In a state where everything's bigger, it's tough to get noticed if you're small and out of the way.
"Small and out of the way" is a good way to describe the University of Texas-Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American, two south Texas institutions located in the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border, about 60 miles apart. Both have comparatively small student populations (for Texas public universities), limited research capacity, and little political capital. Due to these limitations, neither was able to tap into the state's Permanent University Fund. And the region itself has been passed over numerous times for what administrators say is a much-needed medical school.
But in a move they hope will speed up development of the south Texas region, administrators for the University of Texas System announced Thursday the merger of the two universities with an eye toward securing increased state funds and potentially building a medical school.
While most of the talk of cooperation and mergers these days – particularly in New York  and Georgia  – has been framed in terms of cost-cutting by eliminating administrative and academic redundancies and generating economies of scale, the merger of UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American, if approved, would be a move in a slightly different direction. While the combination of the institutions would save as much as $6 million in administrative costs, system administrators say their merger is focused on growing the institutions and, as a result, gaining political and academic leverage for greater investment.
"This is a bold plan that, if accomplished, will put our Rio Grande Valley campuses on equal footing with our other UT institutions," said Gene Powell, chairman of the system's Board of Regents, in a news release. "This is an opportunity to create a new emerging research university that has the potential to become a Tier One university in the next decade."
The ultimate goal is a medical school in South Texas, something the system has been working on for several decades  and a top priority of the system's chancellor, Francisco Cigarroa. The region has 110 doctors for every 100,000 residents, about half the state average. While progress on the school has been piecemeal so far, particularly as the system has struggled with revenue constraints, administrators hope the merger will be the change needed to finally see the project to completion.
"Every once in a while, you come up with an idea that has vision and is compelling," Cigarroa said in an interview. "I realized we weren't thinking that big, we were thinking regionally. The more I thought about it, the more I felt convinced that this could be something that was game-changing for Texas."
The presidents of the Brownsville and Pan Am campuses both backed the move, calling it transformative for the region and a potential model for how to serve the changing demographics of the region, state and country. "If we don't get this right in the Valley, we won't get it right anywhere," said Robert Nelsen, president of UT-Pan Am.
Not Just a Money-Saving Move
During a Board of Regents presentation Thursday, Scott Kelley, the system's executive vice chancellor for business affairs, said the system expects about to save about $6 million by eliminating redundancies in the institutions’ administrative structures.
But it would be a mistake to frame the UT move as solely about the bottom line. The savings are likely to be dwarfed by a push for increased investment administrators hope the system and state will make in the campuses to boost research capacity and finally get the medical school off the ground.
In that sense, the merger is more closely related to moves in some states  (including Texas) to combine universities with freestanding medical schools and academic health centers to make them more competitive for research funding, to diversify revenue, and to leverage political support. In the meeting Thursday asking for board approval to merge the institutions, Cigarroa also asked the regents for an additional $100 million over the next 10 years for converting the regional academic health center into a medical school.
The administration also hopes to tap into increased state funding. A handful of Texas universities have been labeled “emerging research universities” by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a designation that allows them to compete for a pool of money based on fund-raising, research expenditures, graduate degree production, and academic achievement.
Neither Brownsville nor Pan American currently falls into that category, but administrators are hopeful that the merger will help earn that designation. Combined, the new university would have about 28,000 students to start, as well as 1,500 faculty members and 3,700 staff. It would have a total operating budget of $419 million, research expenditures of about $11.4 million and an endowment of about $70.5 million.
A larger university might also have better success securing private philanthropy and research grants from the federal government and industry. Cigarroa also said he hopes the merger will allow the institution to make better use of technology infrastructure, recruit better faculty members and students, and focus on building 21st-century infrastructure.
Med School Plans
Plans for the merged university, which Cigarroa referred to as "A University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley," call for campuses in Edinburg, where UT-Pan Am is located; Brownsville; and Harlingen, where the system has an academic health center. That health center would likely form the base of the new medical school.
A medical school at the merged university would be a second step in a new model of medical education and research for the system. Until recently, Texas has separated its medical institutions from its universities. But the University of Texas at Austin recently made a bid for building an adjoining medical school, which was approved by the board in 2011.
The new Rio Grande medical school would follow in Austin’s footsteps, placing control of a medical school under the authority of a university administration.
A recent report  by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board called into question the wisdom of building new medical schools at a time when the state does not have capacity to provide its current medical school graduates with residencies. "Additional medical schools should not be established or opened until the number of first-year physician residency positions exceeds the number of graduating medical school students by 10 percent,” the report states.
Administrators for the system have said what the state really needs is more of both medical school slots and residency slots, a goal that is not going to be facilitated by restricting development plans.
In order for the merger to be completed, the system still needs approval from two-thirds of both houses of the state legislature, something administrators acknowledged would be a challenge.
Legislative approval has always been a barrier to mergers, since those designed to cut costs tend to remove jobs from some lawmaker’s district. When the State University of New York System tried to merge the administrative services of some of its campuses, it was greeted with pushback from lawmakers who represented those districts. The system’s administrators eventually walked back some of those plans.
Administrators said that is not likely to be an obstacle to the Texas merger, since it is designed to enlarge both existing campuses while ideally bringing more jobs to the region as a whole.
"I can't speak for the legislature," Cigarroa said, "but this vision is so compelling, the need is so great, that it can't help but make sense."