

The new institution will be eligible from money from the Permanent University Fund, one of the largest higher-education endowments in the country. Only certain universities in the UT System and Texas A&M University System have access to the fund, and historically UT's institutions in the Valley have been excluded.

In a board of regents meeting last week, the regents dedicated PUF money to the region for the first time to help lay the groundwork for a campus expansion in Brownsville. In that same meeting, they approved a list of broad guiding principles for the new university. An example: "Become a global leader in higher education, health education, bio-medical research, emerging technology and preparing students to be lifelong learners."

"It's one thing to have the vision," Perry said in Edinburg, signaling to the lawmakers and administrators on stage with him. "It's also another thing to help that vision along with the money, and these individuals understood that."

The new university also stands to benefit significantly from a bill that would issue tuition revenue bonds for campus construction projects. Such a bill did not make it through the legislative process, despite broad support, in the regular session.

Despite requests from lawmakers to add the issue to the special session call so that they can pass it, Perry has yet to do so. He has called for lawmakers to consider abortion restrictions, sentencing requirements for 17-year-old convicted murderers, and transportation funding. Legislation on two of the three issues is waiting for his signature.

"Once we get the transportation issue addressed and finalized," Perry told reporters when asked if he might add TRBs, "then we can have a conversation about whether or not there are any other issues that we have the time and inclination to put on the call."

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who attended the events and has been pushing for a TRB bill for the last three regular sessions, was encouraged after his remarks. "It left the door open," she said, "so I am very cautiously optimistic that he will add TRBs to the call if the three bills are passed."

She noted that there is precedent: Perry added TRBs to a special session in 2006 — the last time the Legislature funded campus construction projects — after his priority agenda items were passed.

Whether that happens or not, the Valley is preparing for significant returns on the investment in the new university. Perry said the region had the potential to become the "epicenter for growth in America."

UT-Pan American student government president Aaron Barreiro acknowledged that there were tough decisions still to be made as the two institutions merge, but encouraged his fellow students not to get too worked up over them. He said of the new university, whatever its name ends up, "It's going to bring to us hope and a positive mind-set."

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Higher education Judith Zaffirini Rick Perry