AUSTIN, February 22 - Rio Grande Valley lawmakers expect to be asked some tough questions from their colleagues in other parts of Texas about legislation to create a new university and medical school in the region.
And they got their first one at a House Committee on Higher Education hearing on Wednesday from state Rep. Jim Murphy, a Republican from Houston. Murphy wanted to know about the potential for operational efficiencies if UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville are merged.
The House bill to merge the two universities and the Regional Academic Health Center into one super university is known as HB 1000. Its lead author is state Rep. René Oliveira, the dean of the Valley legislative delegation. Oliveira told the House panel that the UT System believes the merger of UTPA and UTB can lead to a saving of $6 million.
Murphy, a member of the House panel, said $6 million did not seem very much and asked Oliveira how much the combined budgets of UTPA and UTB are. Oliveira said he did not have the figures in front of him but could get them. UTPA President Robert Nelsen then provided Oliveira with the amounts.
The budget for the RAHC is $20 million, the budget for UTPA is $249 million and the budget for UTB is $163 million, Oliveira told the House panel, thanks to Nelsen’s input. Murphy said a saving of $6 million when the combined budget is heading towards $500 million did not seem very much.
“I would love to talk to you further about trying to find more than a one percent differential. I would hope we could do that,” Murphy told Oliveira.
Oliveira responded that the estimated savings by merging UTPA and UTB is between $6 million and $8 million. “That is just immediate savings from the consolidation,” said Oliveira, D-Brownsville. Oliveira then said he wanted those listening to the hearing on the Internet to know that there will be a lot of job opportunities when the two universities merge. He said faculty and staff at UTPA and UTB should not worry about job losses.
“I think there is going to be places for everyone and the bill actually directs the UT System to, as we merge, perhaps have one department instead of two, at each institution. So, that’s where the savings comes in. All along as we are going we see this as only more programs, more faculty; more staff being needed as you expand,” Oliveira said.
Murphy also wanted to know more about the Centers for Border Economic and Enterprise Development that is mentioned in HB 1000. Murphy said he would think that the Center could bring in a lot of grant and study money. Oliveira responded that thus far, the Centers for Border Economic and Enterprise Development, headquartered in El Paso, have had limited opportunity to become a center that can bring in a lot of money. However, he said that as the new university in South Texas develops into an emerging research university, more opportunities for raising money will accrue.
John Fitzpatrick, executive director for Educate Texas, testified that the big philanthropic foundations will be pleased to see a major regional university established on the South Texas border. Educate Texas is a public-private partnership that works across the state to boost college readiness, secondary access and post-secondary success.
“Thrilled about this idea of a regional South Texas university,” Fitzpatrick told the House panel. He referenced the fact that six students from the Math and Science Academy in South Texas were in the audience. Earlier, state Rep. Dan Branch, chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, had noted that the students are prime material for the new university.
“Our organization has invested $25 million in public and private resources over the last eight years. There are 13,000 students behind them (the six students in the audience) that are graduating from 22 early college high schools and T-Stem academies (in the Valley). So, the demand is there from qualified, smart students that are graduating with college credits; that are graduating with a strong background in math and science,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said a lot of times, from the philanthropic standpoint, the Valley is “viewed as a deficit” when compared to the resources that are available in a Dallas or a Houston or an Austin. “From the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the State of Texas, to the Greater Texas Foundation, there has been tremendous investment in young people (in the Valley) and it is really paying off. There are tremendous results. The capacity and demand from a K-12 side is there,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said Educate Texas was particularly impressed with the leadership of UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. It was Cigarroa’s idea to merge UTPA and UTB. “Starting with the Vista Summit efforts two years ago, Chancellor Cigarroa has invested time and energy in meeting with the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Meadows Foundation, and a lot of the different partners,” Fitzpatrick said. He added that he “cannot speak highly enough” about Educate Texas’ experience working with UTB President Juliet Garcia and UTPA President Nelsen.
Fitzpatrick also spoke about the importance of regional cooperation. He said the regional collaboration that was on display at the House hearing from the Valley legislative delegation is being matched by superintendents and higher education leaders in the Valley. He said all five higher education presidents (those at UTPA, UTB, STC, TSC, and TSTC-Harlingen) are meeting monthly with 12 Valley superintendents, education, community and business leaders, “to look at a four-county plan” for education in the Valley.
“Half the superintendents and 100 percent of the higher ed leaders are looking at access and excellence. The framework is there, should you decide to go ahead and proceed with this regional university,” Fitzpatrick said. “The superintendents and the other higher ed partners will embrace this idea and support it.”
Fitzpatrick said he believed similar support would come from the philanthropic foundations. He mentioned the Ford Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Gates Foundation at the national level and groups like the Greater Texas Foundation and the Meadows Foundation at the state level. He pointed out that a $6 million federal “i3” grant, coming through Jobs for the Future, was to be announced in the Valley. This money will scale early college high schools at PSJA and Brownsville ISDs, he said. “So, over the next five years there will be 15,000 to 20,000 students joining these six and the other 12,000. There is a huge stream coming of qualified students that will be feeding into this prospective university,” Fitzpatrick said.
The only Valley mayor to testify at the House hearing was Harlingen’s Chris Boswell. He pointed out that Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, which he used to lead, has passed a resolution in support of the new university.
“We have always approached this not so much from the standpoint of economic development, but from the standpoint of quality of life. This is something that will improve the healthcare delivery system that is so much needed in the Rio Grande Valley,” Boswell said of the new university and medical school.
Boswell pointed out that there are only 106 physicians per 100,000 people in the Valley. This compares to the national average of 250 physicians per 100,000 and the state average of 172 physicians per 100,000. “It is a quality of life issue, a health issue. The new university will provide an opportunity for so many young people. It is truly something that will enhance the standard of living for all of our folks in the Rio Grande Valley,” Boswell told the House panel. He applaud the Valley’s legislative delegation for its phenomenal work” and assistance in “unifying the region.”