Texas Southmost College

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.

The 19-year-old agreement between Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas at Brownsville that allows students to transfer from the junior college to the four-year university will phase out by 2015, the UT System Board of Regents decided Wednesday.

A dispute began between the UT System and TSC earlier this year over $10 million in building rent that UTB owed the junior college. The disagreement came to a head when the UT System proposed combining the UT campus and the community college into one legal entity governed by the UT System Board of Regents.

The TSC Board of Trustees rejected the proposal, and after waiting three weeks for a counterproposal, the regents decided to end the agreement no later than 2015.

Since 1991, TSC students have been automatically admitted to UTB from the community college by maintaining a high grade point average. The separation will mean students will have to apply and will not be guaranteed admittance.

In an October TSC board meeting, trustee René Torres said the trustees should have a right to determine the future of TSC while it collects local taxes. Juliet Garcia, president of UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, said over the years UTB brought $100 million in state funds to the campus that also serves TSC community college students, and the state dollars outweigh the debt owed.

Board of Regents Vice Chairwoman Janiece Longoria said the current partnership agreement does not meet the fundamental requirements to have a productive relationship.

“In our repeated good faith efforts to negotiate an acceptable partnership agreement, we have been both ignored and rebuffed,” Longoria said. “We cannot afford to be held hostage by unreasonable and unrelenting demands of new members of the TSC Board of Trustees.”

Francisco Rendon, chairman of the TSC trustees, said he was surprised when he heard the news of the separation Wednesday, but it may prove beneficial for both institutions. Rendon said the change will create a transfer process between TSC and UTB that students will have to traverse, but it should be no more difficult than the requirements already in place.

“The junior college mission is very different than the UT System mission,” Rendon said. “Over the last 20 years, we did what we needed to in order to bring higher education to South Texas through the partnership, but UTB has gotten big enough that they feel we should go our separate ways.”

He said the disagreement stemmed from fundamental differences in opinion about the rent UTB owed TSC for use of
its buildings.

“Instead of paying the rent, they proposed, ‘Well, why don’t you give us all your assets and we’ll take them over,’”
Rendon said.

Board of Regents Chairman Colleen McHugh said UTB cannot put its standards of excellence in higher education on hold.

“We cannot live under the status quo of an outdated agreement at the expense of putting UTB’s principles of accountability and transparency at risk,” McHugh said.

The governing board of Texas Southmost College in Brownsville rejected a proposal for a new operating agreement with the University of Texas at Brownsville on Thursday that critics said would have ceded too much local control to the UT System.

The proposed operating agreement would have combined the four-year UT System campus and the neighboring community college into one legal entity governed by the UT System Board of Regents. Rather, the board moved to offer a counterproposal: Create a new entity called UTB/TSC but continue local oversight.

Discussions of the operating agreement, which the UT System recently proposed, comes in the middle of a dispute between the two colleges over $10 million that UTB owes in rent for the use of TSC buildings.

“Without the UT System, we wouldn’t be here today,” said TSC board trustee René Torres.

“While TSC collects local taxes, we, the Texas Board of Trustees, should have a right in determining the future of the Texas Southmost College.”

UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost have shared a campus since 1991, where students can transition from taking community college courses to entering a four-year degree plan with ease. Juliet Garcia, president of UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, said over the years UTB brought $100 million in state funds to the campus that also serves TSC community college students and that the state dollars outweigh the debt owed.

“All buildings on campus are used by all students, so who owed who and how much rent?” she said in a statement. “Rent owed was only $10 million, but dollars received by UTB was over $100 million.”

Garcia said combining the university and the community college into a single legal entity would reduce the paperwork for federal financial aid and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

On Wednesday, several TSC trustees took to the Brownsville Herald to speak about the agreement.

TSC trustee Juan Mendez said additional state funding resulting from the new agreement is essential for the college, but the colleges should have already been fully funded.

“What has been pitched as another benefit to TSC is that we would have a fully funded UT System school,” Mendez said in a statement to the Herald. “Unless I’m missing something, we have a four-year university here already named UTB.”