Lessons from a divorce

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Earlier this month, the UT System launched a Web page for Texans to track the split between UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, both located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The page offers a healthy dose of transparency in what has been a very messy and convoluted divorce between the four-year UT campus and its two-year neighbor, which highlights the enormous evolutionary questions that face higher education.

The partnership between the two was established in 1991­­. Both institutions have open admissions policies, so students could seamlessly transition from Texas Southmost College to UT-Brownsville after completing their requirements. Many facilities and employees were also shared.

But a rift between the institutions’ two governing bodies, the UT System Board of Regents and the Texas Southmost College Board of Trustees, occurred as the 20-year partnership was up for renewal. The bickering between the entities highlighted two fundamental issues: focus and finances. In the end, the UT System regents voted unanimously in November 2010 to dissolve the partnership, and the TSC trustees followed suit a few months later.

From a logistical point of view, the UT System’s Web page will help individuals across the state track the governance nightmare of splitting two institutions and address questions ranging from employment and tenure to accreditation and graduation.

However, the Web page’s greater value is that it highlights higher education’s underlying existential challenge. Many blamed the UT System for disregarding the strong community ties the institutions had in order to increase the reputation of UT-Brownsville. The split and its aftermath accentuates the dilemma between access and education, and its current manifestation forces society to choose between a more educated workforce and a better educated workforce.

When higher education was reserved primarily for the brightest and the richest, colleges and universities relied heavily on enticing the most talented students — knowing perfectly well that what goes in will come out the same way.

But the national push for access to higher education has suddenly put the focus on learning gains and academic empowerment that students obtain at an institution. It’s one thing to be judged on an ability to recruit a talented student. It’s a completely different thing to be judged on making a talented student.

The dissolution of the UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College partnership signals the failure in balancing excellence and access — at least in this form.

As the UT System moves forward in publicly navigating a difficult breakup, they have the opportunity to redefine how these two equally important missions can intermingle.