HARLINGEN, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley is to get its own version of the Aspen Institute, UT leaders have announced.

The University of Texas Institute of the Americas will be under the auspices of the UT System in Austin but will be headquartered in the Rio Grande Valley. Outgoing UT-Brownsville President Juliet V. Garcia will be the institute’s executive director.

Both Garcia and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said the UT Institute of the Americas would be like the world famous Aspen Institute.

“The institute will be similar to the Aspen Institute and other scholarly institutes, which foster the convening of scholars and other experts to engage in a dialogue of ideas and search for solutions in education, societal and policy issues,” Cigarroa said in a news release.

The Aspen Institute describes itself as “an educational and policy studies organization.” It is based in Washington, D.C., with campuses in Aspen, Colorado, and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also maintains offices in New York City and has an international network of partners. It says its mission is to “foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.”

UTB President Juliet V. Garcia spoke about the planned UT Institute of the Americas at the RAHC in Harlingen on Friday. Garcia will be the institute's executive director.
UTB President Juliet V. Garcia spoke about the planned UT Institute of the Americas at the RAHC in Harlingen on Friday. Garcia will be the institute’s executive director.

According to a UT System news release, Garcia will continue to serve as president of UTB Aug. 31. “She will then begin a year of planning and developing the new institute, which will be located in the Rio Grande Valley. Garcia will report to the UT System’s Office of Academic Affairs,” the news release states.

Interviewed by the Guardian on Wednesday, Garcia said: “The University of Texas Institute of the Americas is meant to emulate in many ways the Aspen Institute that allows you to convene important discussions that will have regional and then global impact and to do this in a variety of different ways, through seminars, through larger convening.”

Garcia said the institute is also meant to generate the next generation of leaders. “With that very broad and exciting agenda we intend to involve the region into the epicenter of getting folks in Latin America and the United States together and to have discussions about important topics,” Garcia said.

Asked how the idea for the institute came up, Garcia said: “We all kind of felt that when the naming of the university (UTRGV) was being discussed, there was need for a portal to Latin America through the Valley. (Former Texas Governor) Ann Richards used to say, we (the border region) are no longer wanted to be the back door to the United States, we wanted to be the front door. That image never left me. We are the front door. We know it. We are the epicenter and so to not use it does not make sense. This allows us to pull all of that together and allow a portal to be opened to the Americas, to the UT System, through the new regional university here.”

Asked if the institute will report to UTRGV or the UT System, Garcia said: “We will report to the UT System but the idea is to take advantage of all of the expertise in all of the 15, soon to be 14, universities in the UT System and to use all of that expertise but to do the convening in this region.”

There will only be 14 universities in the UT System, not the current 15, because UTB and UT-Pan American are being folded into UT-Rio Grande Valley.

Asked where the UT Institute of the Americas will be located in the Valley, Garcia said: “We will be looking for sites now and establishing a headquarters very soon.”

Asked if the UT Institute of the Americas could be viewed as the Hispanic version of the Aspen Institute,” Garcia said: “That is very interesting, isn’t it? The Global South comes to mind. We know that many of the issues that are relevant to this region are also relevant to the Global South. That is broader than Latin America. It could include South Africa and other places. In that regard it is a convening for discussions of the Global South.”

The Global South is a term used by the Ford Foundation to include many Third World Countries. Garcia is on the board of trustees of the Ford Foundation.

Asked how the UT Institute of the Americas will help the working families of the Rio Grande Valley, Garcia said: “Think of all of the topics that need discussing in the Valley. We have everything from health issues across borders, to immigration, to transportation, to all sorts of things. Rarely is there a scaffolding upon which we can convene. We have regional convening but not international convening. We want to become the international convening site of the Americas.

“For some reason our geography was meant to drive our agenda. Somebody told me many years ago we need to own our geography. Well, we are owning it now. We need to take advantage of it.”

The UT System news release described Garcia as “a nationally renowned leader.” She was the first Mexican-American woman to become president of a college or university in the United States. TIME magazine ranked her as one of the top ten college presidents in the U.S. Fortune magazine ranked her 27th in a list of the 50 greatest world leaders.

In the UT System news release, Chancellor Cigarroa said: “Because of the incredible role that Texas is playing as a national leader in bi-cultural and bi-national studies, we need a person with exceptional leadership skills and a record of advanced achievements in higher education to help us create a presence centered in this region of our state.”

In the news release, the UT System said the new institute “will focus on developing the next generation of leadership, rooted in the values of a democratic society and will provide a non-partisan venue for convening discussions of critical issues with global significance.” Taking advantage of its geographical location, the new institute will “position the UT System as a portal to the Americas,” the release stated.

The news release also included a comment from Garcia. “Providing educational opportunity for people of South Texas has been my life’s work and I could not be more proud of what has been accomplished and what the future holds with the creation of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley,” Garcia said. “The chance to lead this incredible new institute that focuses on an area so important to me — both personally and professionally – is truly an honor. The UT Institute of the Americas is unlike anything that currently exists and I am so eager to get to work developing our nation’s next great leadership institute.”

UT System Board of Regents Vice Chairman Gene Powell is a native of the Valley and serves as the board’s special liaison to South Texas. He played a key role in setting up UTRGV. Powell said: “We could not be more thrilled that Dr. Garcia will remain part of the UT System family. Dr. Garcia’s service and contributions to higher education have been noted by her peers from around the world and the accolades she has garnered are well deserved. This is a new chapter for both UT and Dr. Garcia and it is one that holds endless possibilities.”

Powell added that the UT Institute of the Americas will play a key role in building a strong bi-national presence that will foster important relationships and conversations on critical issues facing the nation and the world.