EDINBURG, March 25 - The United States would be a lot better off if its national leaders displayed the same selflessness as the presidents of UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville.
This is the view of Scott Atlas, the Houston-based attorney who inspired the formation of New Leaders Texas. Atlas spoke of his admiration for UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia and UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen at a New Leaders Texas-sponsored event at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance on Saturday. The event was titled the South Texas Mayors’ Stakeholder Summit.
Atlas paid his tribute during a question and answer session that followed a panel discussion on education in South Texas. President Nelsen was on the panel and discussed in detail the proposed merger of UTPA and UTB and the formation of medical school.
Atlas said he wanted to tell a story he felt many more people deserve to hear. He said that after University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa first came up with the idea of merging UTPA and UTB he went to get the support of the UT System regents. He said the regents backed the idea but told Cigarroa he needed the buy-in of the presidents of UTB and UTPA.
Atlas said that when Cigarroa told Garcia of the merger plan, she got teary-eyed and said: “I feel like I’ve been waiting to hear something like this most of my life.” Cigarroa then went to see Nelsen. He said Nelsen’s reaction was: “This may mean I work myself out of a job but this is the best thing that could ever happen to South Texas.”
Atlas told the audience and the education panel: “That kind of selfness is the kind of quality that I wish we saw more of on the national scene. The country would be better off if our national leaders displayed that. It is that kind of leadership and selflessness that will help the Valley achieve the potential that it so desperately deserves. Thank you for your leadership.”
Although based in Houston, Atlas has strong connections with the Rio Grande Valley. His father, Morris Atlas, practiced law in the region for more than 50 years, being a founding partner of the Atlas, Hall & Rodriguez law firm. Morris Atlas chaired the architectural committee at what was then Pan American University when the covered walkways and several new buildings were built on the campus. Morris Atlas served on the board of Pan American University from 1965 to 1976 and was its chairman in 1972.
“My father, along with Ricardo Hinojosa and Jack Blanton and several others pushed hard for years to bring Pan American into the University of Texas System,” Scott Atlas later told the Guardian. “He is especially proud, as we all are in the family, about the proposal from Chancellor Cigarroa that now seems to be working out to combine the two universities down here into a single university of South Texas. We think it is the next step for South Texas to achieve its educational potential.”
By merging UTPA and UTB in order to create a new university, South Texas will be able to access funds from the Permanent University Fund. This fund, which is replenished by leasing land in West Texas for oil and gas exploration, can be used to build new facilities at the new university. UTPA and UTB have never been able to access the fund.
“South Texas has deserved this for so long. So many people have worked so hard to achieve it,” Atlas told the Guardian. “It is so gratifying that we have finally got people in the right positions of leadership, like Francisco, like Juliet, like Dr. Nelsen, who are doing it for all the right reasons and who are in a position to make it happen. It is gratifying that finally the state leadership is seeing what a wonderful opportunity this is.”
Atlas then reiterated his point that by wholeheartedly backing the new university project, Nelsen and Garcia were putting the students of the Valley before their own self-interest. “That kind of selflessness can make a huge difference in achieving better public policy,” Atlas said.
During the panel discussion, Nelsen predicted tremendous economic development opportunities as a result of the formation of the new university and medical school. He said when San Antonio created its medical school it generated an $18 billion impact on the local economy over 20 years.
However, Nelsen said economic development was not the most important aspect of the project. Far more important, he said, is the opportunities it will provide for young people in the Valley.
“Never forget this is about the kids. It is about saving them. It is about giving them the opportunity that you guys out there got but a lot of others did not. It is about the kids,” Nelsen said.
Nelsen said a major investment in education is necessary in South Texas because of its phenomenal population growth. He pointed that one hospital in the Valley (Doctors Hospital at Renaissance) is birthing 800 babies a month. He said that in order to keep up with demand, one new secondary and two new elementary schools have to be built in the Valley every two months. “This is about growth. This is about serving a population that is so important. If we don’t get it right in South Texas, we don’t get it right in Texas,” Nelsen said.
The medical school is justified, Nelsen said, because of the disparity in access to health. He said Starr County has just 29 doctors per 100,000 people, while the Valley has 127 doctors for every 100,000 people. The statewide average is 165 doctors for every 100,000 people, he said. He also paid tribute to the Valley’s hospitals for agreeing to help fund 150 new residency slots for medical students. “We are on the cusp of something that is really great,” Nelsen said. “I am excited about our future.”
Also on the education panel was San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who also gave the keynote speech. “It is a travesty, the under-investment in higher education in the Valley,” Castro said. Once the medical school is built, the Valley should go after a law school and more engineering programs, he said.