|AUSTIN, November 17 - The authors of legislation to create a new university and medical school in the Rio Grande Valley have praised the UT System for pumping almost $200 million into the region for new academic buildings.
State Sen. Juan Hinojosa and state Rep. René Oliveira were author and sponsor respectively of Senate Bill 24, which was passed unanimously by the Senate and House earlier this year.
Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said the funding approved by the UT System will dramatically speed up operational capacity for the new university and medical school, allowing them to grow faster than anticipated.
“The UT System has come through in a big way to immediately jumpstart our new university and medical school,” said Oliveira, House sponsor of SB 24. “Getting into the PUF has allowed our students to be the direct beneficiaries of the revenues coming from the Texas oil and gas boom. This demonstrates what can happen when we work together with a united vision.”
PUF, or Permanent University Fund, is a public endowment established in 1876 by the Texas Constitution and draws revenues from oil, gas and land leases to benefit the UT and Texas A&M systems. Oliveira pointed out that state law has prevented UT Brownsville and UT Pan American from accessing PUF revenue.
Last Thursday, the UT System’s board of regents unanimously voted to appropriate $196 million in PUF money to construct new facilities in Cameron and Hidalgo counties as part of Project South Texas, an initiative to establish a new university and medical school in the Valley. The new university and medical school will be created by combining the talent, assets and resources of UTB, UTPA, and the Regional Academic Health Center.
“One of the reasons this new university was created was so that South Texas could finally access PUF funding for the first time,” UT System Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster said. “This new university will prepare students for global leadership positions in higher education, health care, bio-medical research and emerging technology, and will serve as a gateway to the Americas that will create partnerships with education, health and research leaders from around the globe.”
Oliveira said a total of $72 million will be coming to Cameron County. Of this, $54 million will be used to fund a 140,000 gross-square-foot academic building, Oliveira said, with the remaining $18 million beings used to pay for some UT System costs associated with the acquisition of facilities in the separation between UT Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
Because of the UTB and TSC split, Oliveira said, the UTB campus can currently serve only 3,400 students. With its current enrollment at over 8,600, the campus has leased space to manage the difference. Construction of the new academic building will begin to reduce pressure for leased classroom space, Oliveira explained.
Sen. Hinojosa said the UT System’s decision on PUF funding marks a significant first step in the transformation of the Valley through education. He predicted it will have tremendous benefits for Valley families.
“For the first time, the new university is eligible to receive PUF monies and I am pleased that the UT System Board of Regents voted to approve funding for a $54 million medical academic building in anticipation of the new medical school and $142 million for undergraduate academic buildings in both Hidalgo and Cameron Counties,” said Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
"Confirming the allocation of these funds advances the goal of expanding access to educational opportunities and medical education which will increase access to care for our Valley families and decrease our physician shortage. This is just the beginning. With future funding and construction projects, we are finally transforming a dream into a reality to benefit all of South Texas.”
In addition to the funding that will go to Cameron County, the PUF monies will allow for the creation of a 120,000 square foot $70 million science building at UTPA that will offer instructional, research lab and classroom space. Also, $54 million will be spent on a medical academic building next to the RAHC research center at UTPA. The medical academic building will be administered by UT Health Science Center-San Antonio until the Valley medical school achieves its own accreditation.
Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza, Jr., is liaison for the UT system on behalf of the City of Edinburg and Hidalgo County. Garza was in Austin for the UT System announcement last Thursday. He said the 88,000 square-foot medical academic building will be constructed adjacent to the existing medical research building near the intersection of Sugar Road and Schunior Street. The new building will include a student lounge, lecture halls, classrooms, an auditorium, a digital library, a clinical skills center and an anatomy teaching facility, Garza said.
“This is an exciting day for Edinburg and the Rio Grande Valley. I applaud the expedited efforts of the UT Regents and look forward to working with them as we move toward making this a reality,” said Garza.
Edinburg Mayor Richard H. Garcia also welcomed the PUF funding announcement. “This is a whole new era. This will change everybody’s way of life for the better. This is the platform the region needed to reach its full potential,” Garcia said.
Garcia said Edinburg leaders are also pleased the UT System further upheld its commitment to develop a world-class research institution in the Valley by approving $1 million in PUF support for the UT System Research Incentive Program. This money will provide one-time matching funds to help selected universities in order to help leverage private gifts for enhanced research productivity and faculty recruitment, Garcia said.
The new university is expected to enroll its first class in fall 2015. Last Monday, the UT System released five suggested names and logos for the new university. The names are UT for the Americas, UT Las Americas, UT International, UT Rio Grande Valley, and UT South. The System is looking for feedback on these suggestions by Dec. 6.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is slated to visit the Valley on November 20. He said the vote by the System’s board of regents in support of UT South Texas Project was “a truly transformational moment” for the region.
“I am incredibly proud of the 83rd Legislature for authorizing the Board of Regents under the chairmanship of Gene Powell to create this new university, which is now PUF eligible,” Cigarroa said. “I am also incredibly proud of this Board of Regents today under the chairmanship of Paul Foster for now allocating PUF to the new university in the Rio Grande Valley, making the dream become reality.”
Powell, who grew up in Weslaco, has worked hard to make the new university a reality. He offered the motion to approve PUF funding. It was seconded by Regent Ernest Aliseda of McAllen.
Reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from Edinburg, Texas.