A New South Texas University and Medical School Needs A United Valley Community
By Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa
Imagine a Rio Grande Valley with more jobs, lower poverty levels, higher educational levels, more healthcare services, more doctors, more access to those doctors and more resources to serve the unique and critical needs of the people of the Valley. The possibilities are endless and the transformation of the Rio Grande Valley through education could soon be a reality. But a reality that will take work -- from legislators, the medical community, business owners, public officials, parents, students and all residents throughout our communities. If we want this opportunity --and we know we need this opportunity -- we need to carefully study and work together as a unified Valley to create a sound plan so that the opportunity that's on the table will not be lost.
In December, the University of Texas Board of Regents voted to unite the Rio Grande Valley by supporting legislation to create a new single university that will also include a soon-to-be created medical school. The new university will span the entire region, with campuses at Pan American and Brownsville, and is predicted to have 28,000 undergraduate students, research expenditures exceeding $11 million, an endowment of more than $70 million, and to create about 7,000 new jobs. This would be a giant leap in establishing educational opportunities and acknowledging the rapid growth of South Texas.
Perhaps most importantly, the new university, for the first time, will be eligible to receive millions of dollars from the Permanent University Fund (PUF), a major source of public higher education money that the Texas Constitution only allows "eligible" UT System and A&M System schools to use. Up until now, UT Pan American and UT Brownsville have not been PUF eligible schools. With the creation of a new university, access to these monies can finally put our universities in the Valley on par with other universities statewide. There would be more buildings and facilities, more classroom space, more teachers, more educational programs and opportunities and it would also become home to one of the two largest Hispanic Serving Institutions in the United States that would focus on the unique needs of the Valley.
A major component of this new university vision is the creation of a South Texas medical school -- a concept the Valley has envisioned for decades but has repeatedly failed when it came to securing financing. The need for a medical school is unquestionable. Designated as a Medically Underserved Area, the fast-growing Rio Grande Valley has a severe physician shortage, very limited resources and is an underserved population plagued with health epidemics. Expanding access to medical education and residency slots would be a huge step towards solving the critical healthcare problems of the Valley. There would be more doctors, more medical centers, more access to healthcare, fewer chronic diseases, fewer ER visits because of preventative healthcare, and an overall healthier Valley population with significantly more resources available.
While an exciting opportunity exists in the medical school concept, we need to take a close look at what it will actually take to make it a reality. We, as Valley communities, need to be informed of the immediate and future costs as well as the benefits of such a vision. The costs of a medical school would consist of four parts -- much like a four-legged stool, all of which are necessary for the stool to stand firmly. First is general revenue from budget appropriations by the Legislature which myself and our Valley delegation will work hard to secure. The second leg of financing would come from the UT Board of Regents who has committed $10 million per year for the next ten years for the creation of a new South Texas university and medical school. The third leg consists of PUF monies that would be available to build the medical school once the new university is created. And finally, the fourth leg is composed of local contributions, specifically philanthropy and a local source of revenue.
Although the first three parts will create the medical school the Valley needs, the fourth part is the crucial funding that will sustain the medical school for years to come. Simply put, in 6 to 8 years from now, the Valley will need a reliable local revenue funding stream to fund the operations of a medical school -- different options include a medical services district. Because of this critical need for a funding source and the economics involved, the medical school will need to be built to serve the entire Rio Grande Valley and will need the participation of medical hospitals and a university. Although we still have a few years to secure a local financing plan, the discussions, analysis of various options, and the preparation for local funding needs to be done now.
While there are still many details left to work out with the creation of the new university and medical school, it is a great opportunity that would provide endless educational and healthcare benefits for our families in the Rio Grande Valley. We finally have the opportunity to get what we want, need, and deserve -- we cannot let our differences blind us. We must align as a community and embrace one regional Valley mindset. The vision of a new university and a medical school needs a united Valley community if it is to transform a dream into a reality.