EDINBURG — Students, staff and faculty packed into a University of Texas-Pan American building Friday to pick the brain of an expert linguist.
But they didn’t come to hear about his research on language.
Guy Bailey visited two universities that will merge next year to become what he called “the first new major university of the 21st century.” The visit was his first since UT System regents named him the sole finalist for the inaugural presidency of that university — UT-Rio Grande Valley.
Sporting an orange tie, Bailey held a series of town hall-style meetings with faculty, staff and students at the UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville, and also met with officials from Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
“What’s going to happen here over the next few years is unique in American higher education. Nothing else like it is going on. This will be the first, new major university in the 21st century,” he said. “Think about it — first in the 21st century. Everybody is watching us.
“I was a dean at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas many years ago,” he continued. “And you know that saying: ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’? What happens here, if we do it right, won’t stay here. It’ll be the pattern of the rest of the country.”
Staff members running a few minutes late were turned away at the door to the UTPA ballroom in Edinburg, as the room was filled to capacity. An hour earlier, the session for faculty was also standing-room only. After the session for staff members, students nearly filled the seats despite the day’s timing during the break between spring semester and summer school.
At every session, Bailey answered questions about how he planned to hire for the new university, which merges UTPA, UT-Brownsville and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen — creating redundancies that could lead to layoffs.
Each time, he said the employees at the two current universities would make up much of the UT-RGV workers.
“The workforce for the new university is sitting in the room right here,” he said. “Think about it, where else are they going to come from?”
While UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia introduced Bailey at events on that campus, UTPA President Robert Nelsen was absent from the events in Edinburg. Nelsen, who was one of three finalists UT regents interviewed late last month, announced this week he was resigning at the end of the summer — earlier than anticipated.
He stayed away to keep from distracting from what he said was a celebration for Bailey.
“It's very simple — it was Guy Bailey's day and I wanted him to be able to celebrate his day,” Nelsen said by phone later.
Dr. Francisco Fernandez, who will serve as the first dean of the UT-RGV medical school, was among the small entourage travelling with Bailey. He said he was impressed by his future boss’ commitment to the teaching aspect of the university’s mission — as opposed to research and clinical medical service — and with his enthusiasm.
“Everything that he says is consistent with … that this is the hardest job you’ll ever love,” Fernandez said. “And that’s exactly right. I mean, building this institution, getting all the programs up and running, it’s going to be a huge challenge, we’re going to need everyone’s help. But it will be the toughest job we’ll all ever love.”
Bailey said the university’s success will depend on that of its students, and that he’ll keep the door to his office — wherever it ends up — open to students.
“He seems very friendly, very student-oriented, down-to-earth,” said Ricky Rendon, a UTPA senior who works as an assistant in Nelsen’s office, on his first impressions of Bailey.
But Rendon added he didn’t hear much of substance from the presidential finalist.
“I was not expecting much because he’s not even official yet, so he doesn’t know much about what’s going to happen,” he said. “So I understand that he doesn’t have much answers. But I am confident in him. He seems like a great candidate. He speaks like he’s ready for this.”
After the town hall meetings, Bailey met behind closed doors with local elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Mayor Richard Garcia of Edinburg and Mayor Ruben Villarreal of Rio Grande City.
“We had a very positive, constructive conversation,” the McAllen senator said. “He said this is one of the most important things he has ever done in his life, so he is fully committed to seeing UT-RGV succeed.”