|WESLACO, November 17 - Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp says he is undeterred by objections from the University of Texas System to plans for an A&M school of engineering in the Rio Grande Valley.
Late last month, Sharp visited the Valley to watch Texas A&M University-Kingsville President Steven H. Tallant make an announcement about plans for an engineering program in Weslaco.
The same day, Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System, sent a letter to Tallant urging him to reconsider his Valley plan and requesting an in-person meeting as soon as possible. Reyes said the plan laid out by TAMUK would duplicate engineering programs already offered by nearby institutions and that are planned for UT-Rio Grande Valley. Reyes said he was writing on behalf of UT-Rio Grande Valley, UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville. Click here to read Reyes’ letter to Tallant.
In an email to the Guardian, Sharp was dismissive of the UT System intervention.
“Whoever wrote that letter from the University of Texas thinks a lot more about their university than they do the children of the Valley. It is time that bureaucrats and agencies started meeting the needs of Texas families instead of their own bureaucratic self-interests,” Sharp wrote.
“We intend to provide first class engineering education in the Valley, the likes of which have never been seen there and we will fight any obstacle in our way with vigor. We believe the leaders of the Valley stand with us as witnessed (that) Friday.”
Sharp was referring to an appearance at the TAMUK announcement by elected officials such as U.S. Reps. Rubén Hinojosa and Filemon Vela, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., and state Rep. Armando “Mando’ Martinez. The announcement about the engineering school was made during a luncheon TAMUK hosted at its Citrus Center in Weslaco.
Hinojosa told the Guardian that while he is a proud UT alum, he fully backs TAMUK’s plans to provide additional education opportunities for would-be engineers.
“I think it (the plan by TAMUK) is the right thing to do. A region like ours, with one and a half million people, soon to be two million… why not have two flagship universities so that students can have choices? We can double the number of engineering graduates,” Hinojosa said.
Hinojosa’s top agenda item during his many years in public service has been education. He was a member of the State Board of Education in Texas for ten years and founding chairman of the board of trustees at South Texas College. He has highlighted the need for more Hispanic engineers and scientists through the introduction of HESTEC Week at UTPA. In 1998 he amended the Higher Education Act to pump more funding into Hispanic serving higher education institutions. Its funding has since risen from $12 million to more than $220 million.
Hinojosa said there is “no question” educational opportunities are expanding at UTPA and UTB and that they will grow even more with the creation of UTRGV. However, he said competition is good and believes TAMUK’s presence will raise standards even higher in the Valley.
“Just think. If you have two machines working you can have twice as many widgets,” Hinojosa said. “Take a look at Boston, they have 100 universities. Take San Antonio, they have Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Go to Denton, they have two universities, Texas Woman’s University and North Texas State. Why not give our students choices and have lots of opportunities to get our students enrolled in colleges instead of having to travel 250 to 500 miles to go some other flagship schools?”
Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, said there is enough money in the Permanent University Fund, which is raised from oil and gas play leases, to provide the resources for two top university systems in the Valley. He urged Texas A&M to grow its footprint in the Valley.
“We just have to change the mindset and stop thinking that we have to have one college, like the University of Texas. I graduated from there and I am a proud alumnus and a distinguished alumnus of the University of Texas but I am also a member of Congress who has seen the West Coast of California with many schools like Stanford and Berkeley and all the California System colleges and I have seen it in the northeast where we have so many universities in places like Boston and Virginia. This is the right thing and I believe those who have already graduated from college know that I am correct. It is the right thing to do.”
Rep. Martinez, D-Weslaco, agreed with Hinojosa that TAMUK should open a school of engineering in the Valley.
“I urge the UT System not to obstruct Texas A&M Kingsville from providing more educational opportunities for our students. TAMUK has the best engineering school in South Texas. It is in Kingsville and they want to replicate it in Weslaco. I say let Texas A&M increase its footprint in the Valley,” Martinez said.
“You have to remember that historically, we have only ever got anything out of UT when we have forced them into action through the Legislature. We saw that with the UT medical school. With John Sharp, he does not need legislative direction. He just gets things done. He is a true champion of South Texas.”
Joey Treviño, executive director of Weslaco Economic Development Corporation, said there is “incredible excitement” in Weslaco for a TAMUK school of engineering.
“The school of engineering is a game changer for the Mid Valley area, a great game changer. Everyone is ecstatic; all of our political, community and business groups are supportive of Texas A&M Kingsville having a bigger presence here. Remember, they are already here with the Citrus Center. They are hiring 35 full time faculty members for the school of engineering and those are high paying jobs. They are looking at over 800 students and an 80,000 square foot building. It is going to be incredible,” Treviño said.
Treviño added that he has asked the Rio Grande Valley Partnership to include a tour of the TAMUK Citrus Center for legislators who participate in the Valley Legislators Tour in late January, 2015.