Separated by more than 300 miles, El Paso and Lubbock are different in many ways and that is clear in how their medical schools operate, according to Texas Tech officials pushing to give the border campus more autonomy.
Legislation filed by state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, and state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, seeks to make Texas Tech's Health Sciences Center at El Paso a freestanding health sciences center with its own president. The move would convert El Paso's regional campus into the fourth university under the Texas Tech System.
Put simply, the Texas Tech's Health Sciences Center at El Paso would be a separate university under the Texas Tech System in the same way the University of Texas at El Paso
is a standalone institution under the University of Texas System.
Dr. Jose Manuel de la Rosa, regional dean for the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso, said because the institution is not independent but rather a regional campus it is expected to follow the same mission set by the health sciences center in Lubbock.
But the needs of the two areas are different.
Texas Tech officials said Lubbock, Amarillo and the Permian Basin are focused on serving a rural West Texas community that is primarily Anglo and aging, while El Paso is a large city on the border that generally serves a younger Hispanic population.
"Our focus would be very specifically Hispanic and border health," de la Rosa said.
"El Paso is different from the rest of rural West Texas. We're not rural. We're urban. We're primarily Hispanic. We're located on the border. That's a great opportunity for the Texas Tech system to have two different missions in serving West Texas."
The passage of legislation that would make El Paso a standalone health sciences center gained the support of the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents last year. El Paso's business and community leaders who met with key lawmakers in Austin earlier this month cited the effort as a top priority.
And, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center President Tedd Mitchell has testified before committees in the state legislature about the geographic and demographic differences that he says warrant the standalone university. Mitchell cited similar moves by the University of Texas System over the years and said the request is not a "newfangled idea."
"This would be something that has been done over and over by UT," Mitchell said, adding that the Texas Tech System covers 108 counties that represent 49 percent of the state's geography. "It's a massive area and certainly that area can handle two health universities."
Texas Tech's regional health sciences center in El Paso has expanded throughout the years. Texas Tech's Paul L. Foster School of Medicine will graduate its first class this year, the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing accepted its first class in fall 2011 and a graduate school is being developed.
The regional campus gets about $32 million annually from the state and receives some formula funding that is funneled through Lubbock. Mitchell and others have said that if the funding remains the same, the transition will not cost the state any additional dollars.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is studying whether there are any costs associated with the measure. It will then provide that assessment to the Legislative Budget Board, which ultimately decides if there is any fiscal impact on the state's budget.
In the meantime, El Paso's six lawmakers in Austin have been working to rally support for the measure in the Legislature.
Rodriguez persuaded state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to sign on as a co-author of the bill earlier this month. Duncan, one of the most powerful senators in the Legislature, could serve as a key ally for the measure to be passed.
"During the last session, I noticed that he was involved in every major issue that came before us and people count on him as a very good negotiator to work some compromise and some consensus on bills whether they be education or healthcare or funding," Rodriguez said. "He is a very critical player for us on this particular issue."
Rodriguez said the designation as a standalone institution would open up the funding stream that's available to health science centers. He said the measure would also draw more healthcare professionals to the area and clear the way for more research.
"You go from essentially a teaching institution to a major education research and economic driver institution," Rodriguez said.
Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has said he does not see a problem with the measure as long as there are no additional costs to the state budget.
House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, will meet with Gonzalez on Monday to discuss the bill. Gonzalez said some of the lawmakers who have signed on to the measure include state Reps. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, and John Frullo, R-Lubbock.
"I think it has a really good shot," Gonzalez said. "As far as it looks right now there's not going to be a fiscal note attached to it. That's one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. The bill makes a lot of sense considering the geographical distance between Lubbock and El Paso and the fact that the health sciences centers serve two different populations."
If the legislation to make El Paso a standalone health sciences center is passed during the 140-day legislative session, the institution would have to go through a separate accreditation process that could last from five to seven years. It will also need to begin establishing separate purchasing, information technology, and planning mechanisms that are currently managed through the Lubbock location. Officials said some of the money that helps pay for those services in Lubbock would be transferred to El Paso.
"All of this will take place over the next three to five years as we begin to cut this umbilical cord little by little by little," de la Rosa said. "Certainly, it's not our desire to cut the umbilical cord all at once."
The bill has not yet drawn any vocal opponents.
Asked if any of the rural West Texas communities served by the Texas Tech System would have a problem with El Paso becoming a standalone university, Mitchell spoke more generally.
"There's always a group of folks in the communities that are focused on their communities, and I don't blame them one bit," Mitchell said. "They're worried about their own economy. They're worried about their own education system and the like. Having said that, our mission at the university is so much bigger than any one given city. We want our university to be thriving as much as possible because by doing so and keeping our focus on that, invariably the communities do better."
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