Administrators reflect on how far UTRGV has come as first class graduates

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley reached a milestone this weekend as it graduated its first class since the university’s inception in fall 2015.

About 519 students from the university’s first cohort walked the stage with a degree on May 10 and May 11, with another 411 students who graduated early in the fall of 2018. Merging the University of Texas-Pan American and University of Texas at Brownsville created a new institution eligible for greater resources after the Texas Legislature approved the new university in 2013.

The first class is a symbol for how far the institution has come.

“They came in during a time of great transition,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said about the first cohort. “They’re our first class.”

With the creation of UTRGV, the goal was to become a regional university, not just an institution tied to a city, he said. The university has 33 facilities either owned or affiliated with the university.

From a teaching site in Rio Grande City to a clinical education building in Harlingen and a Coastal Studies Complex in Port Isabel, the university’s presence is displayed throughout South Texas.

“We are a regional university, we’re the university of the Rio Grande Valley,” Bailey added.

Providing transportation for students between the two main campuses and overseeing two major campuses with different cultures were among the problems they initially had to face.

Understanding the “political mosaic” of the different cities of the Valley, such as Edinburg, San Benito or Brownsville came into play in overseeing the institution over the years, Bailey said.

And as his fifth anniversary as president approaches in July, he reflected on the difficulty of running the institution and the pride that came with it.

Moving past hurdles of accreditation and the opening of the School of Medicine in 2016 were among his major accomplishments.

“We still have a lot of work to do, I will be the first to tell you that our work is not done,” Bailey said, adding that creating new graduate programs and smoothing out the last of the transition issues are the way forward.

And it all started with a problem that occurred in Brownsville, which spurred the creation of UTRGV.

The University of Texas Brownsville was historically tied to Texas Southmost College, a community college. After the partnership ended, however, the university became independent, but found it difficult to address the economic impact. This presented a “storm that came upon us” for the UT System Board of Regents to address, Bailey said.

Francisco Cigarroa and Eugene Powell, former UT System chancellor and former Board of Regents chairman respectively, served during the legislative session in 2013. Both were instrumental in the creation of UTRGV. Cigarroa and Powell are also natives of Texas border communities and saw the need to create the university to serve a population historically underserved.

After conversations with Governor Rick Perry about how the state had “not done right by the students of the Valley” in education, Powell addressed how to tackle the issue in an area he understood, Bailey said.

The former chancellor and the rest of the board of regents worked toward creating a “framework for excellence” to address the needs of South Texas, the UTRGV president said.

“The vision that I and Chairman Powell and the Board of Regents had was really to expand educational opportunities for one of the most important regions in the United States, and I believe it’s doing so in a robust way,” Cigarroa said.

The former universities in Edinburg and Brownsville were limited in resources but were doing the most with what they had, Powell said.

The creation of the university also addressed issues that were decades in the making.

Legislative authorization to create a medical school went back as far as 25 years with locals representatives pushing for the initiative, Powell said. The School of Medicine enrolled its first class in 2016, about a year after the first undergraduate class enrolled.

In a recent conversation with the School of Medicine’s dean, 6,500 applicants competed for about 55 spots in the program, Powell said. About 60% were from the Valley, and the draw shows how competitive the school is.

The creation of the new university also brought funding and resources to the institution.

UTRGV became eligible for Permanent University Funds, a state endowment that provides construction and capital expenses for UT System institutions and Texas A&M Systems. The previous campuses did not qualify for the endowment, Powell said.

“In the last five years, if you look at the facilities on the campuses, if you look at the staff, if you look at how the university is growing, you can see the impact of that money,” he said. “They never had it.”

Passing things through the legislature were major steps for providing a “vision”, but the faculty and staff at the campuses had to put it into reality, Cigarroa said.

“It took thousands and thousands of hours of work, and they did it, and they did it with distinction,” Cigarroa said.

Some students used resources that both campuses pooled together.

Josabeth Navarro studied environmental science and graduated on Saturday. As a Harlingen native, she went to both campuses and the faculty was welcoming to her, which is something large institutions may not have offered her, she said. Navarro plans to go to graduate school to obtain a master’s degree at UTRGV.

The region has a combination of youth population growth which is important for the future of a university, Bailey said. As the former president for the University of Alabama and Texas Tech, drawing on those experiences helped him maintain structure and a smooth transition into keeping the university running.

Bailey said he could see the fruits of his labor on Friday and Saturday as students proudly walked the stage.

“It’s like seeing your son or daughter graduate — these are the people that started (with the university), it’s kind of like your firstborn child graduating from college,” Bailey said.