UNT Health Science Center must assess what's in its best interest

Posted Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Ousted as president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Scott Ransom has called his firing "political."

It might look like that, but is that an indictment or largely a description of reality?

Running public institutions of higher education requires astute politics. The key is to operate within that realm to help your institution achieve its mission on behalf of students, the surrounding community and the taxpayers whose dollars help fund the school.

The public may never be able to accurately assess whether the UNT Board of Regents' dismissal of Ransom, clearly driven by Chancellor Lee Jackson, was justified or even necessary. But what Tarrant County officials and residents must assess is how the Health Science Center, on the edge of Fort Worth's Cultural District, now moves forward as part of a university system that's headquartered in Dallas with its flagship campus in Denton.

The regents' abrupt action in December was the culmination of tensions that flamed during an initial look into merging UNTHSC's administration with Denton's.

That effort has been suspended. But much goodwill has been lost in the meantime.

Jackson in August asked Ransom and UNT Denton President V. Lane Rawlins to look at several questions regarding potential short-term and long-term benefits, obstacles and actions needed for a possible merger.

The idea was sparked when the University of Texas announced plans for a medical school as part of its Austin campus and Texas A&M University moved to combine its Health Science Center in Bryan with the flagship campus.

But UT and A&M are unique.

UT wouldn't be trying to absorb a free-standing medical school with long-standing autonomy. Texas A&M is already a top-flight research university that still would face issues about funding, accreditation and short-term consolidation costs -- some of the same considerations that arose for UNT.

An early draft of a report -- dated Aug. 30 and attributed to "UNT Merger Task Force" -- is highly negative toward a merger. It points out, among other things, the significantly different cultures on the Fort Worth and Denton campuses; the potential financial loss because of state funding formulas and the expected impact on community relations in the two cities.

That document assumed that the merger proposal was designed to boost UNT in the efforts among Texas schools to become Tier 1 research universities, and it outlines enormous costs of achieving that goal.

A Nov. 2 formal report -- signed by Ransom and Rawlins -- took a less negative tone but still said the study group "could not identify significant short-term benefits" and found long-term benefits hard to assess.

Resistance was compounded in November letters from the UNTHSC Foundation board and Board of Visitors.

BOV Chairman Ron Anderson, for instance, warned that the UNT System should make its "number one legislative initiative" securing an M.D. program at the Health Science Center, which under state law can grant only osteopathic medical degrees. Otherwise, he said, someone else will bring an M.D. school to North Texas, possibly UT or A&M, which would hurt UNTHSC graduates' chances of getting clinical training spots.

Jackson blamed Ransom for the opposition.

During Jackson's decade as chancellor, the UNT System has grown in size and stature, expanding its footprint in Dallas, including a law school scheduled to start classes in fall 2014.

The Health Science Center joined with the Denton and Dallas campuses in 1999 to form the UNT System but has retained its own distinct identity as it has grown to encompass five components: the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, School of Public Health, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, School of Health Professions and College of Pharmacy.

Reconstituting leadership must be the main focus. A multifaceted and experienced administrator -- interim president Michael R. Williams, a D.O. who graduated from the school, may want to be considered -- must be named and given time to form his or her own team. Other priorities, even the proclaimed goal of establishing an M.D. program, may have to wait.

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