Gov. Rick Perry ceremonially signed legislation Tuesday to merge the Rio Grande Valley’s two universities and create a school of medicine here, saying an emphasis on education in the border region will position it as an “epicenter for economic growth” in the state.
In two separate ceremonies staged at the University of Texas System’s campuses in Edinburg and Brownsville, Perry said the state’s U.S.-Mexico border area was often overlooked in the past by state and federal lawmakers who failed to see its potential.
But Perry said recent developments — including the new medical school and Interstate 69 coming to the Valley as well as the potential development of a SpaceX launch site in Cameron County — indicate that trend is reversing.
Nothing may have more of a transformational impact than the UT System’s increased investment in South Texas, Perry said, recounting a speech he once gave to Starr County’s top young students at which he learned that all of them were leaving the Valley to pursue college aspirations.
“We wanted them to be able to stay here (in the Valley) because we knew the potential of this place,” Perry said in his prepared remarks in UTPA’s Student Union auditorium packed with campus students, faculty, staff and alumni. “We knew the vision for the future was in the creation of an institution where they could not just dream the dreams but every dream could become a reality.”
‘THE EASY PART’
Perry’s ceremonial bill signings at the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville mark a culmination of months of progress toward developing the new university. UT System regents originally approved UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa’s ambitious plan in December to create the new university, and South Texas lawmakers passed legislation authorizing it after tense negotiations about the location of the medical school.
But Cigarroa said much work lies ahead, adding that “this has been the easy part.”
Cigarroa will begin hosting town hall meetings next month to discuss the logistics of creating the new university and to gather input from interested parties. The UT System has already begun the process of hiring a new dean for the Valley’s medical school, and it will move quickly to begin accreditation work for the new university to meet its proposed timeline.
In the meantime, a UT System transition team headed by UTPA President Robert Nelsen and UTB President Juliet Garcia will begin planning and developing the new university. The UT System has already launched a website — — to keep the Valley apprised of the changes.
Among other tasks, the UT System must gather community input to select a new name for the university — slated for regents’ approval later this year — and launch a national search for a president who will be selected by early 2014.
“We want the entire region to understand that real change is happening and this is not just talk,” Cigarroa said. “This is really about building the future but beginning that process now.”
UT regents have already approved guiding principles that, among other priorities, emphasize its bicultural and bilingual nature and promote access to higher education for Hispanic students across South Texas. At its meeting last week, regents also approved spending about $45 million to buy and exchange property with Texas Southmost College, the community college that shared a campus with the UTB until a highly publicized split in late 2011.
State Rep. Rene Oliveira, the Brownsville Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House, lauded the new university as a “game changer” for the Valley.
An initial study by the UT System found it would generate more than 10,000 jobs paying roughly $63,000 annually. The new university, based on current enrollment figures, would have a combined student population of more than 27,000 students, making it the nation’s second-largest Hispanic-serving institution.
The UT System, state lawmakers and local leaders will also continue to identify funding to re-establish the university’s Brownsville campus and make the medical school operational, the latter an endeavor that is expected to eventually entail the creation of a taxing district here.
The UT System’s proposed timelines give all stakeholders a chance to get ready, said the Senate bill’s author, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
“It will not happen overnight,” said Hinojosa, a graduate of what was then known as Pan American University. “It’s a complicated process, but everything is in a plan of action that is being implemented as we speak.”
That includes UTPA’s transition toward a new name and the new university.
Once the new university comes online in the fall of 2015, degrees previously conferred by UTB and UTPA will continue to be honored, but on-campus students will suddenly be part of the new institution.
The transition isn’t all that dissimilar to UTPA’s prior evolutions, said Nelsen, referencing its prior stops as the two-year Edinburg Junior College, the addition of Pan American College and Pan American University when it grew to a four-year program, and its latest version as UTPA when it was added into the UT System. At each stop, Nelsen said, the university has found greater resources and graduated thousands more students — a result he expects to see again.
“The evolution has been deliberate and brought greater resources to the Valley,” Nelsen said. “We’re the final chapter for UTPA, an institution that I love.”