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In Brownsville, Two Colleges Split and a Community Suffers

The separation of UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College leads to hundreds of layoffs.

By Beth Cortez-Neavel, The Texas Observer

Karen Fuss-Sommer came to Brownsville in the 1980s for a nursing job. Over the years she made friends in the community, raised two daughters as a single parent and helped build the University of Texas at Brownsville’s nursing program. Eventually she was granted tenure, and if everything had gone as planned, she says, she could have retired in 2017.

But the end to Fuss-Sommer‘s and many others’ tenures at UT-Brownsville wasn’t quick and unexpected. Fuss-Sommer, now 50, is one of the hundreds of many faculty members at UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College losing their jobs as the schools spit up after a 20-year partnership. Their once-groundbreaking alliance, the only one of its kind in the nation between a community college and a state-funded university, is slated to end August 31, 2015.

For Fuss-Sommer, the loss of her job after two decades is hard to comprehend. “I’m a dedicated employee, have been a dedicated faculty member of our institution from the day I stepped on that campus, and this is how it ends for me,” she says.

At the same time, the state is creating a new super-school for the Rio Grande Valley, combining UT-Brownsville with UT-Pan American in nearby Edinburg. With a new medical school and far more state funding, the new university is ushering in an exciting time for higher education in the Valley—unless you’re one of the hundreds laid off.

Texas Southmost College, a junior college founded in 1926, struck up its partnership with the UT System in 1991. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, had sued the state, arguing that Texas wasn’t spending enough on higher education in South Texas and was discriminating against minority students. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the 72nd Legislature responded to the pressure by forming UT-Brownsville in conjunction with TSC.

The partnership allowed UT-Brownsville to use TSC’s buildings, while the UT System paid rent. The partnership combined the community college’s local tax revenue with state funding—more money than either school could raise on its own. TSC’s locally elected trustees could still give input, but all the faculty and staff went on the UT System’s payroll.

Students in the Valley, where 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, got a university education for the lowest tuition in the UT System and still enjoyed open enrollment for any student with a high school diploma or a GED, which is normally only available through community colleges in Texas.

“The Valley needed that,” UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia says today. “We saw students expand their own horizons.”

This marriage of a community college and a state-funded university was the only one of its kind in the nation. The way their relationship has unraveled, it’s no wonder why.

Trouble surfaced in 2009, when UT-Brownsville and TSC asked the Legislature for $10 million to help UT-Brownsville make its rent payments to TSC. The Legislature kicked the problem back, asking the UT System and the TSC Board of Trustees to figure out how to pay for the rent. But the rent money was just the latest in a series of clashes between the two institutions. In November 2010, the UT Regents voted to dissolve the partnership, saying the alliance had become “untenable.” UT-Brownsville President Garcia says that the joint governance of two schools under one roof contributed to the strain.

The once-groundbreaking partnership is slated to end August 31, 2015, the date when both schools could earn separate accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Garcia announced the divorce at a campus meeting in November 2011. She says the break-up felt like a split in the community, with residents choosing sides. But she says the split is a “natural progression” for higher education in the Valley.

Joe Molina, editor of The Collegian, the campus newspaper, says the whole community was upset. He says students wondered whether they had enough credits to stay at UT-Brownsville, or would be forced to enroll at TSC. Faculty and staff began speculating about what the split would mean for their jobs. Some began looking for work elsewhere.

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