Professor Michael Ortiz conducts a modern abstract algebra class for Sul Ross students in Uvalde while students in remote classrooms in Eagle Pass and Del Rio join in online. Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune
EAGLE PASS — Professor Michael Ortiz stood, hands clasped, in a Uvalde classroom, waiting for students in another room 75 miles away in Del Rio to fix a broken monitor so they could continue to watch a broadcast of his math lecture.
“Can y’all still see in Eagle Pass?” he asked a third class of students tuning in.
This is often what teaching looks like in one of the most isolated and little-known branches of the state’s higher education system: three campuses in Del Rio, Uvalde and Eagle Pass — institutionally tethered to equally remote Sul Ross State University in Alpine — that look nothing like a traditional residential college.
Serving a swath of the state the size of West Virginia with a population of more than 173,000, Sul Ross’ satellites consist of a few rented buildings. Students liken them to “ghost towns,” with little bustle in the hallways and few signs of student activity.
There are no athletic facilities, no imposing student center and sometimes not even Wi-Fi.
Attended mainly by Hispanic women who work and attend class part time, the three campuses opened 50 years ago to help fill an educational void along this vast, sparsely populated stretch of Texas. The schools don’t offer freshman and sophomore classes, instead primarily drawing students who have already passed through a partner junior college.
Some political leaders and faculty have long dreamed that this modest effort would one day grow into an independent, fully fledged four-year university.
But over the years, that hope has barely taken root.
Sul Ross President Bill Kibler has told faculty that “there are no plans nor any support” to start a standalone college and that doing so would have dramatic financial repercussions. He’s made efforts to unify the outlying campuses with their mother school in Alpine and has laid out a 10-year plan that envisions improving the campuses but keeping them as two-year institutions.
Rather than investing new resources in competing with a junior college that’s been an “outstanding partner” for decades, he believes the university should “invest those resources in making our upper-division and graduate programs more robust, planting new programs in that area that respond to the regional needs and growing industries.”
Kibler’s announcement that he will retire in June came after months of protests about conditions from a vocal group of dissenters in the middle Rio Grande — and weeks after their faculty senate issued a vote of no confidence in him. He cited personal reasons for the decision and said he had achieved a professional goal of leaving Sul Ross a “better place than it was when I began.”
His departure is unlikely to open the door to a four-year university. “The message from the chancellor and the board of regents is clear,” he’s told faculty.
But teachers and students at the satellite campuses who say they’ve long felt neglected are hoping the change in leadership, at best, might revive their dream of a four-year institution or give them the autonomy to be “more than an appendage” of the main campus.
If nothing else, they hope they’ll get better Wi-Fi.
Sul Ross has ranked as one of the top Hispanic-serving institutions in the country, and its four campuses are the primary university “in a 19-county region of west Texas that includes two-thirds of the Texas-Mexico border,” its website says.
A Texas State University System publication boasts that the satellite campuses are an “innovator in distance education,” and they charge the lowest tuition among public universities in the state. Their tuition is less than in Alpine. They have 43 full- and part-time faculty members and less than 1,000 students, 90% of them Hispanic and most studying education.
The main Sul Ross campus in Alpine has just under 2,000 students, 51% Hispanic, and offers far more degree programs. Its campus is bucolic and has a “small-town Americana” feel, said Kathy Stein, an English professor in Alpine and president of its faculty assembly. The county seat has a population of 9,300. The nearest Walmart is 60 miles away.
“We pride ourselves on a small teacher-student ratio,” Stein said. “I know who my students are by name. When I see them on campus, there’s no crowd to duck into. If they weren’t in class that day, they know that I know.”
The experience of students on the middle Rio Grande campuses, opened in the early 1970s as Sul Ross “study centers,” is markedly different.
At the time, state lawmakers were creating several of these upper-division institutions to help meet educational demands in underserved areas and to “complement a very strong junior college system in the state,” said Paul Sorrels, a former vice president of the three campuses at Sul Ross.
“It was a great idea to help students get degrees and to economize and use our tax dollars wisely,” he said. But as cities like San Antonio and El Paso grew in population, “many of these other schools have now become four-year institutions,” and the southern campuses have not.
The satellite campuses were collectively renamed Rio Grande College in the 1990s to better reflect the “mission of the university in the region,” a legislative document says. They receive a separate budget from the state legislature, though it is controlled by officials in Alpine, have their own faculty senate and until 2018 had their own degree programs.
They’ve long flirted with independence.
Some faculty view the campuses as autonomous and bristle at what they feel are mandates from on high in Alpine. They chafed at the loss of identity when the campuses were recently rebranded Sul Ross Del Rio, Sul Ross Eagle Pass and Sul Ross Uvalde. Kibler said the names were changed to better market the institution and distinguish it from the nearby junior college.
But despite the southern campuses’ independent streak, the distance between the outposts and Alpine has led to problems.
Among them: Students and recent alumni say having most administrators based more than 200 miles away makes it hard to get help with the prosaic worries of college routine, like lining up financial aid.
“Even though we pay full tuition to have a full-on university working for us, we’re lacking all those faculty and staff to help us out with simple problems that develop into huge problems,” said 27-year-old Graciela Rocha, a recent alumna.
For instance, she said, a university official told her just days before her diploma was supposed to arrive in the mail that a biology course she had taken in 2012 didn’t meet graduation requirements. She would have to pay for another semester.
“‘I don’t have money or time for this,’” thought Rocha, who worked as a phlebotomist and manager of a gas station, meat market and restaurant while attending school. “I was like … ‘How could it be that last semester I was good to graduate, and now this semester you’re telling me this?’” She sought help from an administrator in Alpine and ultimately was able to graduate without the extra course.
Distance, class scheduling and poor communications are recurring problems, other students and faculty said.
Some students, like Laura Torres, 27, sometimes make long commutes to take classes offered only on certain campuses. The alternative is to wait a semester or more for the same course to be held nearby, dragging out the time it takes to earn a degree.
During a recent semester Torres spent commuting, she’d depart Del Rio at 4:30 p.m., leaving her 1-year-old daughter with her parents, and wouldn’t return from class until 10 p.m.
“We don’t want to be forgotten,” Torres said. “A lot of people shrug their shoulders: ‘We are satisfied with what we were handed.’ That’s not the point. We want to improve.”
Students unable to commute have also been deterred from majoring in science fields, since there is only one laboratory among the three campuses.
Teleconference classes are supposed to seamlessly link the far-flung classrooms so students can participate from each of the three locations. But the technology often does not work, and Kibler acknowledges it is showing its age.
Dan Foley, a biology professor and chair of the natural and behavioral sciences department, said it’s not uncommon for professors to spend 20 minutes of a 75-minute class trying to get the equipment to connect on all three campuses.
“More often than I care to characterize, the IT equipment is either minimally working or not working at all,” he said.
Gina Stocks, a 15-year professor in the education department, said there have been semesters when there were more days with technical problems than without.
“I will show up to teach a class, and maybe I’m in Uvalde…Maybe I can see Del Rio and hear them and they can see and hear me, but maybe Eagle Pass is a black screen,” Stocks said. “It’s very difficult to conduct a class in that manner. We’ve resorted to things like calling on our cellphones. I’ll hold my cellphone close to my face while I’m lecturing or something so that they can actually hear it.
“It feels often like we’re just kind of left to just wing it. And, unfortunately, I feel very strongly that in an institution of higher learning, we owe the students more than just us winging it every day,” said Stocks, who grew up in Uvalde and got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the regional Sul Ross campuses.
Kibler said he did not believe he neglected those campuses during his time as president but did not “dismiss the beliefs of those who feel that way.” Any sense of the campuses being an “appendage” was never his perception or intention. “I frequently traveled to the three campuses, as did members of the executive staff in Alpine,” he said. “They may want to view themselves as autonomous, but they are not and never have been,” he added.
Sul Ross is purchasing new equipment as needed to maintain the old teleconference system and has hired a new IT director for the southern campuses, Kibler said. The university hopes to transition to a cheaper web-based system that would let students access courses without sitting in a classroom at all, which would curtail lengthy commutes.
“The average age of our students is over 30. Many of them are working. They have families. The idea that they could access all of their coursework without ever leaving their home or their local community would be a game-changer for us in that whole middle Rio Grande area,” Kibler said.
Kibler disputed the notion that the southern campuses have been without Wi-Fi for long periods of time. Although one Wi-Fi network had been down “intermittently” for months after the university fell prey to a ransomware attack last summer, he said there is a backup that students and faculty have been told to use. They said they were aware of it but that it was slow or didn’t work.
There are also plans to add more administrators, including a new vice president to oversee the three campuses. Kibler’s 10-year plan calls for hiring faculty and staff to help with student financial aid and academic advising, and adding centers throughout the region where students could access computers, advisers and other services.
He expects the plan will be largely finished before he retires. It would need to be approved by the university system’s governing board and win funding from state lawmakers.
The plan envisions significant enrollment growth on the campuses from added or expanded academic programs — including “ambitious new distance education and online” courses to assure “ease of access.”
“The vision is that a significant majority of the available coursework offered in Alpine will also be open to all middle Rio Grande-region students through distance and online offerings,” Kibler said.
One of the plan’s centerpieces is a new building somewhere in the region. If lawmakers agree to finance it, the building could have a bookstore, a dining facility, a library and recreation areas — services not available now in the satellite campuses that could draw younger students, Kibler said. Commencement ceremonies could also be held there; they’re currently held in rented community centers or high school auditoriums.
Kibler’s not the only person who thinks more resources and attention can be paid to the middle Rio Grande campuses without launching a new, four-year university.
Uvalde County Judge Bill Mitchell, for example, said the university’s partnership with Southwest Texas Junior College already offers “the foundation of a great educational opportunity for our students.” Many attend the junior college for their first two years and only need to cross the street to continue their education in the facilities Sul Ross rents from them.
“Let’s just build upon that instead of saying, ‘Oh, it’s not working, so let’s shoot that away and try to come up with this four-year college,’” Mitchell said.
The university system’s chancellor, Brian McCall, said the relationship Sul Ross has with the junior college lets it offer the “most affordable baccalaureate degree program in the state.”
“We believe the university should continue to grow along with the population, but we don’t want to do anything that could reduce access or jeopardize the great partnership,” he said. (Kibler, McCall added, is a respected leader with decades of higher education experience: “We are grateful for his six years of service at Sul Ross.”)
Others have grander ambitions.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, said she “certainly” believes there should be a four-year institution in the area, “assuming there is an established need, enthusiastic support and reliable funding sources.”
“My perspective is colored by the enormous success of Texas A&M International University in Laredo, which, with strong community support and effective administration, has grown from a regional center to a reputable university in fewer than three decades,” said Zaffirini, who authored the 1995 bill that named the campuses Rio Grande College.
Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey Cantu — who attended Sul Ross in Eagle Pass — agrees: “When you look at El Paso, El Paso has UTEP, and down in the Valley, you have the medical branches, you have UT-Brownsville, you have Texas A&M,” he said. “[The] middle Rio Grande is the only region along the Texas-Mexico border that does not have a full four-year institution in our community.” It’s been “neglected for years,” he said.
Ortiz, the math professor and head of the middle Rio Grande campuses’ faculty senate, can envision a better future — one where the campuses aren’t just “treading water” and have a vision developed with more local input than Kibler’s plan.
There would be reliable equipment, a library, someone managing the campuses’ operations. There would be more in-person classes, which he says students prefer, and fewer everyday hurdles — like the power outage that prevented a campus from attending one of his teleconference courses last week and the road closure that held up students commuting to another one.
The campuses are so small now that they can’t justify offering courses at different sites, he said. But if there were improvements and the campuses could have their own character, they could grow and transform the region, he said.
“I don’t see us needing a lot of the extras.” But right now, Ortiz said, “we don’t feel like our students get their fair share.”
Disclosure: Sul Ross State University, Texas State University, Walmart, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.