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UT Pulls Plug on Partnership

November 11, 2010

The partnership between the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College -- in which the four-year university and the community college operate jointly on a campus that serves the needy lower Rio Grande Valley -- has long been held up as an innovative example in higher education.

But to the shock of many people on the combined campus, the University of Texas System on Wednesday said it would terminate the partnership, citing the failure of Texas Southmost's trustees to sign off on an updated version of the institutions' operating agreement after nearly 18 months of negotiation.

"While we were hoping to forge a new relationship that would propel the UT System and TSC into the future as partners, we have come to the conclusion that the current working situation is untenable, and therefore, the UT System will concentrate on advancing higher education in South Texas and at The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) without a partnership with TSC," UT officials said in a prepared statement after the system's Board of Regents approved a motion and released a letter of termination of the agreement. Under the terms of the existing agreement, either party must give four years' notice of termination, so the formal dissolution will occur no later than August 2015.

As reported by Inside Higher Ed last month, there was general agreement among officials of both institutions that the agreement under which they had operated since 1991 had been overwhelmed by the partnership's growth and increasing complexity. But some members of the Texas Southmost board had expressed concern that the proposed new operating agreement would cede too much of the two-year college's authority to its four-year partner and the UT system. Under the new arrangement, the assets of the two institutions would have been combined in a trust largely controlled by the university system. Local officials in Brownsville and some Texas Southmost trustees said they believed the deal would diminish their control over how local tax dollars are spen

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“I think that [the new agreement] does diminish the powers of the Board of Trustees,” Juan (Trey) Mendez, one trustee, said last month. “That’s an absolute concern. We were elected to act on behalf of the people who put us here, so if there are any concerns that this will affect our decision-making ability, it will affect them, too.” At last month's board meeting, the trustees voted to work with the UT System to draft a counterproposal rather than ratify the proposed new agreement, as supporters of the proposal had urged.

But in the intervening weeks since that Oct. 21 vote, "no contact has been made to U.T. and no counterproposal in any form has been made," Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System, said in a statement Wednesday.

With no agreement forthcoming, UT was left with no choice but to break the agreement, the regents said in their own statement, "We will not put our standards of excellence in higher education on hold. UT Brownsville’s leadership team needs the opportunity now to redirect its time and energies to the future aspirations of the university. We cannot live under the status quo of an outdated agreement at the expense of putting UTB’s principles of accountability and transparency at risk."

The UT System's decision shocked some officials at Texas Southmost, but not David Oliveira, a trustee and lawyer who had backed the proposed new agreement. "I warned my fellow trustees that that was a real prospect, and they didn't believe me," Oliveira said in an interview late Wednesday. "For whatever reason, they thought they could delay, that they would have all the time in the world. Nobody is more sorry that I was right."

Oliveira and other officials at UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost said they were absorbing the news of the University of Texas' decision and that they did not have a clear sense exactly what the implications of the dissolution of agreement would be.

But given that Oliveira had feared this outcome, he said he had probably given it more thought than most -- and the picture he painted was a troubling one for Texas Southmost.

The two institutions operate under joint leadership, and while UT-Brownsville leases most of its facilities from Texas Southmost -- rent payments have played a central role in the dispute over the new agreement -- the community college, Oliveira noted, essentially contracts with UT-Brownsville to educate its students.

If the two institutions are "going our separate ways, which is what it comes down to," he said, Texas Southmost will have to hire its own administration and faculty, and greatly expand its staff, which is now barely a dozen people. While the two-year college would, under the new arrangement, keep all the tax and tuition money it collects, it would have to use that money to create a whole new staff infrastructure, maintain its buildings (which UT-Brownsville now does), and more.

While a full accounting is difficult to do at this point, "I have thought this out now for a month or two, and every time I run it all the way through, it's not a happy ending," Oliveira said.

He added that he hoped that the UT System might reconsider if his colleagues on the Southmost board do -- perhaps, he said, "with legislative intervention."

 

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