Q&A with Kevin Eltife and Dr. Colin Snider

Yasmeen Khalifa • Managing Editor

In light of the recent decision to appoint Dr. Kirk Calhoun as president of the comprehensive institution composed of UT Tyler and UT Health Science Center at Tyler, The Patriot Talon interviewed UT Tyler Faculty Senate President Dr. Colin Snider and UT System Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife on the merger, the change in president and future plans for the university.

Kevin Eltife
Photo courtesy of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler

For students who don’t understand the merger between The University of Texas at Tyler and UT Health Science Center at Tyler, could you break down the purpose and process of it? Why merge the two entities, and how does the merger affect students?

ELTIFE: UT Tyler and UT Health Science Center Tyler are two great institutions — located within miles of each other — with missions to serve the educational and health care needs of the East Texas region. We believe that if we bring them together as one unified institution, we can scale their combined strengths to expand academic experiences for students, facilitate more collaborations and research across disciplines, and maximize the impact on a growing region of our state. Bringing these two institutions together will provide students, faculty and researchers the best possible setting to learn, teach, discover and train in a dynamic academic and medical environment.

This new integration will make UT Tyler quite unique in Texas, since very few universities in the state currently have a combined academic institution and health science center. When this realignment is complete, UT Tyler will offer a comprehensive slate of undergraduate, graduate, medical and other professional health degree programs. We believe it will appeal to more students and enhance the university’s ability to draw exceptional faculty, researchers and health care professionals.

SNIDER: I'm not privy to the full rationale for the merger, but combining two UT System institutions in the same city into one seems a logical choice that strengthens UT Tyler and merges the educational and medical missions of the two institutions in a more organic and symbiotic way while adding prestige to the institution more generally. In terms of its impact on students, I think it's a net positive, as it creates a greater pipeline for research for those interested in medical fields without taking anything away from students beyond medical fields in terms of either resources or educational opportunities.

Tell me about the Faculty Senate’s role in the merger between The University of Texas at Tyler and UT Health Science Center at Tyler, as well as the decision to appoint Dr. Kirk Calhoun as president of UT Tyler.

SNIDER: Faculty Senate — and faculty more generally — have been consistently updated on the process and plans for the merger, with the provost and president providing updates at monthly Senate meetings and also updating the Senate Executive Committee in regular meetings. The Steering Committee also shared a draft of the proposal to SACSCOC for the merger, and based on that document, the Senate passed a resolution in April confirming our support for the merger and maintaining the need for faculty to continue to play an active role in the process (you can see that document here).

As for the decision on Dr. Kirk Calhoun, the Faculty Senate had no role in that decision. The Board of Regents is the responsible entity for presidential appointments. In cases of a national search, there is an advisory search committee created made up of members of the campus and the community. In these cases, in policy with UT System rules, the Faculty Senate president on campus is a member of that search committee. However, given the unique situation of a merger of two institutions with extant presidents, this was not a search for a new president, and Faculty Senate had no role in the decision to appoint Dr. Calhoun.

Were faculty and staff consulted about the merger and change in president? If so, were they asked for their input? What was the general consensus?

SNIDER: The Board of Regents made the decision to merge the two institutions. Faculty were not consulted about the merger or the change in leadership prior to the announcement in December 2019, but faculty were quickly brought into the conversation and updated about it regularly after the announcement. In general, however, faculty support the merger, as it gives the university a chance to continue to diversify and grow as it serves the region and beyond.

President Tidwell met with the Faculty Senate recently to discuss the recent developments. Can you share any information from that meeting with us?

SNIDER: He has kept us updated about the merger, its timeline and its process at Senate meetings. The announcement regarding Dr. Kirk Calhoun was made after the last Senate meeting in May, but we will be having a meeting in July where Dr. Tidwell will speak to faculty and all in attendance as he has at every Senate meeting.

What will the extent to Dr. Calhoun’s control over UT Tyler look like? Will he be as involved in campus affairs as the current president? How will his time be distributed between the two branches?

ELTIFE: Since we will realign two institutions as one, it means there must be one chief executive officer or president of the entire organization. UT Health Science Center will become an administrative unit under the UT Tyler umbrella. We intend to name Dr. Kirk Calhoun as president of UT Tyler as we come closer to concluding the realignment process and accreditation and other approvals. As the president of an academic health center and chairman of UT Health East Texas, the region’s 10-hospital health system, Dr. Calhoun is well-positioned to lead interprofessional programs at both schools, as well as the complicated process of establishing the state’s newest proposed medical school. He has been deeply involved in the Tyler and East Texas education, health, business and civic communities for almost 18 years. Calhoun will also oversee a team of academic and health executives, currently situated at UT Tyler and UT Health Science Center Tyler, and they will come together to bring great expertise to provide administrative, academic and operational leadership.

SNIDER: I'm not very familiar with Dr. Calhoun or his leadership style, but I know Senate leadership — present and upcoming — is looking forward to working with him and to ensuring that the culture of shared governance at UT Tyler continues and represents students and faculty well. I will say that when he becomes president, there will not be two institutions, but just the one with different schools, and I trust that he will dedicate his time and resources appropriately.

What kind of relationship do you expect Dr. Calhoun to have with students and faculty?

SNIDER: I hope Dr. Calhoun continues Dr. Tidwell's pattern of visibility on the campus and a willingness to reach out to and listen to students and faculty alike, maintaining the spirit of shared governance that has been so strong under Dr. Tidwell.

What is going to happen to President Michael Tidwell? Will he still be involved at UT Tyler? What is the state of his contract?

Eltife declined to comment.

Talk to me about President Tidwell’s strengths and weaknesses as president of UT Tyler. Were there any particular reasons or instances that led the board to decide to change presidents?

ELTIFE: President Tidwell has been an outstanding leader of UT Tyler for the past three and a half years, and we are deeply appreciative of his commitment to bring the two UT institutions together.

Now that there is one unified president for the two branches, what is there left to do in order to submit the Substantive Change Prospectus to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)?

ELTIFE: A transition team, which includes faculty and staff leadership from both UT Tyler and UT Health Science Center Tyler, has been hard at work on the prospectus. It is a complex project, and we’re fortunate to have tremendous expertise from the campuses and UT System collaborating on it. I believe we are in very good shape to finalize it and submit it to SACSCOC by the September 1, 2020 deadline. Afterward, the prospectus will undergo rigorous reviews, and site visits will be made to UT Tyler as part of the accreditation process.

Talk to me about the status of the upcoming medical school. Where is the board at in the process of getting the medical school up and running? What are the next steps? How long will the process take?

ELTIFE: Our most important priority at this time is to work with the Texas Legislature to seek its approval in the upcoming session. We believe we have an excellent case for a medical school in our region and we’re appreciative to the East Texas delegation for its early enthusiasm when we initially proposed the school. Beyond that, Dr. Calhoun is leading a planning phase. A committee that includes health care experts as well as representatives from both Tyler institutions are working to get initial documents ready that will need to be submitted to the LCME (Liaison Committee on Medical Education) next spring. Ideally, we hope to enroll the first class in 2023. At this time, we are pleased to have community and philanthropic support for the proposed medical school.

Where do you see the university in ten years? What is the board’s vision for the university? With the change in president, will there be any other significant changes?

ELTIFE: In ten years from now, our hope is that UT Tyler will be a destination institution in Texas for students, faculty and clinicians. It will be a place where students can receive a high-quality undergraduate degree and advance to graduate school or medical school without having to leave the region. We envision an institution that will be deeply engaged with the East Texas region, understanding and addressing its needs and aspirations, playing a leadership role in making high quality health care accessible to more individuals and contributing immensely to the community’s economic vitality. We envision the new, combined capacity of both institutions to give it far more horsepower than having two separate ones. A community advisory committee is working with us to ensure that UT Tyler strategically serves the region in new ways it may not have considered before.

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