Friday, May 10, 2024
  Community, Student Life, Academics, Around Campus

By Victoria Brito Morales

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – MAY 10, 2024 – Education is evergreen, so for Dr. John R. Austin, interim chief medical officer for Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen, seeking additional education was a natural step. 

The Wyoming native is an Otolaryngology specialist for Valley Baptist Health System. Now, after years of medical school, residency, fellowships and working as a physician, Austin is adding one more degree: a Master of Science in Health Science, Concentration in Healthcare Administration from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He graduated this weekend and walked across the stage in the commencement ceremony on Friday, May 10, on the UTRGV Brownsville Campus.

Austin has another kinship with the UT System: He is the father of UT System Student Regent John Michael Austin, a fourth-year medical student at the UT Health San Antonio-Long School of Medicine in San Antonio who sits on the UT System Board of Regents as student representative this academic year.

John Michael was part of the stage party when his father walked the stage on Friday on the UTRGV Brownsville Campus to accept his diploma.

The graduating Austin has worked for Valley Baptist Medical Centers in Cameron County since 2017. He started as a physician advisor and since has moved into hospital administration. Through his past experiences as an assistant professor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in the 1990s, and as a physician, working toward an advanced degree in an administration-related program was the perfect, intentional next step.

Dr. John R. Austin and UT System Student Regent John Michael Austin
John Michael said he enjoyed being a student at the same time as his father, especially when it came to helping him with the technology needs of 21st-century students. (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)
“This master’s degree would really allow me to contribute more,” he said, “and also would allow me to be seen as an equal –not simply as a doctor who got hired to work in administration.” 

Michael Cline, market president for Valley Baptist Health System and chief executive officer for Valley Baptist-Harlingen, said that as the physician adviser for Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen, Austin is uniquely positioned. He acts as support for the administrative team in navigating the complexities of healthcare, he said, while exploring effective solutions to improving efficiency, cost reduction and outcomes in a population with a wide range of social, economic and environmental factors. 

“Dr. Austin’s exposure to analytics, healthcare finance, business strategy and leadership, in conjunction with his expertise as a surgeon, will have a significant impact in the way Valley Baptist-Harlingen navigates a rapidly changing healthcare environment,” Cline said.


The balancing act between being a physician, a medical administrator and a student was no easy feat for Austin. He said he eased into the program by not overloading his course load, and by taking time to assimilate the technology of the fully online graduate program. Time allocation was the key to success in that balancing act.

“I allocated three to four hours a day, minimum, to do assignments, homework, reading,” he said. “I usually would do at least an hour of reading in the morning before I would come to work. When I had to do hands-on stuff, I would do it in the evening. And I was allocating a lot of time on the weekends. As time went along, I got much more efficient. I was able to utilize the time more efficiently.”

Once he found a good rhythm, the motivation really kicked in. Not only did Austin want to finish the program, he also wanted to excel.

“I'm in an age range where a lot of people aren't going back to school, and I already had a couple of advanced degrees. But it had been a long time since I’d been in school,” he said. “But I'm competitive, so I could keep up with these young guys and gals.”

Austin also was in the unique position of being a student at the same time as his youngest son,  John Michael, now the student regent. But it was his daughters Claire, 31, and Emily, 30, both accountants, who supported him with their help on his finance-related classes.

“They were the ones I would reach out to for help. I’d ask, ‘What do you think about this problem? How would you go about this assignment?’” he said. “But with my son, it was mostly encouragement, since I’ve already been through medical school. A lot of times, I would send him interesting articles I was reading and links to stuff I found interesting.”

John Michael said he enjoyed being a student at the same time as his father, especially when it came to helping him with the technology needs of 21st-century students.

“The last time my dad was in school was 1986, so he needed a bit of advice on how to study now that we have the internet and computers to help. I definitely gave him a hard time about that,” John Michael said.

In February, John Michael visited the UTRGV campuses as part of his duties on the UT System Board of Regents. During his weeklong visit, he stayed with his dad at their home in Port Isabel.

“That weekend, both of us sat at the dinner table and studied all day, and that was one of my favorite days of studying throughout medical school,” John Michael said. “It was also fun that our conversations began to run both ways. It used to be that I would tell him about my professors and exams. But once he started his degree, I began hearing the same things from him. It was fun to share that.”

Dr. John R. Austin and UT System Student Regent John Michael Austin
“I'm really proud that I've got this degree from UTRGV,” Austin said. “It means more to me than if I had done it through any of the other Texas schools because it implies that I'm part of the Valley.” (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)
In his time as a student regent, he has visited each UT System school, he said, but UTRGV stands out more than most because so many of its students not only are from the Valley, but they tend to remain in the area after graduation to contribute to the community.

“I think my dad is a great example of that,” John Michael said. “He had been taking care of patients in the Valley for years. Then decided to broaden his skillset through coursework at UTRGV. With this degree in hand, he is able to change careers from caring for patients directly to helping lead as a CMO.

“I'm proud of UTRGV for making that possible. And I'm proud of my dad personally. As he wound down his surgical career, he didn't just put himself in neutral. Instead, he found something he was interested in and went after it. He invested time and effort into learning a new skillset that has opened the doors to a second career and more opportunities to serve his community,” he said.


Austin echoes his son’s commitment to the community. The past seven years of study and work and community service has helped him establish a home and roots here, he said.

“I'm really proud that I've got this degree from UTRGV,” Austin said. “It means more to me than if I had done it through any of the other Texas schools because it implies that I'm part of the Valley.”

Austin was especially gratified by the program administration’s ability to give each student personal attention and assistance. 

“When I had to reach out to the program director, Kim Garcia,  or anybody in the administration, they were always really helpful. They would help solve problems and responded quickly,” he said. “I always felt like they had my interest and other students’ interest in mind. I was impressed from the very beginning by how easy the university made things, and how people went out of their way to be helpful. I think that's kind of the ‘Valley’ way.”

Kim Garcia, MSHS program coordinator and senior lecturer of Health and Biomedical Sciences, said to be successful in an AOP program it requires motivation, dedication and excellent time management.  

“Completing a master’s degree while holding a leadership role in healthcare adds another dimension of complexity,” Garcia said. “The MS Health Science program is very proud to count Dr. Austin as one of our alumni. We wish him all the best in his role as Chief Medical Officer at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen.” 

Austin encourages students looking to pursue this program at UTRGV should go for it.

“I think it's well worth it, because it will expand your knowledge base. It will make you better, almost in every facet of healthcare, as well as in your contribution at work. It's going to make you better,” he said.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.