Consolidating South Texas schools would boost economy, officials say

Joshua Fechter

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