Christmas comes early to UTPA, UTB and RGV
Posted: 12/07/2012
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The University of Texas-Pan American celebrated news of The University of Texas System's historic decision to merge UTPA with The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) and bring a medical school to the Rio Grande Valley Friday, Dec. 7 with a town hall meeting and reception.

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen addresses the University and Rio Grande Valley communities on the UT System's plan to merge UT Pan American and UT Brownsville and establish a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.

UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen was joined by his counterpart, UTB President Juliet V. Garcia, UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa and UT Board of Regents Chairman William Eugene (Gene) Powell, as well as state and local dignitaries to address a packed Student Union Theater on The UT System's plans to create one large university that will span the entire region. View the entire town hall meeting at UTPA here.

"Today is not a day to cry, it is a day to celebrate one of the greatest things to happen to the Rio Grande Valley," Nelsen said, referring to his emotional plea for support for the new university a day earlier at the Board of Regents meeting.

On Thursday, Dec. 6, The University of Texas System Board of Regents unanimously approved the plan presented by Cigarroa, Powell, Nelsen and Garcia.

The project, called "A University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley," is expected to have:

• A student enrollment of 27,659;

• Research expenditures of $11 million;

• An endowment of $70.5 million; and

• A total operating budget of $419 million.

The plan would also include establishing administrative offices in McAllen.

Regents also approved spending $100 million over the next 10 years to transform the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen to a school of medicine.

Once established, the new university could create 7,000 new jobs in the Valley and 3,000 spin-off jobs.

It would be one of the two largest Hispanic-serving institutions in the nation, both for total Hispanics enrolled and the number of bachelor's degrees awarded.

From left: UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, UTB President Juliet V. Garcia and UT Board of Regents Chairman William Eugene Powell show their teamwork to collaborate on combining UTPA and UTB and creating a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.

This endeavor will enable the new institution to access revenues from the Permanent University Fund (PUF), a public endowment created by the Texas Constitution, which serves as a major catalyst for building a world-class research university. The PUF currently has more than $12 billion in revenues. UTPA and UTB previously had not been eligible for PUF funds.

As an emerging research university, it would also be eligible for more funding sources, such as the National Research University Fund, the Texas Research Incentive Plan and matching UT System money.

"I'm so proud of my Board of Regents who understand the need and the reasons to do this," said Cigarroa, who was met with standing ovations before and after his presentation to the community. "It is my firm belief that if we can accomplish this vision we will forever change the economic and educational landscape of the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas and, in fact, the entire state of Texas."

Powell, a native of Weslaco, told UTPA faculty, staff and public that the stars were aligned for this initiative to happen and all the right people were in place to take the vision of this new university forward. He encouraged everyone in the audience and those watching the live webcast to help in this endeavor and write letters to their legislators in support, talk to their neighbors and everyone they know and get their support for a new school and access to the PUF for the region.

"This is a life changer for the next 100 years for the Rio Grande Valley," Powell said. "We have this opportunity to get this right and we can't let this get away from us. Two-thirds that is all the vote we need (in the legislature) to get use of PUF funds and start the new university."

State legislators for the region vowed to do their part to convince their fellow representatives to approve the UT System's plan, and called the project a Christmas present to the Valley.

"Education is the great equalizer," said State Rep. Terry Canales (Dist. 40. "The Valley has not fallen behind, it was left behind. With what has happened today we have the opportunity to be on par, to be at the same level as other universities."

UTPA students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Rio Grande Valley community, crowded into the Student Union Theater Dec. 7 to learn more about the UT System's plans to create a large regional university by merging UTPA and UTB and establishing a medical school in the Valley.

After the town hall meeting, Dr. Pedro Reyes, UT System executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and an Alamo native, explained the genesis of the project's creation. Reyes said the idea for such a venture developed when the system was tasked with navigating the separation of UTB and Texas Southmost College and trying to understand how to respond to those challenges.

He and other system officials also wondered why UT Pan American and UT Brownsville could not have access to PUF money.

"I sat with the presidents at meetings and saw the frustration and the same question all the time in their eyes. So this was a great opportunity to think big, that we could do more than just bringing in PUF," Reyes said.

Though the PUF is critical for the new institution, the endeavor is more than about accessing those funds, he said.

"We have created an entity that is going to be a great institution for the future and for the economic development here," Reyes said. "It takes time, it takes alignment, it takes people thinking about the same issues at the same time. It takes leadership -- you have a chairman and a chancellor who really understand this. The rest of it is, 'How do we help?' My role is to help."

The UTPA community praised UT System's plans.

Mario Rodriguez, a senior from Pharr majoring in marketing, said he was impressed and foresees it bringing many more job opportunities for the region.

"Students are excited. This is good news. We are willing to help bring it on, we are going to have to write those letters to the legislators in Texas to have a good reaction," he said.

Dr. John Ronnau, dean of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, called the proposal positive and profound.

"It just makes so much sense," said Ronnau, who previously worked for UTB for seven years. "I just can't think of a more positive and effective proposal than this. I think it's super exciting and the right thing to do at the right time."

Ronnau added that the medical school will accelerate the Valley's higher education and health care communities to address the needs of its citizens.

"I think all the disciplines in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services are going to be empowered by this and will be able to contribute to the effectiveness of the medical school," he said.

UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa rolls out plans for "A University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley" during a town hall meeting at UTPA's Student Union Theater Dec. 7, 2012.

Dr. John Trant, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, also expressed his excitement about the plan.

"The carpet has just been laid open for us," Trant said. "There is no reason why we cannot attain that measure of being a research-oriented institution. We are starting from scratch to be that innovator of education, blending the med school and our academic institutions into one, it will bring fantastic experiential learning opportunities for our students. This is going to be huge for our students, our region, our economy, our reputation. It's fantastic."

Members of the community said they, too, are optimistic about the proposed regional university and medical school.

City of McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said the Valley is growing tremendously - at a greater rate than the United States, based on U.S. Census statistics - so the need for access to higher education is tremendous and that always takes money.

"This is an exciting time," Cortez said. "The Rio Grande Valley needs to work regionally to be able to get things done, and I am a great proponent of thinking regionally and acting regionally. We are a unique area here, we are like about 18 or 19 different political jurisdictions, and it is not always easy for us to meet on certain things ... but this is so important. Young people are our future."