EDINBURG, March 6 - University of Texas-Pan American President Robert Nelsen has given a detailed explanation to staff, faculty and students on what the new South Texas university-medical school project is all about.
Among the items he mentioned was the creation of a diabetes institute. He said this is being developed at UTPA in conjunction with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. He said the institute will be part of the new medical school.
Nelsen also said that a Blue Ribbon panel will be set up by the UT System regents to consider where the medical school should be located. Nelsen said it will not be based solely in Harlingen, Edinburg or McAllen. ďIt's going to be a distributed model that is spread across the Valley,Ē Nelsen said.
Nelsen gave his detailed analysis in a question and answer format. The Guardian has the full list of questions and answers at the end of this story.
The project to merge UT-Pan American, the University of Texas at Brownsville, and the Regional Academic Health Center will be overseen by the UT System, if and when required legislation is passed into law.
That legislation is moving smoothly through the legislative process. In the House, more than 100 representatives have signed on as co-authors of House Bill 1000, authored by state Rep. Renť Oliveira, D-Brownsville. According to state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, the number has risen to 132. ďHB 1000 will be an historic, landmark advancement not only in the Valley, but for the entire state,Ē Canales said.
In the Senate, Senate Bill 24, authored by state Sen. Juan ĎChuyí Hinojosa, D-McAllen, will be heard today by the Committee on Higher Education. Hinojosa, working with state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, has been garnering the support necessary to secure passage by two-thirds.
Hinojosa said the legislation has the potential of providing ďendless educational and healthcare benefitsĒ for Rio Grande Valley families.
ďI am looking forward to the hearing on Wednesday to discuss the transformation of the Rio Grande Valley through education,Ē Hinojosa said. ďI am proud of our Valley delegation and of the tremendous bipartisan support we have in both the House and the Senate - legislators have come together to invest in education and in the people of South Texas.Ē
Nelsen conducted his question and answer session in the UTPA Student Union building last Thursday. He confirmed that support for the legislation is growing at the state Capitol.
ďWe came back from the Capitol yesterday. We have 118 votes in the House, that's signed HB 1000. We needed 100. On the Senate side, we have 19 senators on the bill, and there are six others who will vote for it, which is well over two-thirds there,Ē Nelsen said.
ďThis is going to happen, folks. When we started, there were some who said there was no way we were going to get the two-thirds vote. Well, we already have that. So, we are moving forward.Ē
The format for the meeting consisted of Nelsen answering questions that have surfaced from the UTPA family. The Guardian has transcribed the entire event. Here are the questions and Nelsenís answers:
Do employees have to reapply for their jobs?
No. You keep your job, and you move immediately into the new university. You are not going to lose your jobs in any form or fashion. There are going be some cost savings, but what is happening in Brownsville right now is that, as those employees are being laid off, they don't need janitors because they don't own buildings right now. As they are being laid off, the community college is making them reapply for jobs. They could have just transferred them, but the community decided not to. We will not be doing the same thing here. We are going to need everyone.
Does tenure track transfer?
Yes. You will transfer right in, and have your tenured spot in the new university. There will not be any changes there. If you have a contract, a three-year teaching contract for example, that contract will be valid and will move into the new university. So, faculty and staff don't need to be worried in that way.
Will we be forced to Peoplesoft?
I don't think so. Brownsville was going to put in Peoplesoft. They have not started putting it in at this point. We have spent a lot of money putting in our own electronic upgrades to Oracle. Brownsville is talking about putting their student systems onto our student system. There will be some centralized services that we will push, and someday we will end up on Peoplesoft, but you know what, Peoplesoft at that point will be called Oracle because they own Oracle and they expect that within the next two generations, to merge what we are doing with Peoplesoft.
We have not had these conversations yet, but we know what is involved. Soon after the new university is created, we will go forward and talk to Belle Wheelan at SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges). With SACS it takes six months because SACS is very worried that most consolidations like we are doing here, unification mergers, you end up cutting a lot of people and closing down departments. That's not what we are doing, but SACS requires six months notice so they can put you on watch to make sure you aren't doing something like that. We will have to do a prospectus and have to have a site visit, but we will work that out. With AASC (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), we are going to have to start talking to them about accreditation and what that means. There will be hoops that we will have to go through, but we will start working on maintaining every accreditation we now have. It's my understanding that we will be able to do that, but those conversations will take place with the agencies.
Will degree programs have the same curriculum?
That's up to the faculty and the programs. You can have different tracks. We already have different tracks in our own areas here at UTPA, entrepreneur track for example. We have all sorts of different tracks. The faculty will decide, and if one group wants to have an emphasis on one area, they can. Some of the core courses will have to be the same because if you have a student decides they want to take a class here or in Brownsville, the basic core requirements will stay the same, but everything after that isn't. The core curriculum will have to stay the same, that is going to take a long conversation and a lot of work, but there can only be one core between us. If current legislation passes, there will only be one core curriculum in the State of Texas anyway.
What services will be centralized?
We know that there will be one president. There will be executive vice presidents on campus. We know that the Deans will remain; the department chairs will remain. There will be integrity within the campuses. We can already speculate about which ones. Probably the Vice President for Business Affairs, Finances, Comptroller and Purchasing will all be together. Probably, IT will be centralized and there will be one IT chief. Probably, the research offices will be centralized. Again, notice the word probably. We don't know what we will do. It would make no sense to have one Vice President for Student Affairs, you need one on both campuses. So, it's going to be a matter of which ones really can add by centralized them. We don't even know where the location of that new centralized office will be at. As the bill came forward, and people were trying to jockey for the location of the medical school and its various parts, the idea of where it was going to be left us with the position where McAllen may end up having part of the medical school there. Those are conversations we won't know probably for another six months. We know that we have to use all of the buildings in Harlingen. They have an administrative building in Harlingen. We don't know if they are going to move there or not, but we will try to see what goes forward. You still have to have budget officers on this campus. You have to have purchasers on this campus. You still have to have traveling people on this campus. There are so many things that you will maintain here. I want to stress that UTPA will keep its integrity. It will be known as "Pan American." That will not go away in any form or fashion, and Brownsville will be known as Brownsville.
In the Bill there is the creation of Blue Ribbon Panel, which is mainly about the medical school, but we will be looking at other aspects as well. It's about where the medical school should be located, and believe me it will not be completely located in Harlingen, or McAllen or Edinburg. It's going to be a distributed model that is spread across the Valley. It's going to be a new model that will take place. The Blue Ribbon Panel will be appointed by the Regents and the Chancellor, but there will be input from local leaders and local campuses as well. The panel's recommendation will go to the Board of Regents, and they will make a final determination about the location of the various operations of the medical school. If you think about it for a minute, down in Harlingen you have the VA clinic, so it makes all the sense in the world to do geriatrics and any post-trauma there. There are 780 babies born every month here, it makes sense to have pediatrics here. So, it is going to be a matter of letting them look at everything and talking to everyone to come up with that (decision).
When can we start talking to each other?
I encourage everyone to start talking to people in Brownsville and those at the RAHC. You cannot make any decisions. We do not know if this will happen. We have the two-thirds vote, but I've seen many people back out. We don't have the language about fees or anything. We cannot make the ultimate decisions, but you can certainly start talking to your counterparts because you are going to want to have those conversations. I think the hardest thing will not be the curriculum, it will be the HOP. They call theirs the HOOP. We already have a problem there. We have different standards for tenure and promotion than they do. How are we going to work that out? Some of these rules are going to be easy because they are going to be based on Regents rules, but some of them are going to be new to our campus. Those decisions are going to have to be made. Their campus for example is a smoke-free campus, and they have a hot policy that says it is a smoke-free policy. I got the smoking report, and they want designated areas. We should start talking now. We have a lot to share.
What is the timeline for the decisions in the merger?
I was surprised when Chairman Rep. Rene Oliveira said that it would take 18 to 24 months. I donít know where he got the number from. We donít have a timeline. We know that it will take six months because of SACS, but we can run into all sorts of things with NCAAÖwe donít know how long it will actually take us. We will just start working on it as quickly as we can. We want to do it as fast as we can because until the new university is existing we wonít have access to PUF. To wait 18 months, if we can do it earlier than that would be a serious mistake. I have asked the UT System for a timeline on the merger, and we expect one in the next couple of weeks. I think weíll get it, publicize it and let you see where it is.
How will you handle the duplications of programs, especially Academic programs?
We are not going to eliminate any academic programs. They need English. We need English. They need Spanish. We need Spanish. All of those programs will remain intact. The only programs that are under fire are those that the coordinating board has come out with, those are the programs that are low producing. Those may disappear, but we have an advantage with that. Our Physics Program and their Physics program are both under watch. If we join together, maybe we will have enough with the Coordinating Board so they donít bug anymore. With academic programs, it is simple. Student services and other programs get a little harder to save because we donít know exactly if those programs can be centralized. We are just going to have those conversations and see. Again, itís not about contraction, itís about growth. We will try to get as many programs as we can.
How are we going to handle fees and tuition?
That part, the process is not in the bill yet. We have to get it into the bill. Our fees and their fees do not necessarily match. Their fees for IT for instance are higher than our fees. Our international fees, we charge $1 they charge $2. We are going to have conversations back and forth and find out what we agree upon is the best fee structure. In those conversations that take place, we need to involve the students because fees are about them. We need to involve everybody so this like a backroom door where we are just about adding fees. Itís not a matter of just jumping to the higher level. In the bill itself we have two options. One option is we put in there that every fee, from what it will be, because you have to have in there, in one way or another. If we lose the student union fee or the IT fee for next year, what would that do for our students? What would that do for all of us? We have to have them in there as part of it. We can list them all, or we can punt the can down the road and say the Coordinating Board will work with us to handle those fees. That gives us more latitude. The Coordinating Board will prefer that we donít go there because all the heat comes on them, and they would rather the heat comes on us as we try to do this. Dr. (Juliet) Garcia and I are talking back and forth on these fees, and as soon as we get somewhere we have some middle ground so we can talk, we will then involve everyone in the report. Itís the same thing with tuition. I think their tuition is about $17 more than ours a semester, do we go with the higher one or do we go with some in between. We really havenít had those conversations.
What is the hiring time for the medical school?
We are in the process. We have a search team looking for the Dean of the new medical school. We have representation on that committee and we will move as quickly as we can because that Dean needs to start hiring new faculty. In the meantime, we are building with UT-Health Sciences Center San Antonio, a diabetes institute. That institute will take place in the E-RAHC over here. We are going to be hiring six people for that so there are faculty already in place when the medical school starts. There will be joint appointments with Pan Am and UT-Health Sciences Center San Antonio. We know the medical school will accept its first students in 2014. They will go up to San Antonio for their first two years. They will accept another cohort of students in 2015. In 2016, they come back here, and we accept our first cohort of new medical students right here. We will probably be involved in the TIME Initiative, where our students will be able to, in their senior year, already be part of the medical school. We will make certain we have a large presence. A lot of Valley kids will be able to part of the new medical school.
Why are we following that route?
Thatís how the UT System did it when they created UT Health Science Center San Antonio. They branched it off of UT-Southwestern in Dallas. Students went back and forth for two years before they got their accreditation.
Where do our TRBs rank? Are we going to get a TRB, or since we are getting PUF, will we not be getting a TRB?
A TRB is a tuition revenue bond. It is for the new science building we are putting out. Every PUF eligible institution can go forward with a TRB. Our senator is working very hard with us, and I think we will get our TRB. If anyone gets a new building, Pan Am will be part of it. PUF doesnít preclude that. We will still have that opportunity to go forward.
Now for the big question. Where does this $5 million or $6 million in cost efficiency savings that Chancellor Cigarroa mentioned come from?
It does not come from across the board. It comes from administrative costs. It will come from, probably centralizing HR, IT. We are going to eliminate one of the presidentís jobs, it will come from there. It will come from what we do with police and all sorts of different elements as we begin the centralization. Itís really at the high level. Itís not the day to day people who are working. It will be the high level positions that will be going. Itís not going to impact the jobs there. Right now in administrative costs, UTPA has $19.7 million, Brownsville has $12.5 million, so it ends up being a $32 million cost, and out of that 23.8 percent will be cut. The efficiencies will arise from that. So, donít worry about your jobs. Go out and tell everybody else not to worry about their jobs. We need to concentrate on retention. We need to concentrate on enrollment. We need to grow. This is a real opportunity for us. Itís an amazing opportunity for us. Itís even more amazing for what it will do for the Valley. Those babies that are being born down there are going to need to come to Pan Am. We are going to need to have those buildings ready for them. We need to grow, and we need to grow at a five percent rate. Itís a big challenge, but we have to get there. Until we get there, we are not going to be able to provide all of the services.
I have been asked, now that we are going to get PUF, are we going to get raises?
No we are not. PUF can only go to capital projects and building new programs. It goes to software, online learning and the hardware for that. It canít go to salaries. That requires us to retain our students. Retention is the right thing to do. We have over 1,400 students who are put on probation last semester. A lot of those will never come back. We had a kid who couldnít pay a $10 hold, so the student didnít enroll. We have got to make sure we grow and we retain people.
Editor's Note: Reporters Joey Gomez and Raul de la Cruz contributed to this story from Edinburg. Reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from Austin.