Hidalgo County endorses university merger - The Monitor: News

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Hidalgo County endorses university merger

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Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 6:30 pm

Hidalgo County commissioners endorsed a plan to merge South Texas’ two universities by saying it would make the new institution a “top tier place for higher education in the Valley.”

Commissioners adopted a resolution Tuesday in support of the proposed merger between the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas-Brownsville, creating a new, unnamed university that will eventually be a home to a South Texas medical school. Although UT System regents approved the merger of their two southernmost institutions in early December, the plan still requires the support of two-thirds of the state Legislature.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said the merger will have a “tremendous impact on the local economy” by clearing the way for funding from the state’s Permanent University Fund, or PUF, an endowment grown through revenues from state-owned land.

Garcia served on the Pan American University’s board of regents prior to its 1989 merger with the University of Texas System and recalled the board’s challenges in securing state appropriations back then.

“If we got a few million bucks, we would be out there celebrating,” Garcia said, adding that the proposed merger could change the face of the university by making it eligible for PUF funding.

“The more years that go by, the greater amount of money that is going to be spent and research conducted,” Garcia said. “I see it as a win-win for the healthcare community, the residents of the county and the residents of Texas.”

UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa unveiled the proposal at a Dec. 6 regents meeting where it was unanimously approved. The plan will create a new university with locations in Brownsville, Harlingen, Edinburg and McAllen, and regents also approved $100 million in funding over the next decade to further develop a South Texas medical school.

As a new higher education institution, the university would be eligible for PUF funding and would match UT’s other regional universities in student population, research expenditures and endowments.

UTPA President Robert Nelsen told commissioners the merger would reorganize the campuses as an emerging research institution, eligible for more funding sources such as the National Research University Fund, the Texas Research Incentive Plan and matching UT System money. Preliminary data estimates show that the new university would generate more than 10,000 jobs paying roughly $63,000 annually.

PUF funding could also go toward constructing new buildings, a priority in Edinburg, where the last on-campus building was constructed in 2001 despite student population growth.

“The impact will go on and on,” Nelsen told commissioners. “More importantly, all of those kids that are being born right now (in the Valley), we’ll have the bricks and mortar to educate them and we’ll have the distance education classes for them.”

South Texas legislators are drafting a bill to finalize the merger.

State Rep. Aaron Peña, a retiring member of the Valley’s delegation, said the chance to access PUF funds and move to Tier One status as a research institution is an “enormous opportunity.”

“We quite frankly deserve it,” said Peña, who was at the county’s weekly meeting to receive recognition for his 10 years in the state House. “We’ve been neglected for years upon years, so I agree we need to come together and make this thing happen.”

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Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at jjanes@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4424.

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