South Texas

Project South Texas, a plan to merge the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville and establish a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley, commenced Thursday, with former Missouri Southern University president Julio Leon hired to lead all project operations.

Recent studies have shown there is anywhere from 1,050 to 2,146 students currently enrolled at UT-Austin who originate from various counties within the Rio Grande Valley. It is these students who have experienced first-hand the necessity for change in higher education and health care.

Elisa Benavides, biology junior and native of Edinburg, Texas, situated in Rio Grande Valley, said she was offered a full ride to the UT-Pan American campus but elected to attend UT-Austin in hopes of creating a more competitive and challenging environment for herself. 

“After taking summer classes at UTPA my sophomore year of high school, I felt as if I could experience bigger things at UT,” Benavides said. 

Katie Rodriguez, business sophomore from Mission, Texas, said she sees the potential for Project South Texas to inspire confidence and tenacity within residents of the Rio Grande Valley, known locally as the RGV or simply the Valley. 

Rodriguez’s mother, who works as a principal at an elementary school within the Valley recently struggled with her school district to allow her to bring her fourth and fifth graders to UT-Austin and display the possibilities that lay outside the county borders.  

“There are many students in the Valley who want to go into the medical field, but do not have the knowledge or resources to leave the Valley,” Rodriguez said. 

Project South Texas not only aims to inspire a sense of purpose for RGV students, but it also helps mend the growing health and economic problems within the Valley as well. 

“Texas in general, compared to the rest of the country, has a large need for doctors but South Texas in particular has a serious dearth of physicians,” UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said. 

Aside from lengthy waits for the chance to schedule appointments, quality assurance is also a source of trepidation. Rodriguez said her younger brother recently dealt with a severe case of “Cat scratch fever” and needed to be taken to facilities in San Antonio to receive proper care. 

“The doctors in the Valley, who could not diagnose this, wanted to perform exploratory surgery along his neck and the base of his skull,” Rodriguez said. “We took him up to San Antonio, where they immediately diagnosed and treated him.”

LaCoste-Caputo said that statistically, people who go through medical school and practice their residency within the region are 80 percent more likely to stay and practice in that region.

“Giving the opportunity for people to train in South Texas will mean we can build a workforce of physicians there to provide care,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

At the time of its opening, which is scheduled for 2015, the South Texas medical school will be the first medical school within the UT System to be directly integrated with a university. Shortly to be followed by the Dell Medical School at the flagship campus in 2016, the two historically different colleges are now united by a common goal: to provide community health care. 

“We need more opportunity for quality higher education in Texas,” LaCoste-Caputo said. 

The Texas House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to establish a new UT System university in the Rio Grande Valley.

Lawmakers voted 149-0 to combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and allow that institution to access the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that funds the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center, which currently offers residency programs, would gain a medical school that offers medical degrees under the proposal.

Tearing up after the vote, UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen said the university would provide new educational opportunities to students in the Valley and allow them to attend what may become a tier-one research university.

“When you live in the Valley and you see the need and you see how education changes lives, you can’t help but be emotional,” Nelsen said. “Every child we educate takes one more family out of poverty.”

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are the only UT System institutions that do not currently have access to the Permanent University Fund.

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said the new “super university” would improve the Valley’s economy, allow students to stay in the region to attend college and help address the statewide doctor shortage.

“The passage of this bill isn’t just good for South Texas, it’s good for all of our state,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said there are 33 medical residency positions available in the region but an additional 115 slots are expected to be available by 2016 when the medical school is projected to open its doors.

Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, said she wanted to emphasize that adding new slots in the Valley would not completely solve the statewide doctor shortage.

“My concern is that I don’t want anyone in this House chamber to think that because of this new medical school, we’re in any way going to solve the doctor or physician shortage that we have in this state,” Davis said.

Upon its establishment, the university would have about 28,000 students, research expenditures of more than $11 million and an endowment of $70.5 million, according to a report by the House Research Organization.

The institutions involved in the consolidation could save $6 million in administrative costs, according to the report.

The new university would automatically admit students who currently attend the institutions involved in the consolidation.

The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for the prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which approved a similar bill last week by a vote of 30-1. Each house must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote for it to take effect.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said legislation establishing the new university may be on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk within the next few weeks.

During his State of the State address in January, Perry said he supported allowing UT System schools in the Valley to access the Permanent University Fund.

Lucio said 70 to 75 percent of medical students will seek employment in South Texas if they complete their residencies there.

“Ultimately, that is our goal — for them to stay in the Valley,” Lucio said.

Published on March 20, 2013 as "Texas House votes for new UT school". 

Texas lawmakers will consider consolidating UT System institutions in South Texas after two legislative committees unanimously approved it Wednesday.

The bills, approved separately by the House and Senate Higher Education Committees on Wednesday, would combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and allow that institution to access the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment for institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center would become a medical school under the proposal. 

“We’re very pleased with the support legislators have shown toward this transformational plan for South Texas,” UT System spokesperson Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said.

The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for the prospective medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation.

Consolidating UT System institutions in the Rio Grande Valley would greatly benefit the economy of South Texas, UT System officials and Texas lawmakers said Wednesday.

The Texas Legislature is considering passing bills filed in both houses that would combine University of Texas at Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, currently assessed at $1.3 billion for the 2014-15 biennium, allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are the only schools in the UT System that are not eligible for inclusion in the Permanent University Fund.

UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen told the House Higher Education Committee that his institution does not have the space to accommodate students that other universities in the System have. Nelson said UT-Pan American has 129 gross square feet per student as opposed to 203 at UT-El Paso and 355 at UT-Austin.

“Why do we have so little? Because we’ve never had access to [the Permanent University Fund],” Nelsen said.

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are not included in the fund because they were not originally established under the UT System.

To be included in the fund, the Legislature must establish a new university within the UT or A&M systems by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

The Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen is part of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, which means it is already eligible for money from the Permanent University Fund.

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, filed the House version of the bill and said the consolidation of the universities will create 7,000 to 10,000 jobs with an average salary of $63,000.

“I can’t think of anything I’ve ever offered in my 29 years of the Legislature that will have as much impact as this,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said he believes it would take 18 to 24 months to abolish the existing universities and create the new institution if the bill passes.

The UT System Board of Regents approved spending $100 million of its own funds over 10 years to transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated institution. The System will also seek $10 million per year in state funds to assist the consolidation. Those appropriations would be separate from the Permanent University Fund.

Oliveira said the Permanent University Fund is projected to grow over the course of the decade, which will provide more money to each university included in the fund and negate any impact the new institution would have on how much other universities receive.

“We’re not going to be crowding [other universities] out,” Oliveira said. “We’re going to be part of the family, which we should have been a long time ago.”

Printed on Thursday, February 21, 2013 as: Legislature considers Rio Grande Valley university consolidation bill 

Historic moment for South Texas

On Monday, Feb. 3, two bills filed in the Texas House and Senate detailed plans for the creation of a Rio Grande Valley university by joining UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the UT Regional Academic Health Center, all institutions in South Texas. As one, these three institutions would benefit, if the new proposals become law, from access to the Permanent University Fund. One of the largest endowments in the nation, the Fund is, according to the Texas Constitution, only accessible to certain schools in the UT and Texas A&M Systems. Presently, that list of key-holders excludes UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American.

By granting South Texas institutions access to the Fund, a plan Gov. Rick Perry endorsed in his State of the State speech last week, the Texas Legislature has directed tightly-controlled resources to a region where they are most needed. Some might argue that those resources, which, after all, are substantial and exist for the sole purpose of enriching the UT and A&M University Systems, should be spread around the state more generously. But don’t dismiss the momentous historical occasion the Legislative, System-wide and gubernatorial support the development represents for the Rio Grande region, which is expected to experience explosive population growth in the coming decades. South Texas will benefit, as all localities do, from the introduction of higher educations which brings jobs, medical care and greater opportunities.

In many ways, the existence of UT-Austin is an important part of what makes Central Texas such a rich place to live. We can only hope the same for South Texas. “Our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousand-fold,” Rick Perry said last week. We, uncharacteristically, applaud the governor.

 

Cruz takes no prisoners

Texas voters got what they asked for when they elected Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate: a debater and point-maker. But they did not get, so far, a winning debater and point-maker. Since he took office in January, Cruz has earned a place as the only current U.S. Senator to lose every vote he has cast.

“Senator Cruz promised the voters of Texas he would take principled stands when it comes to fiscal responsibility and protecting America’s sovereignty,” his spokesman, Sean Rushton, recently told The Washington Times. “He didn’t come to Washington to make friends; he came to help save the country. Senator Cruz is proud of his votes and will continue to stand up for America and the Constitution.”

Cruz apparently subscribes to the notion that voting against every measure that crosses his Senate desk can be equated with courageous and principled leadership. The opposite is true; it would be courageous of Cruz to seek advancement of our country’s interests in the face severe ideological divisions. It is much easier for Cruz to loudly reject ideas than to have the courage to compromise.

Cruz has opposed minor procedural changes in the Senate, the $50 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package and President Barack Obama’s appointment and the resulting confirmation of Sen. John F. Kerry to the post of secretary of state.

Right or wrong, Cruz has not gotten his way once. And whether you believe in Ron Paul’s brand of political stubbornness or President Obama’s compromising attitude — sometimes deemed over-solicitous by his supporters — Cruz’s initial senatorial appearance as a poster boy for conservative lost causes makes us long for his more practical predecessor, former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature on Monday would lead the UT System to consolidate its institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one entity.

The bills would bring UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen under the administration of one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, established by the Texas Constitution, allocates money to the UT and Texas A&M systems.

It is unclear how much the initiative will cost, but the regents approved spending $100 million over 10 years to help transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university.
The bills would direct the UT System Board of Regents to establish a temporary advisory group that would design, develop and choose a location for the proposed medical school.
“We believe the students of South Texas deserve access to a first-class education and that this new, PUF-eligible university will have a magnificent impact on the educational and economic opportunities in the region,” Board Chairman Gene Powell said in a statement released Monday.

In January, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told the Senate Finance
Committee that the System will seek $10 million per year in state general revenue funds to assist the consolidation and the establishment of the medical school. 

The UT System is not currently seeking state funds to pay for the UT-Austin
medical school, which will use revenue from the regents, the regional Seton Family of Hospitals and property tax revenue collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. At the Senate Finance Committee meeting, Cigarroa said the Rio Grande Valley does not have the tax base necessary to support such an arrangement.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who filed the bill, said the city may have to create a special taxing district that would help fund the medical school but that the school would have to seek revenue from additional sources such as philanthropic funds.

“We cannot raise the kind of money you could raise in Austin or El Paso or Houston or Dallas, so we are going to have to be creative about other kinds of funding packages,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said the bill filed by Rep. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, to establish a UT System law school in the Rio Grande Valley is not related to the consolidation bill but said the proposed law school could be part of the consolidation.

According to each bill, students already enrolled at UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville before the bill takes effect would be allowed to enroll at the new university. The bills state that the new university will hire as many faculty and staff as possible from the abolished universities.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said it is too soon to tell how the proposed school’s administration would include administrators at UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center.

“There will be some consolidation but it is premature to discuss details, as a bill to create the university still has to be passed by a two-thirds vote of both chambers in the Legislature,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

The House bill is authored by nine representatives including Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. 

The Senate bill is authored by four senators: Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The initiative has support from outside of the legislative branch and the UT System. 

During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Rick Perry said he supported allowing the schools to have access to the Permanent University Fund.

“This area of the state is critical to our state’s future,” Perry said, “and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousand-fold.”

Printed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 as: Bill proposes merging Valley schools

Bills in Texas Legislature would consolidate UT System schools in Rio Grande Valley

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature on Monday would bring the UT System to consolidating its institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one entity.

The bills would bring the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen under the administration of one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund, a fund established by the Texas Constitution to allocate money to the UT and Texas A&M systems.

The bills would direct the board of regents to establish a temporary advisory group that would design, develop and choose a location for the proposed medical school.

At their Dec. 6 meeting, the UT System Board of Regents voted to allow UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to work with the Texas Legislature to establish the school.

“We believe the students of South Texas deserve access to a first-class education and that this new, PUF-eligible university will have a magnificent impact on the educational and economic opportunities in the region,” Regents Chairman Gene Powell said in a statement released Monday.

It is unclear how much the initiative will cost, but the regents approved spending $100 million over ten years to help transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine.

In January, Cigarroa told the Senate Finance Committee that the System will seek $10 million per year in state general revenue funds to assist the consolidation and establishment of the medical school.

This is unlike the arrangement that will fund the UT-Austin medical school, which will use revenue from the board of regents, Seton Family of Hospitals, a regional hospital network, and property tax revenue collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. At that meeting, Cigarroa said the Rio Grande Valley does not have the tax base necessary to support such an arrangement.

According to each bill, students already enrolled at UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville before the bill takes effect would be allowed to enroll at the new university. The bills state that the new university will hire as many faculty and staff as possible from the abolished universities.

The House bill is authored by five representatives including state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who filed the bill, and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. The bill also has five co-authors.

The Senate bill is authored by four senators including state Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

For the System to establish the school, both houses of the Legislature must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote.

In a statement, Branch said the bill gives the Legislature and UT System an opportunity to enhance education, research and business activity in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It's our vision that the Rio Grande Valley will one day rival Silicon Valley as an intersection of education and innovation," Branch said.

The initiative has support from outside of the legislative branch and the UT System.

During his State of the State Address last week, Gov. Rick Perry said he supported allowing the schools to have access to the Permanent University Fund.

“This area of the state is critical to our state's future, and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousand-fold,” Perry said.

Gov. Rick Perry talks about fixed four-year tuition rates during his State of the State address at the Capitol in January.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Gov. Rick Perry touted Texas as “stronger than ever”  in his State of State Address and called on legislators to begin using the state’s largely untouched Rainy Day Fund as a way to start making much-needed improvements to state infrastructure.

In his address yesterday, Perry said the decisions made in the 2011 legislative session continue to boost Texas into economic prosperity, with more than half a million private sector jobs created in the last two years. He spoke of creating tax relief for Texans and of making higher education more affordable for the entire state.  

“We led the nation out of recession and into recovery, and remain the nation’s prime destination for employers and job seekers alike,” Perry said in his address. “In classrooms, on assembly lines, in laboratories, on farms and in office buildings, hard-working Texans are today turning their dreams into realities.”

Perry said he supported using $3.7 million of the Economic Stabilization Fund, or Rainy Day Fund, for a one-time investment in Texas infrastructure issues such as water and transportation. The fund will hold about $12 billion in 2014.

“The Rainy Day Fund was created to ensure we had a sufficient amount in reserve in case of disaster, and to ensure Texas maintains its strong credit rating,” Perry said. “While we cannot — and will not — raid the fund to meet ongoing expenses, we also shouldn’t accumulate billions more than necessary.”

Perry said he supported a bill to give universities in South Texas access to the state’s Permanent University Fund, which is a public endowment that supports select universities in the University of Texas System and Texas A&M University System.

“Today, the students of South Texas are able to stay closer to home to earn their college degrees,” Perry said. “This area of the state is critical to our state’s future, and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousandfold.”

A protester stood up and interrupted Perry’s speech to express concern for the lack of available health care in Texas and was immediately escorted out of the building. Perry decided last year not to expand the Medicaid program for the state and said again in his Tuesday address that the state does not plan to set up an exchange program for health insurance.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said Perry’s decision not to expand Medicaid is neither socially nor economically responsible. 

“What it would do for the economic development of our state is pretty significant, if not phenomenal,” Watson said. “But yet, almost because of disliking who won in an election, we’re not going to focus on something that will make citizens of this state healthier and will make the economy healthier.”

Perry said he agreed with President Barack Obama’s statement in his second inaugural address about pulling forward as a united force, regardless of individual differences, and said he hopes to implement the same mindset in the state of Texas moving forward.

“I’m proud that Texas is a place where anyone can make a difference, regardless of where you’re from or how you might spell your last name,” Perry said. “We are a diverse tapestry of cultures, faiths and bloodlines, but we are bound by a common spirit and a common lineage that’s remarkable for a state so big.”

The UT System Board of Regents approved the creation of a new university in south Texas with an accompanying medical school that will be made up of UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center.

The proposed university, which has not been officially named, was referred to as the University of the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley and would consolidate UT-Brownsville and UTPA but would maintain both campuses functioning for academic and research purposes. The new medical school will be known as the South Texas School of Medicine. An official timeline for the establishment of the school has not been announced because of pending legislative approval.

The proposal received unanimous support from the regents during a meeting Thursday.

UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa presented the proposal to the board and said existing resources at UT-Brownsville and UTPA will make establishing the larger university and medical school possible.

“I think we were thinking too small,” Cigarroa said. “There are challenges in the UTPA region. The new structure will help reshape this.”

If created, the new university would enroll more than 27,000 students and employ 1,500 faculty members and 3,700 staff with projections to create almost 7,000 new jobs in the Rio Grande Valley. UT System officials said establishing the proposed university would require streamlining administration at UTPA and UT-Brownsville in order to consolidate duplicate positions.

Research expenditures for the university would total $11.4 million, and the university would also have an endowment of $70.5 million.

The university would become one of the largest institutions serving primarily Hispanic students in the nation, Cigarroa said.

Gene Powell, chairman of the board, said the new proposal represents a transformational opportunity for the System.

“This is an important step and a bold, innovative plan to change the landscape in south Texas,” Powell said. “These are undeserved parts of the state despite growth. We are taking steps no one has done in a hundred years.”

Powell said the proposal has received support from legislative leaders including Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

The new university will require approval from the Legislature during the upcoming legislative session with an additional parameter to make the new school eligible to receive funding from the Permanent University Fund, a state endowment funded by the investment of lease sale profits and revenue from production on state-owned land.

The endowment funds several institutions in the UT System, but UT-Brownsville and UTPA are not eligible because of stipulations in the legislation passed when they were originally created.

Scott Kelley, executive vice chancellor for business affairs, said the creation of the new university would not affect current funding from the endowment for other universities.

The regents will appropriate endowment funding for the new university after existing institutions receive the amount the regents would usually allocate to them from the endowment.

The regents also approved $100 million over the next 10 years to fund the new university and accompanying medical school whose administration would be headquartered in McAllen.

Kenneth Shine, executive vice chancellor for health affairs, said health institutions in the area have committed to almost quadrupling residencies to 127. There are currently 33 residencies in the area.

The annual $10 million that will be given from the board will be used to hire a new dean and core faculty to set up a curriculum for the proposed medical school.

“No additional dollars will be required by the state to help support this institution,” Kelley said.

Both UT-Brownsville president Juliet García and UTPA president Robert Nelsen expressed support for the new university.

Before the vote, Nelsen spoke passionately about increasing education and medical access in south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

“What is being offered to you today is that you have an opportunity to save our children,” Nelsen said. “If we don’t get it right in south Texas and in the Valley, we’re not going to get it right anywhere.”

An emotional Nelsen said a south Texas medical school would also unify the Valley, where individuals sometimes wait six hours to see a doctor because of the lack of medical professionals in the area.

“Your vote will keep them in the Valley,” Nelsen said. “We need them there.”

Nelsen’s remarks brought many of those present, including board chairman Powell who grew up in south Texas, to tears.

Printed on Friday, December 7, 2012 as: Regents OK joint S. Texas university

Several UT campuses in south Texas to be combined into one university

The UT System Board of Regents approved the creation of a new university in south Texas made up by UT-Browsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center with an accompanied medical school during a meeting Thursday.

The proposed University of the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley will require approval from the Legislature during the upcoming legislative session.

The regents also approved $100 million over the next ten years to fund the new university whose administration would be headquartered in McAllen.

Scott Kelley, executive vice chancellor for business affairs, said the creation of the new university would not affect funding for other universities.

Funding would come from remaining dollars of the Permanent University Fund, a state endowment funded by the investment of lease sale profits and revenue from production on the land, after corresponding funding has been allocated to existing institutions.