Sitting in a lavish meeting room at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen — a midpoint between Brownsville and Edinburg — Julio Leon speaks about the changes coming to the two Rio Grande Valley universities.
A few weeks ago, the University of Texas System appointed Leon as special adviser to lead the transition team in charge of consolidating the University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.
“An opportunity to create a new university that will have transformative impacts on South Texas comes only once in a lifetime,” UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa said in a press release about Leon’s appointment.
The transition team is made up of Leon, the two presidents for each university, the school’s provosts, and representatives from the UT System.
The chancellor intends to meet with Cameron County officials Sept. 24 for closed discussions about plans for the universities. Afterward, he will meet with high school students and teachers and “talk with them about what they’d like to see in a university,” UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said.
Later in the day, the chancellor will have a meeting at UTB, where he will meet with faculty, staff and students, the spokeswoman said.
A similar day of meetings will be held at UTPA in October, LaCoste-Caputo added.
As far as how many people will be employed by the new merged university and whether there will need to be any workforce reductions, Leon said the system needs to wait and see what programs will be offered when the process of merging the schools is finished before they can discuss the necessary number of faculty and staff.
“In general, when one looks at the combined faculties of the universities and compares it to other UT System institutions that are already emerging research universities — because that is what we are supposed to be working toward — it appears to me as if the number of faculty is similar in size and who knows?” Leon said. “We are going to have many new ideas, many new programs that are going to be designed because the regents want to create a new university th at will be responsive to the needs of the Valley.”
Leon called the consolidation of the two universities one-of-a-kind and “unprecedented.”
“It’s exciting and I can sense in the meetings I have had with administrators and some faculty that everybody is really excited,” Leon said. “There is a little apprehension because until they begin to participate they want to know in which direction we are going to move, but the excitement and anticipation is there because everybody realizes this is a unique opportunity.”
Leon calls the transformation process a consolidation instead of a merger.
“We have to come together and find a way in which we can consolidate because this is a consolidation; this is not a merger,” Leon said. “We don’t want to use the word ‘merger’ because a ‘merger’ implies the takeover of the other.”
The provosts for both universities, Leon said, have compiled a list of 40 working groups made up of staff and faculty that will work together to discuss their disciplines and how they can consolidate the corresponding programs at each school.
“We are going to be asking faculty to work together and begin to look into the integration of the degree programs,” Leon said.
“It’s up to the faculty to assist and help us in providing us with their ideas as to how this can be done,” he added.
Leon said he expects to have preliminary reports from each group by January or early February. During February and March, Leon expects there will be some form of discussions on the reports to put together a formal report or recommendation that will be presented in April to the chancellor and the UT System administration.
In information posted on its website, the UT System estimates that the president for the new university will be announced sometime in early 2014.
By then, the president, Leon said, would have final say on the concepts that would have been formulated by him and the transition team.
“The new president will take those concepts, those things that were suggested and he or she will inject his or her own ideas,” Leon said. “That person may want to modify change or reject some things.”
Last week, the UT System approved the establishment of an expanded search advisory committee for a presidential search for the new university in South Texas.
According to the meeting’s agenda, the search committee will be made up of:
>>Two regents to be appointed by the board chairman,
>>Two presidents from the UT System, also appointed by the chairman,
>>The executive vice chancellor for academic affairs,
>>Five faculty members, two from each of the institutions and one more from a health institution identified by the chancellor,
>>Three deans, one each from both UTB and UTPA and another from a health institution identified by the chancellor,
>>Two students, one from each university,
>>Two presidents from both UTB’s and UTPA’s alumni associations,
>>Two non-faculty employees of the schools who will be chosen by the corresponding school’s staff of employee senate ,
>>Four representatives from the institution’s external communities who have demonstrated a deep interest and support of the institution.
“The proposed changes would increase the Committee by one Regent, two faculty members, two Deans, one student, one alumni association President, one non-faculty employee and two representatives of the institutions’ external constituencies,” the agenda states.
The agenda explains because of the unique situation of consolidation the expanded committee membership acknowledges the innovative nature of the new university in the region.
For 25 years, Leon was president of Missouri Southern State University. However, he’s not new to Texas. He received his MBA from North Texas State University, but the southernmost city he traveled to was San Antonio, until a few weeks ago when he arrived in the Valley.
“I had some ideas of what the Valley was all about,” Leon said.
“I am receiving a lot of help from people... But you have a general idea of the needs just by simply looking at the demographic data and economic data,” he added.
Like Cigarroa has said, Leon also believes the new university will be transformative to the region.
“Just think, when you create a new medical school, just the infusion of funding for that and the construction that is going to be taking place on those two campuses because of the access to the Permanent University Fund,” Leon said. “You are going to be bringing more faculty; you are talking about significant economic impact by this project.”