A historic day for South Texas

Thursday, December 6, was a historic day for The University of Texas System. The Board of Regents granted me the authority to work with the Texas Legislature to create a new university in the Rio Grande Valley.

This university will be at the nexus of the two countries, and we envision it as a university serving the Americas, one that takes advantage of our strategic geographic position to make the Rio Grande Valley a center for bicultural programs in economics, business, medicine, biomedical sciences, energy, environmental sciences, Latin America studies and much more.

Our Board of Regents gave its full support after we heard compelling remarks from UT Brownsville President Julieta Garcia and UT Pan American President Robert Nelsen. Their passion and dedication to their students and South Texas and their insistence that a new university in the Rio Grande Valley would save a generation of children and build a bright future for South Texas left hardly a dry eye in the room.

The creation of a new university in the Rio Grande Valley will have a significant economic impact on the entire state. It also will mean putting the Valley institution on an equal footing in regard to eligibility for funding from the Permanent University Fund (PUF) endowment, which because of historical circumstances has been available to all UT System institutions other than the two universities in the Rio Grande Valley. Last week the Board of Regents approved:

  • Pushing forward with a plan to create a new UT university in the Rio Grande Valley, which will be PUF eligible. Instead of seven out of nine of our academic institutions eligible for PUF, eight out of eight will be eligible (since UTPA and UTB will be integrated into one new institution).
  • Allocating $10 million a year over the next 10 years for a medical school in South Texas. The plan includes making the medical school part of the new university, and the money will be used to recruit a founding dean and faculty. This allocation has no effect on excellence funding for UT Austin, funding for a school of medicine at UT Austin or any other capital projects across the UT System. 

Some may be wondering: If another university is added to the pool of those eligible for PUF funds, how does that affect existing universities? If we added a new university to the mix right now, it would decrease PUF funds directed at capital projects for our other institutions by less than $1 million annually. But in reality, due to the PUF’s incredibly strong performance and anticipated performance over the next several years, revenue from the PUF will be even greater by the time a new university opens its doors. According to projections, existing universities will not see a decrease in PUF funds, even with an additional university sharing the revenue. In fact, we’re on track to increase PUF allocations to each of our universities in the coming years as we realize more revenue from our precious West Texas Lands as a result of new technology identifying new oil and gas reservoirs.  

There are many factors that make the timing exquisitely perfect right now to move forward with a new university and excellent performance by the PUF is one of those. We will need approval from the Legislature, but the bill will be revenue neutral – no state funding is required to create this new university.

Also, in San Antonio, leaders at the UT Health Science Center are working with Vanguard Health Systems and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to build a $350 million children’s hospital and a $75 million ambulatory electronic network in South Texas to enhance integration and improve care for the region’s children. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, known as CHOP, is the No. 1 ranked children’s hospital in the country and has an international reputation for stellar care. 

The $350 million stand-alone children’s hospital – a goal that many San Antonio leaders have been working toward for decades – won’t cost the state, city or the UT System one penny. It is being funded entirely by Vanguard Health System. 

The stars seem to be lining up for a once-in-a-generation opportunity to alter an entire region of our vast state by providing unprecedented access to a world-class education, transforming healthcare and training a new generation of healthcare professionals. In doing this, we will transform a region that is one of our fastest-growing and home to a population whose demographics mirror trends nationwide. As goes the Valley, so goes Texas. And as goes Texas, so goes the nation.

We must get this right.

We visited the campuses of UT Brownsville and UT Pan American on Dec. 7, one day following the Board’s decision. The outpouring of support and emotion was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Students, faculty, business leaders, parents, grandparents, legislators and community leaders all came out to let us know what this proposal means to them. 

“Today, you’re going to hear about the visionary plan that, if executed well, has the opportunity and has the vision to transform one of the fastest-growing regions of the state of Texas into one of the most productive, most vibrant and most well-educated contributors to the well-being of the entire state,” President Garcia told the audience in Brownsville.

We also had the opportunity to meet in small groups with faculty, staff and students at both campuses. There were, of course, questions about what the transformation will mean for individuals, but those questions did not dampen the enthusiasm for the possibilities a new university will bring to the Valley.

“To be honest, none of us know what's ahead of us,” President Nelsen told reporters at a media event. “We're embarking on a dream. But everybody knows this is the right thing.”

There are questions for which we don’t yet have the answers. We don’t know the name. We don’t know when doors will open. We don’t know which programs will be offered where.

But we do know that this first, all-important step has ignited enthusiasm in the Rio Grande Valley. We know that a vision has taken hold and that business and community leaders are excited about the transformational economic impact a new university and medical school could bring to their region.

Several legislators joined us in Brownsville and Edinburg and expressed their support. Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa wrote an editorial than ran in the McAllen Monitor . In it, he said: “The possibilities are endless and the transformation of the Rio Grande Valley through education will be a dream closer to reality.”

I knew this was a bold, transformational plan. But when visiting the Rio Grande Valley with Regents Chairman Gene Powell, I was struck by just how foundation-shaking it can be and how we have the opportunity to change our state for the better.

I am looking forward to connecting with you again soon and sharing more news about the UT System. In the meantime, I offer my sincerest thanks to you for your friendship and support of higher education in Texas.

With gratitude and respect,

Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D.