HARLINGEN — The University of Texas Board of Regents voted unanimously Thursday to create a doctor of medicine degree at the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
The regents approved $54 million from the Permanent University Fund for the construction of a medical school building in Edinburg, Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, executive director of public affairs for the UT system, said.
“Medical education programs will take place at several locations throughout Hidalgo and Cameron counties,” she said, identifying those locations as the new facility, the Regional Academic Health Centers here and in Edinburg, and at other existing and planned facilities.
UT-RGV will join the University of Texas at Brownsville, the two RAHC locations, and the University of Texas-Pan-American in Edinburg into one Valley-wide university.
“It sort of sends chills up your spine,” Mayor Chris Boswell said. “It’s such an enormous milestone in a very long process that we’ve all been working so hard on to see a medical school happen in the Valley.”
Boswell said the medical industry is Harlingen’s largest employer. The Valley Baptist Health System, Harlingen Medical Center, South Texas Hospital, the RAHC, Su Clinica Familiar and the Veterans Administration clinic provide almost 5,000 jobs. However, he said, there are still not enough doctors in the area. A new medical school will change that.
Boswell cited statistics that the average number of doctors across the country is 250 per 100,000 persons. In Texas that ratio is 175 per 100,000, while the Valley has only 110 doctors per 100,000.
Sixty to 70 percent of doctors stay in the area where they did their residency, so more doctors are likely to practice here.
“It will really help improve the quality of life for everyone in our region so that there will be more doctors here,” he said.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. also was pleased to learn the news of the new doctor of medicine degree.
Lucio, D-Brownsville, said many people worked to make the medical school a reality.
“I’m elated that we have come to this threshold here in the Valley when it comes to the study of medicine,” he said.
When he was first elected to the Texas Senate in 1990, he said, he traveled the entire Valley from Brownsville to McAllen, speaking with doctors.
“We were able to visit the business community and just people in general,” he said, and asked them how they would feel about a medical school coming to the region. The vast majority said they were very much in favor of the idea, he said.
Randy Whittington, a former Harlingen mayor who has worked for many years to bring a medical school to the Valley, watched the regents’ proceedings on his computer, and said he had many reactions to the vote for a medical school.
“It makes me think about the fact that nobody’s been able to get an MD degree in the Valley,” said Whittington, president of the South Texas Medical Foundation.
“It’s been almost 60 years since the first time anybody ever talked about creating a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “So it has been a long time coming and it has been an incredibly important milestone.”
Whittington said it was a big day for the Valley as the regents took several actions including approval of admissions criteria for the UT-RGV and the construction of four buildings for the new university.
The Harlingen school district is also providing its students with a head start in the medical training.
It is currently building the Harlingen School for Health Professions, scheduled to open in October. Superintendent Art Cavazos welcomed the news about the doctoral degree program.
“With growing opportunities in our region for higher education, I commend the UT Board of Regents on their unanimous decision to approve a doctoral degree program in medicine for UT-RGV,” he said.
The board also voted on the admissions criteria for UT-RGV students. Bailey said the goal of UT-RGV is to provide access to all of the students that have a reasonable chance of success.
“What we’ve tried to do is craft an approach to admission that would enable us to identify those students who have a high likelihood of success and recruit them,” Bailey said. ‘And what we’re proposing here is for our undergraduate admissions a holistic approach.”
Bailey said this approach is based on a similar approach that’s used at University of California-Riverside and University of Michigan.
For new incoming freshmen, the top 10 percent in their high school class are automatically guaranteed admission. Other first time freshmen will have to meet criteria for combined factors such as class rank, prior college hours, test scores, rigor of high school course work, leadership experience, community involvement and stated goals.
Transfer students with associate’s degrees will have automatic admission. Transfer students who have not obtained an associates degree must have earned at least 24 semester hours at their previous institution with a minimum grade-point average of 2.0.
The various graduate programs each have their own sets of criteria.
Staff writer Victoria Brito contributed to this report.