Decades of brainstorming ways to better fund the University of Texas-Pan American and UT-Brownsville culminated in October 2012 with a midnight phone call between then-UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and former UT System Regent Eugene Powell.
“I said, ‘Gene, are you sitting down?’” Cigarroa recalled Thursday. “So I gave him this idea that Steve Collins had presented to me and he said, ‘Yes! That’s it!’”
This idea will come to fruition this month with the creation of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley — billed as the first university created in the 21st century.
Its birth was contingent, not only on a late night call, but also on the notion that it needed to tap into the Permanent University Fund — also known as the PUF.
Because UTPA and UTB were acquired by the UT System as existing institutions and not created by it, both universities were not legally qualified to receive PUF funding.
One Friday evening, Cigarroa said he brought his executive team together for a brainstorming session to bring PUF funding to the Rio Grande Valley. He advised his team they would stay in that room until a solution could be found, even if it meant they’d work overnight, he said.
After hours of bouncing around ideas, Collins, a special counsel for the UT Office of General Counsel, raised his hand.
“He said, ‘Well, I know how we can get permanent university funds,’” Cigarroa recalled. “Steve said, ‘The way you do it is to create a new university, and if you create a new university and is passed by two-thirds of the Legislature, then it’s eligible for permanent university funds.’”
Established in 1976 by the Texas Constitution, the PUF provides universities created by the UT and Texas A&M systems financial support siphoned from revenue of oil, gas and other surface construction on about two million acres located mainly in West Texas.
UTB and UTPA were the only two out of 15 UT institutions that had to find other types of funding such as the Higher Education Fund, known as HEF.
“Over the years the senators and reps from the Rio Grande Valley always tried to find ways to get funds,” Powell said. “They worked very hard, but could never find any way to do this.”
By the end of 2011, the search for ways to make both universities PUF-eligible was revamped as UTB and Texas Southmost College prepared to end a 20-year partnership in which they shared tax revenue and state funding.
The fact that UTB and TSC were interdependent for many years concerned UT officials including Cigarroa, he said, because HEF funds wouldn’t be enough to address the growing needs of the college.
“I was very, very concerned about the future of UT-Brownsville in the absence of permanent university funds,” Cigarroa said.
With a plausible idea in mind, and only a few months left to introduce legislation before the beginning of the 2013 session, Cigarroa and Powell said they set out to speak to Valley legislators and UTB and UTPA officials.
Even though this idea meant then-UTB President Julieta Garcia and then-UTPA President Robert Nelsen would likely lose their jobs, Cigarroa said they both took it as a necessary step for the institutions and its students.
“I met with them separately,” he said. “Once I got the alliance of Julieta and Robert, then I presented this to my board and they were fully supportive even though they understood it would be a difficult task.”
The next step was to meet with Valley politicians. One of the first meetings was with state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, Cigarroa said, adding that his reaction was unforgettable.
“When I saw this opportunity I was stupefied,” Oliveira said. “Because now we could become part of the systems, merge the university and stop that mentality of Brownsville being better than McAllen and vice versa.”
Higher and public education issues had been a constant during his 31 years as a legislator, Oliveira said. And, in his view, he said this was the only way to bring economic growth to the Valley.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, also met with UT officials and said this was the opportunity he and the entire delegation were waiting for.
“It was always a struggle to get our hands in additional money for construction of buildings to accommodate growth,” he said. “For us it was an opportunity and we seized the moment and ran with it.”
Funding the universities in the Valley was an ongoing concern, Hinojosa said, especially because he knew UTPA and UTB were the education lifeline for many local students.
In May 2013, Senate Bill 24 — calling for the creation of a new university in the Valley — easily passed both houses. Four senators, including Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, authored the bill and 17 others coauthored it.
Oliveira sponsored the bill in the House and seven other representatives cosponsored it, including Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Mando Martinez, D-Weslaco; and Sergio Muñoz Jr., D-Mission.
UT officials set the starting date for what will soon become UTRGV on Aug. 31, and its medical school in 2016. They then embarked on the enormous task of dissolving UTPA and UTB and consolidating the assets for the new university.
The transition included recruiting a new president and merging all other departments. In order to do this, all faculty and staff were asked to reapply for their jobs last year.
In April 2014, Guy Bailey was selected to become the founding UTRGV president. Even though his mind was already set on retirement after more than 25 years in higher education, he said this was a job he couldn’t ignore.
“I think this is the best opportunity in American higher education right now,” Bailey said. “It’s a chance to do something very exciting and have an enormous impact in a great part of the country.”