Vista Summit – Economics of Education

“Economies are like ecosystems. Getting groups together to cooperate on strategies is the smart way to go,” said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution at the Vista Summit held at the University of Texas at Brownsville. Katz put the goals of the economic and education-focused Vista Summit in a nutshell:  entities in the region must work together in order to develop its full economic potential.

UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, UTPA President Robert Nelsen, UT Brownsville President Juliet Garcia and UT Vice Chancellor David Prior listened to speakers from the Ford, Bill and Melinda Gates, Dell, Greater Texas and Lumina Foundations at the Vista Summit (VBR photo)

Katz said the Rio Grande Valley has the opportunity to follow an emerging economic model, one driven by exports, fueled by innovation and products manufactured here. He repeated the importance of exports, which is one of the few bright spots in the national economy where the unemployment rate could remain near 9.9 percent “for quite some time.”  Exports are the best hope, he said, because “domestic demand has been completely crippled. Our greatest competitive advantage is that we are a nation of immigrants. That will refuel us and lead us as we innovate, produce and export. That’s how wealth is created.”

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, Chancellor of the University of Texas System, hosted the two-day conference attended by academic, healthcare and community leaders. The objective was to get those sectors talking and working together, partnered in the development of a more educated, healthier and, therefore, wealthier population. Higher education is viewed as the key driver of economic development in the Valley.

Making sure everyone gets a good education is now an economic necessity, not just a nice thing to do, one speaker pointed out. Dr. Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Syracuse University, described the role a committed university can play as the anchor institution in promoting a community’s innovations and opportunities, both educational and economic. “Hope is essential; so is information,” she said.

Alonzo Cantu described the impact that a caring teacher had on his life (VBR photo)

Cantor’s recommendation for full institutional involvement elicited a response from UTPA professor Francisco Guajardo. “Most of us in universities are only minimally engaged in what’s happening outside the university walls,” he said. Although he has become involved in Edinburg civic issues, Guajardo was surprised there are no formal pathways for engagement. The centuries-old separation of town-and-gown still exists, with neither side sharing their knowledge and expertise.

The focus of Valley-wide leadership is critical, and the UT campuses are taking the lead to increase cohesiveness and networking. Dr. Cigarroa said the UT System supports the synergy of UTPA and UTB in striving for regional cooperation. The universities will be joined by the UT Medical School to be built in Harlingen. “Few educational ecosystems are like this, so young. Rarely do you see this sense of urgency,” he said.

Partnerships between education and business are projected to propel the Valley to the core through a commitment of education, medicine and technology. Fred Rusteberg, IBC chairman, described an existing partnership. United Brownsville is a comprehensive city wide plan to upgrade education, healthcare, infrastructure and the environment through the collaboration of businesses, agencies, schools and resources.

Medical training programs and increased attention to healthcare are essential for economic development. Dr. Rose Gowan, a local physician affiliated with UTB’s School of Public Health, described the costs to a community when 80 percent of the population is overweight or obese. “It’s a community of low achievement,” she said, noting that workforce losses from the effects of diabetes appear to be trending even higher.

Read more of this story by Eileen Mattei in the November print edition of Valley Business Report, out now.

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