By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, Dec. 3, 2010
"Plant the flag."
That's how University of Texas System Regents Gene Powell and Robert Stillwell put it a year ago when they summed up what the state's largest university system ought to do in the Rio Grande Valley. Their point was that the system should plan to dramatically expand its academic and health offerings in the fast-growing region, which has long been a stepchild when it comes to higher education.
They might have been preaching to the converted. Regents with ties to South Texas include Janiece Longoria, who grew up in Pharr, and Colleen McHugh, who lives in Corpus Christi and leads the board. The system's chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa, grew up in Laredo and expanded health programs in South Texas when he was president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.
On Friday, at a retreat in Austin, system officials outlined their progress to the Board of Regents. The efforts don't amount to a planting of the flag, but that moment might come in February, when the officials plan to ask the board for permission and money to begin the initial steps of a 10-year vision they are developing.
"This is ambitious. This is long term," said David Prior, the system's executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Cigarroa said he hopes to come up with $4 million to $5 million for hiring faculty members in science, technology, engineering and math at UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American. He said the money likely would come from system endowments and savings from debt restructuring and other cost-cutting measures. Communities in the Valley would be asked to match the system's contribution dollar for dollar through donations and other means, he said.
The system is working on a parallel track to ramp up its health programs in the region. It already operates three satellite medical campuses — known collectively as the Regional Academic Health Center — in Harlingen, Brownsville and Edinburg. The largest unit, at Harlingen, has 50 medical students from San Antonio in clinical rotations. Cigarroa hopes to double that.
Hospitals in the Valley have agreed to provide 127 new residency slots for freshly minted doctors undergoing additional training, said Kenneth Shine, the system's executive vice chancellor for health affairs.
One long-term goal is a full-fledged medical school in the Valley. State lawmakers approved a measure last year that authorizes — but stops short of requiring — the UT regents to establish a medical school in Cameron County, whose major cities are Brownsville and Harlingen. But with the state facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, it's unlikely that the Legislature would allocate significant funds for such a venture anytime soon.