McALLEN — The new regional university for South Texas could mean much more than the creation of a medical school for the Rio Grande Valley, but the road to potential national status won’t come immediately.
If University of Texas System leaders have their way, the merger between UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville will bring about a national-level research institution — complete with academic and economic multipliers as well as more funding sources. The status is coveted by Texas lawmakers because there are only three Tier One schools in the state.
The UT System on Monday said it would not speculate on a timeline for the regional university as the bill is still in the process of clearing the Legislature and must be signed by Gov. Rick Perry to become law.
“At that point, the chancellor and his team will begin putting together a timeline and get into the brass tacks of making this mission a reality,” according to a UT System statement.
UTPA and UTB referred all questions regarding the new university to the UT System.
For the System’s part, achieving the first step to the national status known as Tier One is an apparent certainty as expressed in its statement.
“It has always been the goal of Chancellor (Francisco) Cigarroa and the Board of Regents for this university to be a Tier I research university,” the statement said. “It will be an emerging research university and the Board of Regents is committed to providing the support necessary to set the institution on the path to Tier I status.”
However, the road to Tier One isn’t simple or necessarily quick. First, the new university must qualify for emerging research status.
The Valley university must “jump through a few hoops” to get there via mandatory and optional criteria, said Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board spokesman Dominic Chavez. The former includes being granted emerging status governed by THECB rules and sustaining at least $45 million in restricted research expenditures for two consecutive years. UT officials have said the merged university will have $11 million in research expenditures.
But, once that emerging designation is achieved, it would allow the Valley university access to a $262.5 million annual state fund set aside to essentially act as Tier One seed money. The THECB oversees the fund, known as the National Research University Fund, so named because it is expected to help propel institutions to the national level known as Tier One.
“They’re in a much stronger position as a combined institution than they are separately,” Chavez said of UTPA and UTB.
A medical school isn’t one of the criteria, though it would help because it’s certain to generate more research dollars.
“There’s not a ‘Check the box … if you have a medical school, you’re an emerging research (university),’” he said, adding that some have speculated the combined funding would help reach that status.
UT-Austin, Texas A&M and Rice University, a private institution, are the only established Tier One schools in the state.
While state lawmakers have tried to lure businesses from California by promising friendly regulations, the Golden State has beaten Texas thus far with nine Tier One schools. New York and Pennsylvania, though they have smaller populations, also have more such institutions.
“Texas is obviously trying to close the gap in terms of university prestige,” Chavez said, citing the national research conducted at Tier One schools. “We are trailing states like California pretty significantly in that arena.”
There are currently eight emerging research institutions in Texas. The annual THECB report on their fund, released in February 2013, noted six of them did not meet the $45 million research spending requirement.
Once merged, the new university will enjoy a boon in access to the UT System’s $13.9 billion Permanent University Fund, the endowment built through oil and gas revenues used for programs that range from construction to faculty retention.
Jacqueline Armendariz covers education for The Monitor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4434 or on Twitter, @jarmendariz.
A Tier One university is a high-performing campus nationally competitive with its research. The UT System said while there is no strict definition, generally such institutions count more than $100 million in annual federal research expenditures. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, or THECB, has established a tier system for the 35 public universities in Texas. Only UT-Austin and Texas A&M are Tier One schools, meaning they have research expenditures of at least $150 million per year and at least 100 doctorates awarded annually in at least 15 disciplines, the UT System said.
The next tier is emerging research universities. There are eight in Texas. The state National Research University Fund helps support emerging research schools trying to reach Tier One status. Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment to use existing funds for the establishment of the $262.5 million annual NRUF in 2009.
CRITERIA TO ACCESS NRUF FUNDING:
>> Emerging research university
>> $45 million in restricted research expenditures for two consecutive years
>> Endowment funds
>> Number of Ph.D.s
>> Freshman class of high academic achievement
>> Institutional recognition of research capabilities and scholarly attainment
>> High-quality faculty
>> High quality graduate education
Source: UT System and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board