And the winner is… Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

The Rio Grande Guardian’s editorial board has been meeting over the past few weeks to select its Rio Grande Guardian International News Service’s Person of the Year. It is a new end-of-year feature for us but one we have been thinking about introducing for some time.

It was a difficult choice to make because there were a number of people deserving full consideration. But, in the end, the board made a unanimous decision to select Chancellor Sharp. The former state comptroller and legislator from Victoria, Texas, has made a huge impact on South Texas in 2015 and the initiatives he has announced will resonate for years into the future.

Let’s lay out our case:

The year started with Chancellor Sharp visiting the Rio Grande Valley as part of the Valley Legislators Tour organized by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. At the Texas A&M AgriLife facility in Weslaco Sharp explained to visiting legislators his vision for Healthy South Texas, an ambitious Texas A&M initiative aimed at reducing preventable diseases and their consequences throughout the region. He said he would be counting on the legislators to provide funding for the initiative and they did, to the tune of $10 million.

Sharp has been a friend of South Texas and the wider border region for decades. In 1998, he published, to critical acclaim, “Bordering the Future: Challenge and Opportunity in the Texas Border Region”, which looked in depth at the economic, political, and social condition of the Texas border counties. It has been evident on every visit he has made since that he loves this region and believes in its potential.

Engineering Programs

Sharp’s stock at the beginning of the year was already high because of his enthusiastic support of Texas A&M-Kingsville’s plans to introduce bachelor’s programs in chemical, environmental and natural gas engineering in the Valley. Sharp had visited the A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco towards the end of 2014 to put his stamp of approval on the TAMUK initiative. He then defended it against claims by some within the University of Texas System that it would provide unfair competition for UT-Rio Grande Valley. Our local elected officials mostly backed Sharp on this, saying competition is good.

Healthy South Texas

The Healthy South Texas initiative was tweaked as the year progressed. By the time it was officially unveiled in September the stated target of reducing preventable diseases and their consequences in South Texas by 25 percent by the year 2025 had, understandably, been dropped, at least in public. It was, after all, a very ambitious goal. However, this does not diminish the enormous value the program will bring to a region with alarming health disparities.

The Healthy South Texas initiative will cover a 27-county region, combining the expertise of the Texas A&M Health Science Center with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s incredible statewide reach to promote preventative health at the most local level of the community, improving the well-being of South Texans for generations to come.

Sharp said that by focusing on the highest impact diseases in the region, including diabetes, asthma and infectious disease, Healthy South Texas will bring together experts from medicine, nursing, pharmacy, biomedical science, public health, architecture and extension to engage families, enhance education, promote behavior change, and improve quality of medical care and disease outcomes.

“While the tools and techniques to improve the health of Texans have been, for the most part, available, what was missing was the comprehensive, multi-disciplinary team – with unparalleled statewide capabilities and assets – to transform the impossible into the inevitable,” Sharp said at the time. “We are doing for health what extension agents have done for agriculture for more than a century; essentially creating a new ‘crop’ of extension agents, poised to empower Texans to take control of their own health and wellness.”

Vegetable Research

Just a couple of weeks after the rollout of Healthy South Texas, Sharp visited the Valley again to dedicate the opening of the Rio Grande Valley Vegetable Research and Education Building, which is part of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco. Sharp said the aim was to help Texas regain its dominance of the vegetable production industry by conducting research on vegetable breeding and genetics, cropping systems and vegetable marketing and economics.

“Being a net importer of vegetables is not only unacceptable; it’s un-Texan,” Sharp said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “This facility will be dedicated to research that will help restore Texas to its former role as a top vegetable producer both locally and nationally.”

McAllen Teaching Site

There was one other major initiative Chancellor Sharp announced for South Texas in 2015 and it garnered the most community excitement and media coverage. Texas A&M University is to build a teaching site in north McAllen with a view to expanding it into a campus. It will not be an A&M-Rio Grande Valley campus but actually part of Texas A&M College Station. In our reporting of this initiative the Rio Grande Guardian has interviewed many Valley leaders and each one of them has said this is a “game changer” for the Valley. Among those leaders are state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, and McAllen Economic Development Corporation President Keith Patridge.

At a news conference announcing the collaboration with the City of McAllen and Hidalgo County, Chancellor Sharp said. “We hope to establish first a teaching center and ultimately a branch campus that will provide students an outstanding option for higher education in the Valley.”

Texas A&M Vice Chancellor Phillip Ray paid a visit to McAllen a few weeks ago to tour the Tres Lagos development where the new teaching site will be built. Ray told the Rio Grande Guardian that the facility’s current timetable calls for a 2017 opening with about 100 students, and 800 more five years after that. “Our agricultural, life sciences, engineering, veterinary medicine and biomedical scientists are all partners with this,” Ray said. “So, the vision is for them to have their type of faculty and level of education and programs down here in this teaching center, and hopefully this will become a branch campus of Texas A&M. There is just tremendous potential here.”

Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young said of the project: “This important new presence in South Texas enables Texas A&M to provide additional academic and leadership development opportunities to young people in fulfillment of our land-grant mission and lays the foundation for many more related opportunities in the future. We are proud of our long association with the Rio Grande Valley and look forward to building on the area’s tremendous economic growth and development for the benefit of all.”

A&M’s intention of building on the Rio Grande Valley’s tremendous economic growth and development for the benefit of all is already underway thanks to Chancellor Sharp. We salute his vision for and confidence and investment in South Texas. A few years back, soon after becoming A&M Chancellor, Sharp promised Valley leaders he would significantly increase the system’s footprint in the region. He has been true to his word.

This is why we have great pleasure in announcing Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service’s Person of the Year for 2015.