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Jobs, leadership remain key unknowns in pursuit of Valley regional university

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Posted: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 12:01 am

McALLEN — At the start of 2014, the University of Texas System estimates the Rio Grande Valley will know the leader chosen to lead a new era of change through a regional university and medical school.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa called the selection of the new institution’s president the most important responsibility for the UT System Board of Regents. At least one Valley resident will have a direct vote in deciding who gets the job, of which a description has yet to be made public.

As the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville merge, there are still many unknowns. Of particular importance to the community, as the institutions are among the larger employers in the area, is what will become of existing jobs.

Cigarroa has promised input from the public would be crucial. The UT System said administrators guiding the transition will visit monthly.

Key dates include public forums that were originally set for August but were moved to Tuesday in Harlingen and Brownsville, where the chancellor will meet with local officials, high school students and the academic community. Similar forums in the UTPA area are planned for October.

In more candid terms, Pedro Reyes, UT System executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said engagement is crucial while here during the August ceremony celebrating the new institution: “Otherwise, you don’t buy into it.”

In February, after the new university was first announced — though yet to be approved by the Legislature — Gov. Rick Perry named McAllen-native attorney and assistant municipal judge Ernie Aliseda to the UT System Board of Regents.

The national search carried out by a firm for a president with leadership, vision and the ability to lead a team is already under way, Cigarroa said.

A search committee slated to recommend candidates to the regents is required to have members inclusive of the Valley, said Kenneth Shine, UT System executive vice chancellor for health affairs.

“We don’t just define leadership in a vacuum,” Cigarroa said.

The recently hired merger consultant, Julio Leon, is tasked with perhaps the more sensitive work ahead, such as reorganizing personnel, helping the campuses think regionally and “resolving all of the major challenges” related to the merger, according to his contract.

Leon last week told The Brownsville Herald that the two universities’ consolidation — a term he prefers over “merger” — is “unprecedented.”

 “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.”

Thus far, UT System officials haven’t answered questions about jobs directly. Sometimes they’ve replied almost euphemistically about what might come. Reyes said working groups of faculty and students will help develop a structure for the new institution.

“Some programs will be consolidated, which will mean some administrative streamlining,” he said.

“The focus point is not retraction,” the chancellor said in an August interview. “The focus point is growth into a vibrant university that can be a research-intensive university.”

But, in part, the breakup of the nearly 20-year partnership between UTB and Texas Southmost College has left the lingering fear of job losses. Though officials there said they expected growth as functions would be duplicated, in April UTB notified some 257 staff their jobs had been eliminated. Presumably, some were to be hired by TSC, which was building its staff mostly from scratch.

Reyes, in an email, said the two scenarios are not comparable, but that “the timing of the separation of UTB and TSC did make this an opportune moment to launch a bold new initiative.”

As for a president, the UT System chancellor added that understanding of the regional culture is an important characteristic as the institution develops into a 21st century campus acting as a “gateway to Latin America.”

UTPA President Robert Nelsen has said publicly he intends to apply, while UTB President Juliet Garcia said she has yet to decide whether she will.

It’s likely the UT System regents will name a sole finalist. Then, under state law, the board must wait 21 days to make the appointment.

Meanwhile, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is leading the search for a dean of the medical school because its current program is under that institution’s leadership, Reyes said. That means the medical school dean, once named, will be a UTHSC-SA faculty member. The dean will then be part of the new Valley university once it earns its own accreditation.

This November, officials anticipate the master planning firm hired to create the new institution will be announced.

UT System expects that throughout 2014 the university’s conceptual design will be developed as transition plans are carried out and the inaugural class is recruited.

In April 2015, the formal proposal for accreditation under the Southern Association of Colleges will be submitted and UT System expects approval by June.

That August the inaugural class is slated to enroll in the new university.

As for the degrees and programs to be offered, or whether any are at risk of being dropped, those decisions are still being evaluated by working groups with UT System leadership who are “studying the issues,” Reyes said in an August email.

“The working groups will not only be considering academic programs, but also areas like financial aid and student services,” he wrote. “This is a delicate process and will take time. It is imperative that we get this right.”

jarmendariz@themonitor.com

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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.

MONDAY:  IMPACT

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.

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