PUF the Magic Dragon


Living the American Dream is an ideal still very much alive. It is what draws immigrants to our borders; it is what gives both young and old the drive to take the risk of opening start-up businesses; it is what fuels students to stay up late at night to study for exams. But in today’s global world, it is hard to achieve that dream without a college education.

On Monday, February 4, 2013, members of the Rio Grande Valley Legislative Delegation filed bills in the House and the Senate to create a new university in Deep South Texas, moving us one step closer to unifying the Rio Grande Valley and increasing access to higher education and medical care for its nearly 1.5 million inhabitants, one step closer to the American Dream. That Monday was an historic day for Hispanics, for Texas, and for the nation. This new, as of now unnamed, university will be the second largest Hispanic Serving Institution in the United States and will have its own school of medicine. It will bring to the Valley much needed doctoral programs, federal research dollars, and an estimated 7,000 high-paying jobs. And this new university will have access to Texas’ Permanent University Fund (PUF), an over $12 billion dollar endowment from the proceeds of the oil fields in Texas.

That Monday, we in Deep South Texas began to hum (or at least joke about) PUF the magic dragon.

What does all of this really mean? We are merging The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB), The University of Texas-Pan American (Pan Am) , and the Regional Academic Health Centers. Why? We were constitutionally prohibited from eligibility for PUF funding. For years, President Juliet Garcia from UTB and I from Pan Am sat in Board of Regents’ meetings and watched as our sister institutions were awarded hundreds of millions of PUF dollars for new buildings on their campuses. At Pan Am, we have not had a new academic building in 11 years. With access to the PUF, we will be able to build the labs that our students need; we will be able to build the business building that our students need; we will be able to increase the number of nurses, engineers, artists, the educated populace the Valley needs. I am always amazed at how much our 76,000 graduates have accomplished—now our future doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs will be able to accomplish even more.

But there is a much bigger reason to create this new university: the population in the Valley is growing exponentially. Every two months we (on average) need to open up two new elementary schools and a new middle school to accommodate the growth. How are we going to educate all these children when we have a 520,000 square foot space deficit? What is going to happen to them if we cannot educate them locally? Access to the PUF will not only allow us to build more buildings on campus; it will also allow us to put more classes online and to create hybrid classes where the students will meet one day in a physical class and the next day virtually online, thereby doubling the capacity of individual class rooms.

Just as importantly, via the new school of medicine and the residencies at hospitals in the Valley, we are going to improve health care in the Valley. Sixty-four percent of Pan Am’s students who apply to medical school are accepted, but they end up in Houston or Dallas or out of state. Medical students who have residencies at hospitals stay where they had their residencies. The new school of medicine will stop the brain drain in the Valley, and eventually, the Valley will get the health care that it deserves. In the United States, there are 240 doctors for every 100,000 residents. In Texas, there are, on average, 165 doctors per 100,000 residents. In the Valley, there are only 124 doctors for every 100,000 residents, which is why the Valley has been federally designated as medically underserved. With the advent of the new university, that is about to change.

How did this miracle come about? Through the extraordinary vision of UT System’s Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, a world-renowned transplant surgeon, and through the brilliant leadership of Chairman Gene Powell, the chair of the UT System Board of Regents. Dr. Cigarroa and Chairman Powell are both from Deep South Texas. They knew the needs, and they found a way. The creation of this new university will transform the Valley.

Okay, let me admit: we are not there yet. We need a two-thirds vote by the Texas Legislature. The good news is that Governor Rick Perry endorsed the creation of a new university in his State of the State address. The bills also have the support of the chairs of the higher education committees in both the House and the Senate. The support and leadership of the local Rio Grande Valley legislators has been incredible. They understand: if we don’t get it right in Deep South Texas, we are not going to get it right in Texas or in the nation.

And our Board of Regents also understands. As I told them before they unanimously voted for the resolution to create the new university, “This is literally about saving lives.”

If you want to know more, the University of Texas System has set up a website with various press releases, articles, videos, resolutions of support, blogs, and tweets. You can access the site at http://www.utsystem.edu/south-texas-initiative.

Dr. Robert Nelsen is the President of the University of Texas-Pan American.