McALLEN — Perhaps it’s fitting the first Hispanic University of Texas System chancellor is at the helm of creating what’s being billed as a transformative catalyst for the rapidly growing, predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley.
Project South Texas, the tentative name for the endeavor, will consolidate the Valley’s two existing universities to create a new institution with an integrated medical school.
There’s been much talk of the “stars aligning” from officials who, for more than a decade, have vied for a medical school in the Valley. In constructing the Valley’s new institution, Cigarroa — a 55-year-old native of Laredo — is joined by a number of officials with local ties.
Among the group: UT System Board of Regents member Ernest Aliseda, a 46-year-old McAllen native; UT System Regent Gene Powell, who is 67 and was raised in Weslaco; and UT System Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Pedro Reyes, who is 57 and originally from Pharr.
A recent reshuffling of the regents left Powell, a businessman based in San Antonio, as the Board of Regents’ vice chairman rather than chairman as he had been. Aliseda is an assistant McAllen municipal judge and managing attorney for the Loya Insurance Group. Gov. Rick Perry appointed him as a regent in February.
When it comes to Cigarroa, the significant impact of the Valley’s new institution is only one part of a greater plan. In August 2011, the chancellor presented his ambitious “Framework for Advancing Excellence” action plan for all 15 UT campuses. Project South Texas had yet to be announced, but the Valley received some $30 million to advance medical education and health opportunities under the plan.
The plan has raised Cigarroa’s profile within the state and nation, though some have reportedly criticized the framework, saying it could lead to micromanaging, according to the Texas Tribune.
A look at the background of the man leading Project South Texas shows he was raised on the U.S.-Mexico border. With sweeping, almost romantic language, the chancellor refers to the Valley as home to the “beauty and wonders of Brownsville" and the “wonders of the frontiers” when he visited UTPA as a child.
It was then that he took a bus to the UTPA planetarium, which inspired him to pursue his education, he said, and a little white hospital in Roma is where he saw his first operation — the one that would spark his interest in becoming a surgeon.
Meet Cigarroa more than once and find he usually greets others with a handshake and a smile. Though he is the CEO of a top university system and a renowned transplant surgeon who continues to operate, he is also self-effacing.
In recounting a time when he asked his own father, also an accomplished doctor, his one regret, the chancellor said with a laugh: “I was hoping it wasn’t me — thank God it wasn’t.”
His father’s answer was that he didn’t have to chance to be personally involved in educating the next generation of healthcare providers. Cigarroa said that given Project South Texas, he’s been able to fulfill that dream.
The chancellor acknowledges potential challenges that lie ahead, but is tactful in responding. When asked whether Project South Texas is part of his legacy, he responded:
“First of all, I’m not about legacy building. … It is a sense of great pride, but I can’t take credit for it because it’s been really a team effort with individuals before me and individuals to follow to make this happen.”
A third-generation doctor and one of 10 children, the chancellor graduated from Yale in 1979, then attended the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. His experience includes time practicing at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, according to the UT System.
In 1995, he became a faculty member and director of pediatric surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, later serving as president from 2000 to 2009.
Then he was named UT System chancellor. Cigarroa — who is married to Graciela, an attorney with whom he has two daughters — describes himself as a “non-traditional” candidate for the post as practicing surgeon.
His list of honors includes appointments, respectively, by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science and as a commissioner on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.
PROJECT SOUTH TEXAS
SUNDAY: GROWING PAINS
We explore the challenges surrounding the creation of a medical school and union of the Rio Grande Valley’s two universities, given the unique landscape the new institution will serve.
The new, regional, university — regardless of its name — will have a lasting impact on the Valley. We travel to San Antonio to look at how its medical school spurred new companies and innovation, and at some promising projects taking root along the border.
TUESDAY: SHARED RESOURCES
The University of Texas System is calling Project South Texas an integrated university and medical school. What will that mean for the Valley?
Catch up with all parts of the series here.