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UT Chancellor James Milliken soaks in Valley’s university experience

November 8, 2018

BROWNSVILLE — University of Texas Chancellor James Milliken began his first day in the Rio Grande Valley on the U.S.-Mexico border with a visit to the UTRGV Brownsville campus on Wednesday.

This was part of the recently appointed chancellor’s tour of UT institutions; but unlike other visits, this university is unique and demanded more of his time.

“In every other case I’ve spent about two-thirds of a day. In this campus I’m spending two full days and a night,” Milliken said laughing. “Everybody has told me you can’t visit the Valley without spending a couple of days.”

The chancellor officially took over the top leadership role of the system on Sept. 17. His goal, he said, is to have visited all 14 institutions by the end of November.

His first day in the Valley consisted of meetings with 12 faculty members representing each of the colleges, and 10 students who joined him to go over some of their thoughts on the university. This was followed by a tour of the Brownsville campus and a private reception in Harlingen on Wednesday evening.

Similar meetings will follow Thursday morning in Edinburg.

“I’m meeting mayors, I’m meeting the leadership in the legislature from here; I’m meeting faculty and students from both Edinburg and Brownsville,” he said. “What I’m trying to get out of this is to learn as much as possible during the time I’m here, so that when I go back to Austin I carry a piece of the Valley with me and have a real sense from my own experience of what the needs are and the expectations.”

Pull Quote“What I’m trying to get out of this is to learn as much as possible during the time I’m here, so that when I go back to Austin I carry a piece of the Valley with me and have a real sense from my own experience of what the needs are and the expectations.” — UT Chancellor James Milliken

Some of the faculty who attended said the closed-door conversation mostly focused on issues they would like to see addressed and options on how to address these.

“Mostly he listened and I thought he was a good listener,” said Mark Kaswan, associate professor in the department of political science. “We started out talking about technology. The need for being able to leverage (Permanent University Funds) in order to create technology solutions to more effectively enable us to bridge the distance.”

With the two main campuses in Brownsville and Edinburg being divided by more than 60 miles and teaching-space constraints at the Brownsville campus, professors at this location said they would like more options for their students to acquire a full degree at the Brownsville campus rather than having to commute.

Some of the options discussed were increased access to technology, such as teleconferencing equipment in more classrooms, which is now used in some courses to connect the two campuses.

This could in turn allow them to expand the course offerings, professors said.

But it wasn’t all negative, said Rene Corbeil, professor and program coordinator with the college of education, as they realize a transition of this magnitude will undergo growing pains.

“Even though some mistakes were made in the beginning, I think some things are starting to right themselves,” Corbeil said. “We are slowly but surely starting to create a new culture … We’ve noticed it in the college of education. When we brought in a brand new dean and brand new chair into our department, it helped to alleviate some of that ‘us versus them.’”

The follow up with the students also included representatives from several colleges, including the school of medicine, college of science and business department.

Cynthia Duque, 36, a senior student in the school of social work, said some of the concerns discussed also revolved around the need to travel between campuses, the need to increase course offerings, as well as some of the positives, such as having more degrees to choose from.

“I thought it was a great opportunity for somebody to hear our voice in the positive and negatives of what’s going on,” Duque said about getting to meet the chancellor. “We would like a couple of more classes to come to Brownsville, but I think the hardship is worth it… Because of the merger of the two campuses we do have more degrees to choose from.”

Even as Milliken has one more round of similar meetings to go, he said so far the takeaway has been that students are mostly positive about the experience they are getting out of the institution.

As UTRGV grows, Milliken said he expects this experience to continue improving. As the number of programs continues to grow, the opportunities for students to study and network at any of the Valley campuses should also increase.

“This is a new institution, obviously it has some long-standing foundations, but it is a new institution and there are growing pains that there would be in any kind of launching,” he said.

An important highlight in the creation has been the birth of the School of Medicine in the Valley. Milliken said he expects this to not only improve the education and job possibilities for students, but expand the medicine and health science markets across the Valley and even the state.

“Everybody is interested in better health care,” Milliken said. “Everybody is interested in making sure that they have the next generation of doctors, and nurses, and physical therapists, and physicians assistants, well trained; and well trained locally, where the chances of that they will stay and live, and work, and raise families in this region are much greater.”

dperez-hernandez@themonitor.com

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