U. of Texas Plans to Merge 2 Campuses and Open a Medical School in the Rio Grande Valley

December 06, 2012

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas would get a long-awaited medical school, as well as a new university eligible to share in the state's main higher-education endowment, under a plan unanimously approved on Thursday by the University of Texas system's Board of Regents.

The proposal, which requires legislative approval, would consolidate the University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American into a single university with its own medical school. The school would be an extension of a regional academic health center in Harlingen, Tex., that now provides clinical training for third- and fourth-year medical students.

The regents, who have been sensitive to criticism that plans for a new medical school in Austin have been moving along at a fast clip while a South Texas proposal has languished for years, approved spending $100-million over the next 10 years to accelerate the transition in South Texas.

The new university, which has tentatively been dubbed "A University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley," could share in the state's Permanent University Fund and eventually grow into a major research university, said Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas system.

"If we accomplish this, we will forever change the educational and economic landscape of South Texas and the entire state," Dr. Cigarroa, a pediatric and transplant surgeon who hails from a long line of physicians in the border city of Laredo, told regents before the vote.

In order to open, the consolidated university must be approved by two-thirds of the Texas Legislature, but it won't require any additional state money. In fact, the system expects to save about $6-million a year by combining the two universities.

The medical school is a different matter. The university system will be seeking $20-million in the coming biennium for the medical school, which will also require financial support from the South Texas region.

Coming up with the extra money won't be easy at a time when lawmakers are looking for ways to cut budgets and when hospitals in the region are operating on razor-thin margins, system officials acknowledged.

The Rio Grande Valley region, whose population is nearly 1.3 million and growing rapidly, has 107 doctors per 100,000 people, less than half the national average, Dr. Cigarroa said. The impoverished region suffers from high rates of diabetes and obesity, and patients often have to wait long hours to see a doctor.

A Shortage of Physicians

The proposed new medical school is part of a statewide push to allay a worsening physician shortage.

Last month voters in Travis County, which includes Austin, approved a 5-cent property-tax increase that will support a new University of Texas medical school here. Seton Hospital, in Austin, committed $250-million toward construction costs, and the University of Texas system kicked in $30-million out of funds that are available only to the state's flagship campuses.

In South Texas, by contrast, hospitals' budgets are squeezed by caring for large numbers of uninsured patients. Persuading residents to pay higher taxes to support a medical center could be much tougher than it was in Austin.

Another hurdle is finding enough residency slots to train the influx of new doctors. The university system is working to expand the number of training positions in the region, from 33 to at least 130 over the next four years.

And last week, the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended that no new medical schools move forward until more training slots open.

Despite the challenges ahead, the chairman of the system's Board of Regents, Gene Powell—who like Dr. Cigarroa grew up in South Texas—remained optimistic about the new university's chances.

"This creates incredible opportunities to capitalize on the bicultural heritage of the Rio Grande Valley and build a university for the Americas," said Mr. Powell.

The consolidated university would have about 28,000 students and 1,500 faculty members, and would be one of the largest Hispanic-serving universities in the country, the chancellor said.

The South Texas region is one of the fastest-growing but poorest parts of the state, with an average age of 26. "If we don't get it right in the valley, we won't get it right anywhere and we will drag this state and this nation down," Robert S. Nelsen, president of the Pan American campus, in Edinburg, said, referring to the changing demographics of the region and the nation. With a well-financed new university and medical school, "you have the opportunity to save our children," he told the regents, his voice cracking with emotion.

Juliet V. García, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, agreed.

"The valley is strategically positioned to become the epicenter and the gateway to the Americas," she said. "We are poised to be able to produce biliterate graduates who will be able to operate in a global environment."