BROWNSVILLE — University of Texas System officials pleaded Thursday with regional educators, business leaders and national philanthropists to not let their investment in the Rio Grande Valley go to waste.
In August, the UT System Board of Regents committed $30 million to Valley universities to plant the seeds of a medical school, draw and train high-quality professors and teachers and much more.
But at the closing of the System’s first Vista Summit at UT-Brownsville, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa suggested the board’s goal to expand the quality of education along the U.S.-Mexico border would crumble without local, state and national leaders’ partnership.
“(Let’s) create a new life cycle that will profoundly improve the quality of life for everyone in this part of Texas,” Cigarroa said. “I am asking all of you to become equal partners in improving the prosperity and vitality of this region and therefore our state.
“Walk away with a conviction that you can make a difference if you … support the programs and initiatives that will enrich the quality of life for our children.”
And audience members got an earful all day of the types of efforts Valley school districts, colleges and civic organizations can — or already do — put forth to fulfill that mission.
Bruce Katz, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank, outlined the need for the largest U.S. metropolitan areas — like Brownsville and Greater McAllen — to lead the nation in an evolving economy that rewards innovation and global relations.
Growing metro areas make this easy, he added, considering their accumulation of advanced research institutions, entrepreneurs, responsive government, schools and colleges, skilled labor and more.
Katz said one way to harness the “synergistic effect” of those parts lies in Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s presentation that universities, acting as “anchor institutions,” can bring nonprofit groups, city and state agencies, private industry and school districts together to transform a community.
“The role of higher education is changing, particularly as these ‘anchors’ … iconic, distinctive parts of your town,” said Katz, who called UTB President Juliet Garcia and UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen “exceptional” leaders in this regard.
“What you’re seeing is a growth of a new class of university presidents or chancellors who see the university as having a higher obligation, larger set of responsibilities than the traditional confined set” of just research, for example, Katz said.
But Cantor cautioned against relying too heavily on any one particular leader.
“If any one collaboration is too dependent on (its leaders), and those people move or change, things can fall apart,” she said, noting regional efforts must tackle not just education but infrastructure, housing, green energy and more.
Her advice paralleled that of Micah Sagebiel, a former La Joya teacher who now serves as program officer of U.S. education for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.
Several philanthropic groups like the Dell Foundation appeared at the two-day summit to learn more about the Valley, a place in which each already has placed significant financial stakes.
Sagebiel said he hoped local leaders avoid replicating every successful program and initiative across county and school district lines and instead find a common philosophy or approach to share.
“The idea of using universities as anchors sounds like a smart one,” Sagebiel said.
“At the organizational level, there’s still some tension across the Valley,” he said. “Another way to look at scale is scaling ideas or principles … that matter in the Valley and how we can put ideas across the” region.
Chancellor Cigarroa said he hopes to host similar conferences to discuss manufacturing, health care and economic development — all topics broadly mentioned at the Vista Summit.
But he hoped this session’s education focus could spur the “holistic way of viewing what we’re trying to do here in the Valley.
“I’d like to see better coordination between our community colleges and universities,” Cigarroa said. “I want the recruitment of faculty … to be coordinated such that it doesn’t benefit one campus (but) impacts the entire region.
“I don’t want silos,” he added. “We can’t afford working individually and duplicating things. We have to work together on these things, especially during these economic times.”
Neal Morton covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4472.