It certainly had the look of an historic occasion: packed auditorium, nice video presentation, enough dignitaries to field a football team and then some.
Even the governor showed up. Surrounded by Rio Grande Valley legislators, University of Texas System officials and local university heads onstage at the Texas Southmost College Arts Center, Rick Perry did what he came to do: Affix his signature to legislation that creates a new university and medical school in the Valley via a merger between the University of Texas at Brownsville and UT-Pan American under the UT System umbrella.
Perry said the result would be “one of the next great universities in America.” UTB President Juliet V. Garcia credited the governor’s support for the idea as propelling the legislation forward.
Meanwhile, local political and economic development leaders predicted the new university and medical school would boost the economies and brighten the futures of Brownsville and the Valley.
Fred Rusteberg, president and CEO of IBC bank in Brownsville, said Tuesday’s signing was historic primarily because for the first time it gives the Valley access to the state’s rich Permanent University Fund. That’s no small thing in that it gives the new university the means to develop serious infrastructure and become a major economic driver.
“The university and TSC are economic engines,” Rusteberg said. “I look at them as factories in a sense, that they produce earnings capability and successful careers.”
He said the split between TSC and UTB seemed at first like a bad thing, but then new possibilities were revealed — namely the merger.
“We always have to look at these events as opportunities to improve,” Rusteberg said. “I think we have to keep open minds, and we want both TSC as well as UTB to flourish and be successful.”
Mayor Tony Martinez said creation of the new university is “beyond monumental.”
“I think this is going to have a major impact within a short period of time,” he said.
Without access to PUF funds, Valley universities have been like kids staring through the candy store window, he said. Now those kids will get a seat at the counter too.
“You basically start a different conversation,” Martinez said. “It’s about higher learning — just what it says. Now you’ve got an enhanced opportunity with a university of this nature.”
UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, who came up with the idea of the merger based on input from UT System Special Council Steve Collins, said it’s all about improving quality of life in the Valley and increasing opportunities for the next generation.
He predicted that the assets and resources of both campuses will grow with the establishment of the new university.
Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, said the new university would establish economic and community partnerships and international partnerships, and actively engage with business and industry.
“This will not just be a university,” he said. “This will be a university of the 21st century.”
Powell predicted the new university will become one of the biggest in the state and the country’s largest Hispanic-serving institution.
The new medical school, meanwhile, will help “improve the economic vibrancy of the region” as well as address the Valley’s physician shortage, he said.
Angela Burton, outgoing president and CEO of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, said the sheer fact of PUF access signals a “big economic boost,” not to mention research dollars and the attraction of new students.
Even more profound, she said, will be the effect on the local workforce, which will make Brownsville and the Valley more attractive to new business.
“Probably the biggest thing is just the human capital side of what a grand university will bring, because to me that has the biggest economic impact,” Burton said.