Valley leaders share first impressions of new UT Chancellor

McALLEN — The longest visit to a University of Texas campus so far by Chancellor James Milliken and wife Nana Smith culminated last Thursday after two full days at UT Rio Grande Valley. And aside from student and faculty introductions, area legislators also got a chance to meet new UT leader.

“I spent about an hour with Chancellor Milliken and he has a very impressive resume and experience in higher education,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D- McAllen. “He is also well versed in the relationship between the legislation and higher education.”

The visit was part of Milliken’s tour of all 14 UT institutions, which he hopes to finalize by the end of November.

Part of the familiarization process involved meeting students, faculty and administrators at UTRGV, as well as Valley legislators and city leaders; anybody with a grasp of what the regional opportunities and needs are.

City of McAllen Judge and UT Regent Ernest Aliseda said these campus visits are incredibly important due to all 14 institutions being very different.

“I think it’s important to have a sense of the different universities and health-science centers within the system,” Aliseda said. “Our area, I tend to believe, is very unique. We have a campus that expands from Edinburg all the way to (South Padre) Island, and in that sense it’s pretty unique.”

UTRGV’s is not only the newest university in the system but it also covers three counties — Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr — all along the Texas-Mexico border and all catering to a culturally different population than that of the state capital or other regions.

Legislators from all throughout the Valley work together to advocate for the region’s needs and higher education remains one of the top priorities.

“We have very strong community leaders,” Aliseda said. “It is important for him to realize who the leaders are in each of the different communities that make up the Valley … he needs to have those relationships with those people. It’s very important.”

During an interview Wednesday, Milliken echoed this sentiment and said a big part of his job is maintaining those relationships and creating them where there are none.

“My goal is to continue to demonstrate that the University of Texas System, this campus, and the other 13 are meeting their expectations, are delivering on the promise we made to the people of Texas,” Milliken said. “And you can only do that if you have relationships with the political leadership.”

In the case of UTRGV, which has only been up and running for three years after the dissolution of UT Pan American and UT Brownsville, the way to demonstrate its impact relies heavily in making its potential clear to stakeholders, Milliken said.

The main reason why the UTRGV was created was to have access to state funding and to create a School of Medicine. This creates access to healthcare, medical careers and research, which Milliken acknowledged as a great part of this potential.

Hinojosa said that during their meeting they went over some of the challenges faced by higher education in the Valley and statewide, including decreased funding. The chancellor was very receptive, he said, to the resources that could be leveraged to gain resources.

“One of the things he pointed out was that we have the youngest population in the state of Texas and probably in the country,” Hinojosa said. “It’s a great human resource, so its about finding ways to provide them the opportunity and the means for them to get educated.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, also had the opportunity to meet with the chancellor and said they discussed a wide array of topics, from the beginning of the Valley becoming a part of the UT System family in the late 1080s, early 1990s, to the evolution of the UT System institutions leading to UTRGV.

“We are blessed, to say the least, to be part of two systems, UT System and Texas A&M,” Lucio said. “I spoke about my relationship with Dr. Bailey and how I am thankful we have a leader that was prepared to really take the reins of leadership down here and really move the university in the right direction. Which he has.”

Lucio said this compliments the drive of the current delegation, which Lucio described as the strongest one he has worked with since 1987.

He said the entire Valley delegation has worked together to represent the Rio Grande Valley as a family and bring in the resources necessary to operate the still infant university.

“What we are looking for is making sure that we have the resources and funds to be able to operate a world-class university,” Lucio said. “It’s a great university, I told him, in its infancy. But I think we have the manpower and the woman-power locally to make it happen, and a lot of young people who want to get a first-class education that will because we are part of the huge UT System now.”

Both Hinojosa and Lucio said the plan is to stay in close contact with the chancellor in hopes to represent the needs of the regional institution at their best.

Previous chancellors including Milliken’s most recent predecessors, William McRaven and Francisco Cigarroa, were close to the Valley before and after the transition to UTRGV. And the two senators said they got the sense that this relationship will be a positive one as well.

“He asked if there was one thing I could offer him as advice, what would that be,” Lucio said. “And I told him what my dad had told me in 1970 when I ran for office the first time … he told me, ‘Remember son, people don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.’… He was kind of moved. I was impressed by the way he reacted in a very humble way.”

dperez-hernandez@themonitor.com 

This article was modified to reflect that UT Regent Ernie Aliseda is also a City of McAllen Judge.