Despite looming changes for the University of Texas at Brownsville, President Juliet V. Garcia said she is positive the coming transformation will benefit students and the community.
With the start of the state legislative session Tuesday in Austin, the question is: When will a bill be introduced that will establish the Rio Grande Valley’s regional emerging research university — approved by the UT System Board of Regents in December — and provide the school access to the Permanent University Fund?
“Part of what we’re looking at is what kind of dollars might be available for UT going forward,” Garcia said. “If the legislation passes, that would merge us with UT-Pan American, then we would have access to the Permanent University Fund.”
The PUF uses a portion of state oil and gas revenues to fund higher education in the Texas.
“We anticipate a bill being introduced in the Texas House fairly early in the session,” said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, executive director of public affairs for the UT System. “The Board of Regents made their intentions clear in December with their action granting the chancellor the authority to move forward with plans to establish a new university in South Texas. They believe strongly in this mission.”
Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who is sponsoring a bill in the House of Representatives that will create the new institution, said the draft is in its third revision and is a long way from being presented.
Representatives from the Rio Grande Valley will meet this morning in Austin “to review the current draft,” Oliveira said. “We hope to file something within the next 10 days,” he added.
Garcia and UTPA President Robert Nelsen have read the first version of the bill, she said, and are working with Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa.
“Dr. Cigarroa, our chancellor, has been wonderful about including us in the process,” Garcia said. “He didn’t just present it to us. He asked us if it was a good idea.”
Garcia said she is prepared to travel to Austin to testify in support of the bill if necessary.
“There are many challenges, and I have warned leaders in the Valley that we can’t turn this into a Friday football mentality,” Oliveira said. “We don’t need to worry who’s going to win this game; we’re all going to be winners in the Valley.”
In order for the school to become a reality, its legislation needs approval by two-thirds of both houses in the Texas Legislature, which could prove difficult, Oliveira said.
“I’m also concerned there are also some tea party members who are really unpredictable,” Oliveira said. “I’m concerned they don’t want to see any new spending or any new projects, no matter how worthy they are.”
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who has co-authored a bill with Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said they would file the Senate bill to go to committee today.
“The quicker we have a hearing on these bills, the better it will be for us,” Lucio said.
Lucio said a school of this magnitude would capitalize on the biculturalism in the Valley.
“We can’t pass anything without their support,” Lucio said of his colleagues in the senate. “Also, any-thing they need attention to, financially or funding-wise, they’re going be looking to us for the support they need as well. I describe it as a give and take.”
Still, whether or not the legislature pulls through, Garcia said she is forging on with plans for the cam-pus.
In case the merger with UTPA does fall through, Garcia said an alternative route is being prepared.
“Merger or non-merger, either way I’m being tasked to help design a university of the future,” she said.
The challenge of acquiring property for the future UTB campus is something administrators are working on now, she said.
“There’s been a lot of activity and no decision yet,” Garcia said.
However, UT System officials have put together a committee of members who have been visiting some sites and looking at possible properties to purchase.
She said decisions can come as soon as February and March.
“It’s a very big decision, where a university is going to sit forever,” Garcia said.