Leaders of the Texas A&M University System are exploring the idea of merging system universities in Corpus Christi and Kingsville, a move that Chancellor John Sharp said would "produce the most powerful university in all [Texas] areas south of Austin and west of College Station."
But the idea is far from a sure thing, and was greeted with skepticism by some members of the A&M System Board of Regents on Thursday.
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas A&M University-Kingsville are 36 miles apart. Combining them would create a school with about 23,000 students. Both campuses would remain open, but faculty and perhaps students would have opportunities to teach or attend classes on both campuses.
Meanwhile, the administrations, student services and athletics programs would likely be combined.
"We have an opportunity — and in my opinion the last opportunity — to produce an amazing university for the students of South Texas — and really, for all of Texas," Sharp said.
Regents were briefed on the idea Thursday but took no action. If they decide to go forward with the plan, they would need to approve a resolution expressing their intent before the Texas Legislature meets in early 2017. Then, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would produce a report on the idea, and lawmakers would vote on the issue. A formal merger would likely take years.
It would follow a similar route that the University of Texas at Brownsville and University of Texas-Pan American took to create the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, which enrolled its first class in 2015. Sharp mentioned the UT System school among his reasons to consider the merger. He described that school as on the rise and in a position to potentially far surpass A&M-Kingsville and A&M-Corpus Christi if nothing is done.
"We need to decide whether or not 15 years from now we have two small universities in that neck of the woods or whether we dominate that neck of the woods," Sharp said.
Officials said the merger would position the new school to be classified as the A&M System's first emerging research institution, which would make it eligible for millions more dollars from the state. It would also create the 12th largest university in the state by enrollment.
And system leaders suggested it might also give the state another Division 1 football program. Right now, A&M-Corpus Christi competes in Division 1 NCAA sports but doesn't have a football team. A&M-Kingsville does have one, but it's Division 2.
Some regents, however, said they worry about making a hasty decision and expressed concern about gathering enough information before the legislative session starts in January.
"As a great scholar once told me, the devil is in the details," said Regent Robert Albritton. "And I personally think this has got a lot of devil in it."
He said he also questioned how much the A&M System should take into consideration the threat of other nearby schools.
"Our job is to educate children," he said. "Our job is not to be in a competitive race with another university."
Other regents said they thought a merger was an excellent idea but wanted to make sure that the students, faculty, alumni and surrounding communities agreed.
"If we don't have buy-in from the people who are most affected by it, then there is a question of how successful we can be," said Regent Morris Foster.
Early indications are that there is skepticism at the universities. A&M-Kingsville President Steven Tallant and incoming A&M-Corpus Christi Interim President Kelly Quintanilla both expressed support at Thursday's meeting. But Stephanie Martinez, a recent Texas A&M International University graduate who represents system students on the board of regents, said she has heard from about 100 students at the two campuses. Most are opposed, she said.
"Currently, they don't want it," she said. "They want to uphold their traditions. They want to maintain their campus size."