10 December 2012

Transitions to a new South Texas university

They just put up these new signs around my campus.

And they’re going to have to change them in a year and a half.

As I expected, the big announcement last week was for a medical school. What I didn’t completely expect was that my institution, The University of Texas-Pan American, is sort of going away.

There is going to be a new University of Texas institution in South Texas in August, 2014. It still has to be approved by the Texas legislature, but I can’t imagine it will not pass.

 I had suspicions that something was up when I saw news stories like this one:

Higher education institutions in the Rio Grande Valley could be reorganized as part of a proposal laying out plans for a comprehensive medical school in the region, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said Tuesday.

When I saw that, I thought, “We’re getting Brownsville.” The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) was always a small campus, with only a couple of thousand students. It had, for a long time, been associated with a community college. They split in 2011, and from what I had heard, UTB had been suffering since then. They had no physical space of their own; that was all given to the college. And, as I noted, they were small. Bringing UTB into the fold made sense to me.

I was aware that the Regional Academic Health Centers (RAHC) had been struggling, too. Despite one branch being located on the UTPA campus (for example), it was controlled by the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio. That distance caused problems. The RAHC faculty had expectations to teach, but there were effectively no teaching spaces and no students there.

That aspect of the proposal makes a lot of sense to me.

A lot of time on Thursday and Friday went into meetings surrounding this announcement. I went to a town hall meeting on Friday, and it was filled to capacity, and people were excited, though it was hard to tell about what, exactly.

The thing that surprised me was that I expected the first thing that would be talked about would be the medical school, given how long it had been talked about by so many people. But it wasn’t. The first thing that came out was PUF.

It is strange to hear all these administrators talking about this, because they don’t say, “pee you eff,” they say “puff.” One of them even joked, “I thought ‘PUF’ was a magic dragon.”

I don’t think I had ever heard about “puff” in over a decade at this university, but it’s an acronym for “Permanent University Fund.” This is a found set up by the state that is worth around $11 billion. For various reasons, the universities in the region were never eligible to tap into this fund, but a new university would be.

This change to create a new university, with access to PUF, requires two-thirds approval from the Texas legislature. But – and this is a critical “but” – it doesn’t require the legislature spend a dime of money. Besides, announcements of this scale usually don’t go forward unless those involved are extremely confident of getting the votes.

And it was clear that back room deals are the secret to things like this. At the town hall meeting on Friday, it was very clear that this motion to make a new university with a medical school happened because a lot of the key players, like Chancellor Ciguerroa, were from from the Rio Grande Valley. Old boy’s network in action.

Fusing these institutions is going to be a pain. But my institution, UTPA, is probably going to suffer the least upheaval.

I was interviewed by university affairs about this, and they seemed to want to talk about the medical school. I understand why: there is a long standing need in an underserved community.

But the Rio Grande Valley is not about to become one big hospital.

The commitment to creating an emerging research university is, over the long haul, going to have a bigger impact on the area than just the medical school.

External links

Chronicle of Higher Education

Puff from here.


Prof-like Substance said...

How is this going to change tenure and evaluation for current faculty at UTPA? Are you suddenly going to have to bring in more research money? Will your teaching load change?

Zen Faulkes said...

Everything like tenure and promotion standards, research expectations, and teaching load will no doubt change... eventually. But there’s no timeline. I expect it’ll take 5-10 years, if not more.

And I’ll tell you, departments and administration were already butting heads over tenure and promotion standards. What we're facing is nothing new. The good news is that those T&P standards are set by the departments. And now, administration is going to have fewer excuses when departments say, "You want all this? Pony up the resources."

None of this is going to happen overnight. We are a long way from being an emerging research university.