WESLACO, RGV – Former UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia is writing a book about the creation of UT-Rio Grande Valley.
Garcia spoke about the formation of UTRGV while giving the keynote speech on civil engagement at a recent Latino Summit hosted by the Senate Hispanic Caucus.
“One of the new jobs that I have in my assignment working for the Chancellor is to actually write the story of the establishment of this university,” said Garcia, who was appointed senior advisor to the Chancellor for community, national and global engagement by UT System Chancellor William H. McRaven in March.
In her speech, Garcia said one could tie the formation of UTRGV to civic engagement by acknowledging that when there is a big job to do it requires a lot of people. “Sometimes you cannot do it yourself. You have to open the door a little bit for the next person, who then opens it a little bit further,” Garcia said.
Garcia said there have been many stories told in the media about how UTRGV came about. She said the story she would be telling in her book has not often been told. A big factor in its formation was the fact that the legacy institutions that were collapsed to create UTRGV – UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American – could not access the Permanent University Fund.
Permanent University Fund
“The Permanent University Fund was started in the 1880s to build a university in Texas. It was a Land Grant university,” Garcia explained. A million acres in West Texas was given over by the State of Texas in the hope that the land would generate income to build a state university. Later, a further million acres were given over. Garcia said there was no sign that the land would be worth anything until drillers struck oil. “It was just miles and miles of tumbleweeds,” Garcia said.
Once oil was discovered, royalties from leases on the land grew rapidly, Garcia explained. The funds were placed in a trust, she said, with a small percentage of revenue given to the University of Texas (two thirds) and Texas A&M (one third). As time went on, new schools affiliated to UT were established, Garcia said, such as UT-El Paso, UT-Arlington, and UT-Dallas.
Every UT school was able to access monies in the Permanent University Fund (PUF) except UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American, Garcia said. “For many years my job as president (of UT-Brownsville) was to sit while they (UT System regents) distributed funds to every UT school, except for these two. I have long arms, so every year I would raise my arm and say, once again, for the record, you are leaving two of your most important schools out of this distribution. Some of the regents would roll their eyes,” Garcia said. “I was thinking I would die and go to heaven and never see our universities access the Permanent University Fund.”
The Valley’s fortunes changed, Garcia said, when Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, a transplant surgeon from Laredo, was appointed chancellor of UT System.
“We got a new chancellor, from the frontera, a third generation physician in his own family, a brilliant transplant surgeon. He had been president for eight years at UT-Health Science Center San Antonio. He called me to the office one day and said, why have you never confronted me about this PUF issue. I said, I knew you would get to it. I know you and I knew you would. He said, I am getting to it. I have an idea.”
Garcia proceeded to tell the story.
“This is the short version. You will have to read the book. The short version is, we had a problem. We were separating UT-Brownsville from Texas Southmost College. It was going to be very hard for us (UTB) to be a stand-alone university because we had to split land, split buildings and split people. We could not let it not work. Then we had UT-Pan American, which had very few funds. And then we had the RAHC (Regional Academic Health Center). Also, a long road ahead of us to become a medical school.”
Garcia said Cigarroa told her: “We have to get you access to the Permanent University Fund. But, it is going to take a lot of work. We are going to have to give up some things along the way. We are going to have to let some people take the front seat and others take the back seat. But the end result is we are going to try something that, when I am gone and you are gone, we will have done a great service to the Valley.”
“So, the idea was, abolish the two current universities that were not eligible for PUF and create a new one that is. We had to convince the legislators, the regents, the legislature, the governor,” Garcia said. She said Cigarroa asked her: “Will you go down this road with me?” Garcia responded: “Absolutely.”
“If we were ever going to do it, it had to be when Francisco was chancellor. The window was only going to be open for a little bit. We had a crisis with UTB and TSC. The separation was the impetus we could use.” It helped, Garcia said, that a lot of oil was being produced at the time and so the PUF was overflowing. “Because we had a lot of oil, other universities could not say, we do not want to share.”
It also helped, Garcia said, that the chairman of the UT System regents at the time was someone who was from the Valley – Weslaco native Gene Powell. And that an executive vice chancellor at the UT System involved in the negotiations, Pedro Reyes, was from Alamo. “Imagine the coincide of that,” Garcia said.
In an effort to sell the idea of one university for the entire Valley, Garcia said UT officials, including UTPA President Robert Nelsen, first visited with Valley legislators. The response was positive, Garcia said, because the legislators had tried in vain to secure PUF funds for UTB and UTPA. “They wanted it as badly as we did. They had all tried. We were not the only ones trying. Each one had tried very hard to get us into PUF.”
After this, the UT regents gave their blessing to the plan. Next came the state legislature. The legislation creating a new university for the Valley was authored in the House by state Rep. René Oliveira of Brownsville and in the Senate by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen. Garcia said the legislation secured near unanimous support in the House. “One guy voted against it. We are still looking for that guy,” Garcia joked. In the Senate the vote was unanimous in favor. She said all the legislators from other parts of the state came to shake the hands of the Valley legislators, to congratulate them.
“People finally figured it out. They had to do something to relieve the pressure on the state. We have a lot of Hispanics, oh my goodness. Instead of worrying about them, let’s educate them. Let’s make them productive. Let’s get them through school. Let’s get them good jobs,” Garcia said.
Garcia said the governor at the time (Rick Perry) was also supportive. She said that when Perry mentioned making the Valley part of the Permanent University Fund in his State of the State address, she stood up so fast. “I could not stop applauding.”
Garcia then gave an overview of what the creation of UTRGV has meant. “Most important, I think, was the Valley had unified regionally around one focused issue. That we were willing to set aside personal interests, such as who is going to get the credit, who is going to be president. We did it for the greater good. That is what civic engagement is. Most of the time you do not get credit. But you know you had a little bit of that action.”
Garcia said the bonus was that Cigarroa threw in to the mix the creation of a medical school, to go alongside the establishment of UTRGV. She pointed out that Valley legislators had been filing bills to create a medical school since 1947.
In the one year UTRGV has been open, Garcia said, it has received $350 million from the PUF and from other state funding. There was loud applause from the audience. “We used to get $20 million, $30 million. I think the best I ever got was $37 million one time,” Garcia said.
“The reason I tell this story is once in a while the planets line up. Once in a while, regional-think is more important than personal-think, or who gets what,” Garcia added.
The Latino Summit coincided with the first White Coat Ceremony held by the UTRGV School of Medicine. Garcia raced from the ceremony, held in Edinburg, to the summit, held at South Texas College in Weslaco. Garcia said the 55 medical students entering the School of Medicine are “young, beautiful and enthusiastic.” Twenty of the 55 are from the Valley, Garcia said, to loud applause.
“We need lots of other things. This is just the beginning. We are one of 14 (UT institutions) and we are now sitting at the table,” Garcia said.
Garcia finished her remarks by recounting an incident that happened at a barbeque UT officials were attending. The incident spoke to the promise the Valley now holds for its residents. Garcia said that at the barbeque a custodian came up to her and asked if it was true that the Valley was going to get a medical school. The custodian said she had two children, one aged three and the other six months. Garcia said that when she said yes, the Valley was going to get a medical school, the custodian thanked her and said her children would be able to go there. “She had hope for their future.”
After the speech, Garcia took questions from the audience. She was asked if a law school might be next on the Valley’s list for higher education institutions. “A law school is probably not going to be high on the list,” Garcia said. “It is probably going to be something in the science field, the medical field. I hope we go to pharmacy quickly. They are talking about a veterinary school. In the long run, the sky is the limit.”