I little thought as a graduate student that my academic future lay in driving a truck around Texas brush country. But so it turned out. I’ve been a professor at Rio Grande College (RGC) since I received my doctorate in 2009. I had planned on a career in research, but my experiences in graduate school led me to pursue a teaching career instead, and it seemed to me that there was no better place to teach than where I grew up.
In one way, the distance isn’t great. It’s only a few hours from the University of Texas at Austin, where I went to graduate school, to the middle Rio Grande border region, where I now work. In another, the distance is immense. My colleagues might be surprised at conditions here, but for me it’s home. This is where I’m from.
RGC has a student body of about 1,000, with 23 full-time professors. I teach five courses per semester, in a variety of formats–traditional, teleconference, and online–in the afternoon and evening, in addition to performing administrative duties.
Most faculty who come to RGC are here to stay. That’s partly because the workload and logistical challenges make it difficult to build a competitive vita. But it’s also true that, like me, many faculty come here because they have some connection or attraction to the region. And the job itself has rewards that exceed the compensation and scarcity of resources.
This summer a former student stopped in to see me with his young daughter. He recently took a sequence of graduate courses with us. Located in another city, he interacted with me mainly through technology, although we also met face-to-face when I traveled to his area. Most of our interactions took place outside the traditional classroom. The reason he made the seventy-mile trip to see me that day was to give me some pan de pulque to thank me for the time I’d given him.
That’s the kind of reward I’m talking about.
RGC is part of Sul Ross State University, which is a member of the Texas State University System. RGC comprises three separate campuses, but operates as one, distinct from the main university campus,which is several hundred miles away. Faculty travel among the three sites every day.
The campuses, located in Uvalde, Eagle Pass, and Del Rio, are separated from one another by an hour’s drive. Del Rio and Eagle Pass lie on the border, opposite the rapidly growing cities of Ciudad Acuña and Piedras Negras, Mexico. RGC also serves the Winter Garden region, a leading producer of vegetables.
The main university campus is located in West Texas, which is a vastly different part of the state. It lies well north of the longest stretch of border without ports of entry, hundreds of miles from population centers in either country, but surrounded by tourist destinations like Big Bend National Park, and artists’ colonies like Marfa, Texas. Brewster County, where the campus is located, is the largest in Texas (it’s three times the size of Delaware), but is sparsely populated, with a minority Hispanic population. The university administration is increasingly centralized, however, with executive cabinet members visiting RGC perhaps once or twice a semester, if that often.
The main campus follows the four-year residential model. Situated on a beautiful mountainside overlooking the charming town of Alpine, it boasts historic red brick academic buildings, a student union with post office and café, a library, dormitories, sports facilities, a childcare center, and a presidential mansion. The main campus attracts students from all over the state.
By contrast, RGC offers only upper-level coursework, partnering with Southwest Texas Junior College, from which almost all its students transfer, renting its buildings and holding its graduations in community centers. Its nontraditional student body is overwhelmingly Hispanic, female, first-generation, and low-income. Students pursue careers in practical fields like education, business, or criminal justice. They typically have their own families and often they may be helping to support siblings or parents or extended families as well. RGC accounts for around a third of the university’s enrollment. Despite having no freshmen or sophomores, it graduates about as many students as the main campus.
The Uvalde Study Center that became Rio Grande College was established in response to a grassroots campaign in 1973. It was created during a time of transition in Southwest Texas. The Bracero Program had changed the face of the Winter Garden region. Crystal City, where many RGC students reside, had seen the rise of La Raza Unida. The Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) had instigated school walkouts. A major civil rights lawsuit had been under way in Uvalde since 1970.
The Study Center held its first graduation at a bank in 1976. Campuses in Del Rio and Eagle Pass were subsequently opened. In 1987, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sued the state, citing inequities in higher education along the border, an action that prompted the legislature to provide additional funds to border-serving institutions. This led to expanded opportunities through bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs offered at numerous border universities. Under this impetus, Rio Grande College was named by the state legislature in 1995. It receives its own state funding, but its budget is controlled by the administration in Alpine, which it supports financially.
The creation of the Uvalde Study Center was part of a movement to serve underrepresented populations through regional colleges. Texas saw the opening of Texas A&I University at Laredo (now Texas A&M International University) as an upper-level institution in 1970. This paralleled a largely unsuccessful endeavor to establish private ethnic colleges like Colegio Jacinto Treviño and Juárez-Lincoln University. These colleges may have had little long-term effect on the region, but the attempt shows how desperate the people they served were for education on their own terms. Broadly speaking, both public and private colleges were characterized by community engagement, long-distance administration, and reliance on makeshift arrangements. Higher education in Texas has evolved since then. RGC alone remains a fly in amber, a throwback to the 1970s in its long-distance administration, which seemingly reflects a disbelief that it could ever manage its own affairs.
In 2000, President Vic Morgan formed a strategic planning committee at RGC. In consultation with community leaders, the committee called for the independence of RGC, citing inaccessibility of resources and an untenable administrative structure. President Morgan refused on account of RGC’s small size. Instead, RGC was granted its own vice president in 2001. Rented facilities were improved. $1 million was allocated to improve library access as well, but that ultimately went toward improvements on the Alpine campus instead.
The next strategic plan for RGC, drafted in 2008, repeated the call for independence. The steps it outlined were never implemented, and RGC was denied its own plan in 2016. RGC no longer has local administrative oversight, as its vice president position was eliminated in 2017. Enrollment has declined over the past year.This summer, RGC’s degree programs were “aligned” with those in Alpine, over the protest of faculty, despite the fact that they reflect our partnership with Southwest Texas Junior College.Without its own programs or a catalog tailored to its students’ needs, RGC has effectively regressed.
It’s not surprising that the administration isn’t eager to discuss independence. With the main campus fighting its own enrollment and budget battles, under mounting pressure to exhibit growth rather than shrinkage, Sul Ross State University needs Rio Grande College now more than ever. But the question remains,does Rio Grande College need Sul Ross State University?
Unlike some counties in West Texas, where the population has declined, the counties served by RGC have grown significantly in recent decades. This is especially true of the border counties. Significantly, RGC has not grown proportionally. In fact, despite forty-five years of existence, it remains unknown to much of the population. I believe that it could grow. But its growth would require local leadership possessing an understanding of the region and an ability to react to local issues and needs.The only way to accomplish this is the separation of Rio Grande College from Sul Ross State University.
Several years ago, I took a group of students on a goodwill visit to the main campus. Tellingly, most of the people we encountered had never even heard of RGC. One worker referred to us as “a group of Mexicans” after we passed, an occurrence for which I obtained an apology on my students’ behalf.
I’d reached out to the president’s office to inform them of our visit and request a tour, but when our assigned guide insisted on following his memorized “prospective freshman” script at every stop, I politely informed him that we could explore on our own. My students were a bit envious of their peers in Alpine. I was a little envious, too. My own “campus” is a single rented building in the center of a parking lot between a welding shop and rodeo grounds on the edge of town.
It was then that I began to ask, what do we need? At RGC we know how to work with limited resources. Our “peripatetic” approach, harking back to the borrowed spaces of Plato’s Academy and the Lyceum of Aristotle, makes us affordable, adaptable, and flexible. Our “weakness” is our strength. Imagine how much more we could do with what we have, were we given the tools to do it!
What we need is our own path to independence. Not a five-year plan facilitated by a distant university with a record of disengagement and conflict of interest. Not a sequence of goals set under an administrative structure that hinders our ability to meet them. What we need is a state-supported, locally-driven effort in which RGC will be given its head to engage with the community in pursuit of the opportunities that it knows are there, under the umbrella of our university or another, with the publicized goal of independence at a later date.
The idea of independence is not a mere fantasy. In 1987, when Laredo State University became independent, its enrollment fluctuated around 1,000 students. Yet Texas A&M International now has an enrollment of over 7,000 and a high school STEM Academy. Southwest Texas Junior College is a stable local institution with an enrollment of over 6,000 students. Why can’t Rio Grande State University be a standalone upper-level partner?
In a recent memo to the faculty, President Bill Kibler stated that RGC’s becoming an independent university or even a branch campus would have dramatic financial and operational implications, and that the Chancellor, the Board of Regents, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the Texas State Legislature have no plans for and would not support a change to the structure of Sul Ross State University.
In short, our future has already been written. Of the several hundred thousand people in the binational region where our students reside, not a word has been said. But this idea of a university as a brick-and-mortar tower on a hill, waiting for people to come, goes against everything that RGC is and has ever been. RGC exists in the community, for the community. The community deserves to have a say in its future. Its destiny isn’t something to be written by administrators in West Texas or Austin. The right of our region to educational self-determination must be recognized, facilitated, and, more importantly, funded.
It’s true that resources are scarce. Some might argue that nothing can be done, and that RGC simply needs to endure as the stepchild it is. I disagree. I say: Sí, Se Puede!
The views the author expresses are his own, and do not represent Sul Ross State University or the Texas State University System.