Sul Ross looms large at Gutierrez town hall

FAR WEST TEXAS — New State Sen. Roland Gutierrez held a virtual town hall with constituents last week, including those in Alpine. The conversation covered a range of topics, from rural broadband and COVID relief to one of his hallmark issues: cannabis reform.

Looming large in those conversations, though, was a proposed bill that Gutierrez filed last week. That bill, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, would move Sul Ross State University from the Texas State University system to the Texas A&M one.

That bill caught some Alpine residents off guard — but at his town hall, Gutierrez reiterated his reasons for filing the bill. Sul Ross was struggling under the TSU system, he said, and could be better served by A&M. He also stressed another point he made in an interview last week with The Big Bend Sentinel: that far from being an out-of-thin-air bill, he’d discussed the proposal for years, including with Alpine Mayor Andy Ramos and Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano.

Since The Big Bend Sentinel went to press last week, more officials have spoken out about the transition. In an email to The Big Bend Sentinel, Eddie Morales, the new state rep. for Alpine, said he was discussing filing a companion bill in the state house but needed more time to read through the bill and discuss it with constituents. Morales is planning a town hall for this Saturday, February 13, with more details to be announced.

At the virtual town hall, Judge Cano also confirmed that he and Gutierrez had previously discussed the proposal. “I support you, Roland,” he said. “You’re doing the right things by asking the right questions.”

The bill made sense, Cano said, because regardless of the outcome, it would allow residents and officials to look “behind the scenes” on issues like enrollment and funding and “make some hard decisions.” But to be clear, Gutierrez’s bill is about more than transparency and cost-cutting; it would transfer Sul Ross from TSU to A&M.

Feelings on the bill were mixed at the meeting. Josh Lira, a recent student at the SRSU-affiliated Rio Grande College, thanked Gutierrez for the bill. He said RGC had suffered from a deficit of important resources, including no child-care center for parents and a lack of educational materials. The student body included many young mothers who needed child care options, he said.

“We had no available and accessible library,” he said. “We had no books in our library.”

Even among the detractors, concerns seemed to have more to do with the apparent suddenness of the bill than with any particular allegiance to the TSU system — though there was community support for University President Pete Gallego. Jack Cooper, an Alpine resident and Sul Ross alum who’d previously written to Gutierrez about the bill, stressed that Gallego was new to the job and had so far been serving the community well, including with COVID testing drives last year.

“I’m not saying I’m for or against your bill,” Cooper said. “I’m just saying, why can’t we hold off your bill through COVID?” In response, Gutierrez reiterated that he’d discussed the proposal for years and said he aimed to be a transformational leader.

“I don’t know if I’ll die tomorrow,” Gutierrez said. “Time is fleeting.”

The Texas legislature meets for just a few months every two years, and a large majority of the bills introduced each session never get passed or even see a vote. It remains to be seen what will happen to Gutierrez’s bill, much less to the future of Sul Ross.

But regardless, one thing is clear: Whether Sul Ross stays part of TSU or moves to A&M, Gutierrez had no plans to change the name.

“I have no intent on changing the name,” Gutierrez told constituents. “If some of you believe we should, well, I apologize.” Last year, as Black Lives Matter protests rocked the country, SRSU saw a student-led movement to rename the school “Alpine State University.” Activists cited Lawrence Sullivan “Sull” Ross’s involvement in slavery, the Confederacy and what Texas Monthly recently called a “massacre” of Comanches at Pease River in 1860.