Rick Macias, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Texas at Brownsville, patiently sat on a bench with his grandmother and younger brother and waited for Gov. Rick Perry’s bill signing ceremony to begin Tuesday afternoon.
Arriving more than an hour early at the Texas Southmost College Arts Center, where the ceremony took place, they sat in the lobby and listened as a marimba band serenaded those in attendance.
Macias, who studied briefly at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he returned to the Valley because the cost of living away from home was too high.
But now that Senate Bill 24 has created a new university by merging UTB and UT—Pan American, Macias said he sees it as an opportunity to continue his education in his hometown.
UT System Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell called it a moment that would “change the destiny of the region.” UTB President Juliet Garcia called it a moment that was long overdue.
“We’ve always felt and we had made a case to the system that this is wrong,” Garcia said. “How can you justify two universities not being part of the PUF (Permanent University Fund) recipients?”
But now, Garcia said, that will change.
“The new university being established today opens up a window of opportunity for thousands of students who come to us having inherited their parents’ hopes of achieving the American dream,” Garcia said during the ceremony.
Powell recalled last week’s Board of Regents meeting when he looked down at his script and “realized for the first time in history UT-Brownsville and Permanent University Fund were in the same sentence.”
The PUF, established in the 1870s, is an approximate $13 billion fund that UT schools and the Texas A&M System have access to as a resource. Until this bill’s passing, both UTB and UTPA were excluded from those funds.
According to Powell, system officials had lengthy discussions about how to bring the PUF resources to South Texas.
“The chancellor, to his credit, every week had meetings, ‘How do we take PUF money to the Valley?’” Powell said.
As one point, Powell said, lawyers cautioned that if they kept doing this, they’d end up in jail.
It wasn’t until one system lawyer, Powell said, introduced the idea of creating a new university that with the two-thirds support of the Legislature would be constitutionally allowed to tap into PUF monies.
A transition team led by the UT System Office of Academic Affairs and including both schools’ presidents — Garcia and Robert Nelsen of UTPA — has been established, UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa said.
“We intend to open doors of the university to students in fall 2015,” Cigarroa said.
During the next several months there will be more opportunities for the public’s involvement and dialogue for all stakeholders to share their vision of what the new university will be, Cigarroa said.
A search for the founding dean of the medical school is under way, Cigarroa said. The medical school was approved in 2009. It is expected to open its doors in the fall of 2016, he said.
The system, Cigarroa said, will begin having town hall meetings with faculty and staff.
“It is critically important that all stakeholders voice their opinions and their concerns,” Cigarroa said.
The assets and the resources of the current institutions will be put together to be part of the new university, he said.
“It is my very clear expectation that both campuses will grow,” Cigarroa said. According to Cigarroa, the current administrations will continue with their responsibilities.
Course credit and transcripts will transition appropriately, Cigarroa said. Degrees for the new university will begin to be awarded in December 2015, he said.
“Faculty members will work with the UT System-led transition team over the next 18 months to determine what exciting new degree programs will be offered at this new university,” Cigarroa said.
The name of the new university is unknown, but could come as soon as the end of the year, Cigarroa said. For now, officials are referring to it as Project South Texas.
‘Why not keep them here?’
Perry, who called for access to the PUF for the two Valley universities during his State of the State speech in January, called it an “honor” to be at the ceremonial signing.
He said the border region of the state has been overlooked. He spoke about an event in Starr County where he met a group of gifted students who were reaching the end of their secondary education in the Valley. Only two of them would remain at state schools, Perry said. The rest were headed for the Ivy League and Stanford University, he said.
“That moment was very clarifying for me that here were these amazing, bright, capable, young people and they were headed off to different schools,” Perry said.
“Why not keep them here?” he added.
“That was the clarifying moment for me that this state had the opportunity to really change people’s lives.”
Though the bill was officially signed by Perry on June 14 after a tumultuous discussion to reach a compromise of where the medical school should be located, many Valley lawmakers and UT System officials flanked the governor as he signed the bill Tuesday.
It took the course of a decade to fulfill that quest, Perry said.
“A lot of people get up everyday and question what we are doing, ‘What am I doing in life that makes a difference?’” Perry said. “They don’t have to worry because they know that what they have done with this university in South Texas is forever going to make a difference in the lives of men and women that are going to have the opportunity to go to school.”
Tuition revenue bonds
Perry praised Valley lawmakers for their work to get the legislation passed in support of higher education in the state. However, one proposal that was not approved during the regular session was tuition revenue bonds that would give schools the funds to improve infrastructure and buildings on campus.
Lawmakers have called for tuition revenue bonds to be included in the special session, with the House Appropriations Committee approving it in committee last week.
However, Perry said he would only begin a discussion on the bonds after abortion, transportation funding and legislation that would establish a mandatory life sentence with parole for a capital felony committed by a 17-year-old offender are complete.
“There were three things that I put on the call and when all three of those things are on my call and on my desk then we can have a conversation about TRBS,” Perry said.
Included in the bill’s language are funds of $100 million for UTB’s new campus and approximately $80 million for a new science building at UTPA.
Although the PUF dollars would buffer some of the expenses UTB will have for its campus, Garcia said, the TRBs would make a huge difference for the school.
‘Kind of saddening’
Macias, the UTB student, said he enjoyed everything he heard.
“It will be a great university. It makes me feel like it will be a good place to study at,” Macias said. “They sounded very motivated and enthusiastic about it.”
However, Macias did say he lamented the fact that UTB and UTPA were ineligible for the PUF for so long.
“It’s kind of saddening in a way to know our schools could be better. I don’t know how much better,” he said, “but we could have had more funding.”