For two decades, Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas at Brownsville have shared faculty, administrators, students and a campus abutting the Mexican border in what was hailed as a model for blending community college and university education.
But that marriage is ending and, despite efforts on both sides for an amicable divorce, questions about the institutions’ futures remain.
Since Texas Southmost trustees rejected a plan  in late 2010 to update the colleges’ partnership agreement, administrators have worked to decide who gets which buildings, which professors and which academic programs. The Southmost trustees and University of Texas regents formally approved the separation last year.
The University of Texas System has offered financial assurance for the future of UT-Brownsville. The university appears to have an easier path to retaining accreditation and plans to retain about 400 of the joint institution's 500 faculty members.
Texas Southmost, which owns most campus buildings but does not have separate accreditation, is also taking steps to secure its future. The college existed independently as an accredited community college before joining UT-Brownsville in 1991. Southmost hired President Lily Tercero last fall and plans to operate independently by August 2013. Official separation will come in 2015, but a joint transition team believes Southmost will need those two years to earn its own accreditation.
Tercero, two Southmost trustees and two consultants who helped in the presidential search agreed that earning separate accreditation will be difficult but feasible. Southmost will have to apply as if it were a new college, while UT-Brownsville (considered the “parent institution” by the accrediting agency) will follow a different process in which it must prove it can continue meeting standards despite the change.
The separation, approved by a contentious 4-3 vote last year, raised questions about the proper role of a community college. While proponents praise the collaboration and increased academic options that come with the combined arrangement, it also means that community college students pay higher tuition than they might at a separate two-year institution. Today, there is no distinction between the students and employees of the two colleges.
Southmost Trustee René Torres, who supported separation, wrote an op-ed in the Rio Grande Guardian  this week touting the transition.
Trustee Adela Garza, who voted for the separation and is now running for U.S. Congress, believes the separation is an opportunity for Southmost to focus on offering lower-cost job training and introductory college classes. That traditional community college role has been overshadowed at times by the university’s mission, she said, and students aren’t always able to pay the $208 per credit hour that’s three times the state average of $73 community colleges. She’s hopeful that credit hour cost could be halved at a separate Southmost College.
“It’s really, really exciting what’s happening right now,” Garza said. “After 20 years of being part of this partnership, which was good, now the community college is returning to its rightful place. We need a community college. It’s an important part of the community to train our work force.”
Trustee David Oliveira, a longtime board member who voted against the separation and will leave office next month, agrees that a community college is important. But he thinks the partnership was too valuable to squander and that Southmost served students better when pooling resources with UT-Brownsville. Oliveira expressed confidence in Tercero and other newly hired administrators but said spinning off a separate institution and gaining accreditation will be hard.
“We’ve got the best team in place to get it done,” he said. “I just think it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
The task of forming two colleges out of one is neither an easy nor an enviable one. Southmost must decide which, if any, buildings to offer for sale. UT-Brownsville will decide next month which faculty will have a job at the university after fall 2013, and Southmost will then have to figure out how many of those who are laid off might have a spot at the community college. All this is happening, of course, as the colleges continue to operate jointly.
As government spending on higher education constricts, the trend nationally has been for four-year and two-year institutions to pool resources. Indeed, it was during a similar budget crunch that Southmost and UT-Brownsville started their partnership.
There are more questions than answers at this point about what programs and classes each college will offer going forward. UT-Brownsville has received support from the university system as it prepares for decreased enrollment. Texas Southmost will receive state funding based on the number of students it enrolls. The community college already receives a local tax levy, which isn't expected to increase after the separation, and has a foundation which provides some scholarships.
University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT-Brownsville President Juliet García expressed confidence that the four-year institution will continue to succeed and grow. And leaders on both sides say they want the other college to succeed.
“My perspective is that Brownsville needs a vibrant community college and that Brownsville needs an outstanding four-year university,” Cigarroa said.
He said any fears that the university system would become less interested in serving South Texas after the partnership dissolved were unfounded. Regents have approved land purchases, student housing and programs to boost research as UT-Brownsville prepares for independence. He said there’s a sense of excitement about forming what is essentially a new university, complete with a new mascot and a deeper focus on research.
Still, García said a sense of “mourning” remains. UT-Brownsville expects to lose about 40 percent of today’s combined enrollment of 14,000. The university will also shift remedial and technical education to the community college, meaning professors in those areas will be jobless unless Southmost hires them. UT-Brownsville will make decisions about staff members later this year.
“That’s really the hardest part,” García said. “It’s not going to be about buildings, it’s not going to be about IT or utility infrastructure. What’s really the hardest part right now is the human capital part, the people. How do you decide who stays at the university and who doesn’t?”
Tercero, the Southmost president, said it’s too soon to know how many of those displaced employees might have a job at the new community college.
And while she acknowledges that challenges remain as the marriage ends, Tercero said she’s confident the Southmost College of five years from now will be a successful, independent institution that has a positive relationship with the university.
“Both institutions have a unique mission and purpose,” Tercero said. “Our communities truly need both institutions. We are committed to our continued work with the UT System and UTB and recognize that an ongoing spirit of cooperation will be crucial to the successful completion of this transition.”