AUSTIN — Hidalgo and Cameron Counties share a river, roadways and a cultural heritage. Within the next decade, they could share a university, as well.
University of Texas regents Thursday approved a proposal to merge the University of Texas-Pan American and University of Texas-Brownsville into one regional entity on par with other emerging research institutions.
The move goes hand in hand with plans for a new South Texas medical school, which also received the go-ahead from regents and an allocation of $100 million over 10 years.
The future leadership of the institution and even its name are still unknown, but higher education leaders say access to UT System endowment funds will provide unprecedented opportunities on the campuses.
The new university, which will require approval of two-thirds of the state Legislature, would be eligible for Permanent University Funds, a $13.5 billion endowment built from investments of university land.
UTPA President Robert Nelsen said those funds will allow him to ask for construction and other items long-delayed on the Edinburg campus.
“We haven’t had a new building on our campus, except the one the students built with their own fees, in almost 11 years,” he said.
The fund also provides money for renovation of existing buildings.
“I’ll get to make those requests where I never got to make those requests before,” he said.
But the merger will also create change that goes beyond the physical spaces of the university campus. Students in Brownsville will have access to classes in the engineering program at UTPA, Nelsen said.
Students would move between the campuses based on course offerings and learning online and with other technology will be expanded, he said.
“A lot of it we’re going to make up as we go along. Let’s be very honest about that,” he said.
Elizabeth Heise, president of the UT-Brownsville faculty senate, said the merger of the two schools will formalize the fluid approach students already take to their education.
“Students move between UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American, they move between Austin and Brownsville all the time,” she said. “That’s sort of the norm around here.”
The merger signals that that movement will be easier for students in the future, she said.
While Heise, a professor of geology and oceanography, said many questions remain to be worked out, the access to Permanent University Funds will enable students with more abundant opportunities for pursuits such as research.
“It will provide the students with top-notch education without having to leave home,” she said.
The two Rio Grande Valley schools are the only UT universities without access to the funds because they were incorporated into the system after their formation. The new university will be able to apply for endowment-funded programs from construction to faculty retention.
Money from the STARS program, one of those programs, can be used for purchase of equipment or improvement of facilities to recruit and retain top faculty. UT officials see the program as crucial to bringing in a dean and associate deans for the medical school. But those tools will be available for the university, as well.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told regents the new university, based on current enrollment figures, would have a combined student population of more than 27,000 students, compared with more than 33,000 at the University of Texas-Arlington and 30,000 at UT-San Antonio. The school would also have an endowment comparable with those institutions, he said.
The combined staffs of the two universities are slightly larger than those of other comparable UT institutions, a metric Cigarroa said the system would have to examine during the transition.
He declined to specify during a news conference what kind of layoffs might take place as part of a merger.
Local elected officials have voiced their initial support for the plan. Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia said the singular university would give the Valley a stronger voice.
“There’s been a way found to erase Friday night football mentality,” Garcia said. “Here is something we all agree on.”
Discussion of the new university in the community is only just beginning after being kept under wraps by university leadership for months. Cigarroa, Nelsen, Garcia and Board of Regents chairman Gene Powell will take part in separate town hall events in Brownsville on Friday morning and in Edinburg on Friday afternoon in the UTPA Student Union Theater.
Matthew Garcia, president of the UTPA Student Government Association, said he hopes students take part in the discussion even though classes will be out for final exams.
“It presents an opportunity for the two communities really working together. I’m really excited about it,” he said.
Andrew Kreighbaum covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4472.
Follow Andrew Kreighbaum on Twitter: @akreighbaum
IF YOU GO
WHAT: UTPA-UTB merger and medical school town hall meeting with UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT System Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell, along with UTPA President Robert Nelsen and UTB President Juliet Garcia
WHERE: UTPA Student Union Theater in Edinburg
WHEN: Friday, 1:45-2:15 p.m.