UTRGV probation fears dispelled
EDINBURG — A bump along a very complicated road — that is how some local politicians and University of Texas officials are taking recent news of UT-Rio Grande Valley’s accreditation being placed on probationary status.
“Merging two institutions is a massive undertaking and I don’t think anybody should be surprised about what a challenge that is,” said Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, former UT Chancellor who was part of UTRGV’s creation. “It just means that administration and the governance of the school need to address that weakness and then you move on. It’s an opportunity to strengthen an area where there was a perceived weakness.”
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges announced the official sanction last week, but details of the university’s specific errors or violations will not be released until mid-January.
So far the only confirmed details are that the university will be under probation for 12 months, during which time it will remain fully accredited.
For those involved in the creation of UTRGV, which welcomed its first class of students in the fall of 2015, the transition to the new university and consolidation of UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville was complex enough to expect some errors or misunderstandings along the way.
Steven Leslie, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the UT System, said news of the probationary status was not a complete surprise. The decision seems to be linked to the creation process and not the quality of the new university, he said, which he described as being on a fast-track toward excellence.
“ This is just a bit of a pause, is the way I would put it,” Leslie said. “It is not a statement on quality. It is to the contrary. I think that what we’ve seen at UTRGV is quite exceptional in terms as to how President (Guy) Bailey and Provost (Havidán) Rodriguez and that entire team at UTRGV have launched a very high-caliber institution, with strong outcomes.”
A possible reason why this sanction was implemented is the decision to keep UT-Brownsville open even after UTRGV took over, Leslie said. UT officials opted for this option due to an agreement with Texas Southmost College to share UTB’s accreditation until TSC could be independently accredited by SACSCOC.
TSC received its accreditation in December 2015. At this point all UTB students had been transferred to UTRGV and those who graduated did so under the new institution. But some assume that because UTB had not been dissolved, SACSCOC was expecting some of these students to receive UTB degrees instead.
“Delaying the close down of UT-Brownsville so we could stay with Texas Southmost … was vitally important and the right thing to do because that kept us in a situation where the students at Texas Southmost would remain eligible for financial aid,” Leslie said.
But it won’t be until mid-January, he cautioned, that officials will find out whether this is actually a major reason behind the accrediting group’s decision. Other local leaders, however, have echoed their suspicion of this being at the root of the issue.
“We did the right thing there by leaving (UTB’s) shell and helping TSC along. This was all done with (UT) Board of Regents approval,” said state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D- Brownsville. “It appears that SACSCOC said we needed consent to transfer those students over and when we graduated the first UTRGV class, they should have received UTB degrees and not UTRGV.”
Lucio was one of four authors of Senate Bill 24, which called for UTRGV’s creation, and said he feels confident that UTRGV officials will be able to address this or any other concerns specified by the accrediting agency once these are fully disclosed.
Since the announcement of SACSCOC’s decision state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, was vocal about his disappointment with not having exact reasons fully disclosed along with the announcement. This same frustration was expressed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. The two were also part of the creation of the SB 24 and said the lack of information creates unfair speculations.
“ It really gives the wrong impression that the accreditation is in danger, that the students are going to be hurt or that the academic programs are not accredited,” Hinojosa said. “It creates a lot of stress for the students. … It’s not as serious as it seems.”
Even though SACSCOC’s guidelines state probation could precede removal of accreditation, all of those interviewed said they didn’t see any reason or were concerned with this escalating to any other point.
“We at the University of Texas System will strongly be in support of UTRGV and will do everything we can to help through the process,” Leslie said. “We are very proud of how administration, faculty and staff have worked to launch that university. … I’m certain it’s all going to turn out fine.”