One of the most unprecedented university presidencies was in question almost immediately after it began.
On the afternoon of Feb. 11, 1988, in Tyler, Texas, Diana Natalicio – newly appointed as President of The University of Texas at El Paso – boarded a University of Texas System plane bound for Austin. She was understandably elated after leaving the Board of Regents’ meeting earlier in the day as UTEP’s 10th president. But Mother Nature was waiting to offer a reminder that this exciting new opportunity might not always be smooth sailing.
Tendrils of lightning brightened the sky as the small plane careened violently through fierce rain and wind.
“I thought it might be a short run (as president),” President Natalicio recalled, “perhaps the shortest university presidency on record!”
Instead, her stint in the University’s top leadership role has been historic. She is the longest-serving president of a public doctoral/research university currently in office. She is also the all-time longest-serving female president of a public doctoral/research university or four-year public university. The length of her tenure is the sixth-longest of any public doctoral/research university president in history.
But it’s not only President Natalicio’s longevity that has been astonishing. She has deftly guided the University to national prominence as a research institution, all the while being relentless in ensuring access and affordability for the student population that it serves. In 2016, the Brookings Institution recognized UTEP with a No. 1 ranking among all U.S. research universities for fostering social mobility.
The accolades bestowed upon President Natalicio have been impressive, too. Over the past two years, she has been named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people as well as one of Fortune magazine’s top 50 world leaders, honors that validate her leadership.
As she enters her 30th year at UTEP’s helm, President Natalicio said she still has work to do. In advance of the February 2018 UT System Board of Regents meeting – the same meeting she left three decades ago for the first time as UTEP’s president – she sat down to share her thoughts on the many milestones over which she has presided. The following has been adapted from the original interview and edited for clarity.
The Texas Board of Regents is having its annual meeting this month. Thirty years ago, at this meeting, you were confirmed as the President of The University of Texas at El Paso. Can you take us back to that day in 1988? Can you tell us the emotions that were going through your mind? How ready were you to navigate this path as leader of this University? And could you fathom it lasting as long as it has?
First, I think I was an improbable candidate because among the group of five finalists, I was the only woman, and women university presidents were rare at that time; as I recall, there were only five female presidents among all 114 Division I universities. Although I’d been a dean and provost, my experience was all at UTEP, and it could have been argued that other candidates had broader administrative experience. I thought it was good that my candidacy served to diversify the pool a little, but I really didn’t think that I’d be the likely final choice. However, I’m usually confident about what I undertake, and I went into the final round of interviews with a positive attitude; even better, I came out feeling very good about how it went. Nonetheless, it was extremely exciting when I learned of my selection as the next President of UTEP.
My long service to UTEP has been an incredible run. It’s been absolutely amazing to me that we have been able to sustain our vision and mission over the past 30 years, and I strongly believe that much of our progress has been directly attributable to the consistency of purpose and commitment of so many UTEP team members who derive great satisfaction from creating opportunities for talented young people, whatever their means.
Well, we’re grateful for that of course.
I am, especially.
The story of your arrival here is widely known. This was going to be a one-year stop before you moved on to other things. You were replacing a professor who had just left. But in quick fashion, you fell in love with your students, with UTEP, with the city of El Paso. Now, while that happened quickly, the path to becoming the top leader of this University was a little more gradual. But there must have been a moment along the way when something clicked and you thought, ‘I could lead this University.’ Can you tell us about it?
I had served as a department chair and dean, and I was at the time serving as provost. I thus had the opportunity to observe up close what happened at each next level of administration, and I would often think, ‘Okay, would I have done that or would I have done something else?’ I began to form my own view of UTEP’s strengths, opportunities and what needed to be done to ensure a more productive path forward. As provost, I became increasingly convinced that UTEP was trying too hard to be, as some bumper stickers suggested, “Harvard on the Border,” which was a truly misguided aspiration. We were attempting to imitate model institutions that weren’t anything like us, and so long as we tried to become them, we would never find our own strengths and never achieve our own distinction. So, I worked very, very hard with colleagues across the campus to understand who we are as an institution, whom do we serve, and how can we do that best? Those were the questions that we wrestled with on campus and in the community.
Our timing – and timing really does matter! – was fortuitous because at the end of the 1980s there was heightened awareness of the rapidly growing Hispanic population across the U.S., and about the role that Hispanic-serving higher education institutions — which, outside of Puerto Rico, were then very few in number — were going to have to play in educating that population. Because UTEP had both a strong history of successful STEM programs and a large Latino student population, we were unusually well positioned to respond to this new national priority. All we had to do was be the best UTEP we could be, avoiding the urge to emulate inappropriate higher education models and fully embracing the unique opportunity we had to play a national leadership role.
You’ve overseen a significant rise in physical growth, in research funding and so many categories here at this University. The team you have assembled and continue to reconfigure through attrition and various things has been instrumental in that. What is behind that team’s success? Furthermore, what do they see in their leader – you – to help them facilitate that success?
Well, I don’t know exactly what they see in me as a leader, but I do know that the UTEP team expects me to push hard, to be aggressive in articulating UTEP’s mission and working toward changing the national narrative about the role of public research universities in the 21st century. I hasten to add, however, that UTEP’s success has always been the result of a huge team effort; no one does anything alone. Most UTEP faculty and senior administrative staff are individuals who are here by choice, attracted by the opportunity to contribute to our increasingly recognized access and excellence mission, which serves as the solid foundation upon which our success continues to be built. We’re one of the few universities that has successfully achieved a balanced commitment to both access and excellence. A growing number of universities have begun to emulate UTEP’s model in their mission statements, and we’re pleased with that because there is so much more work to be done to ensure equitable access to higher education across the U.S. today. But balancing a deep commitment to access and opportunities for students who wouldn’t otherwise have them, with an equally strong commitment to quality and excellence, is hard work … very hard work! Many in higher education argue that it is impossible to achieve both access and excellence, that there must be a trade-off between the two. At UTEP, we obviously disagree, and the data clearly reveal our success in demonstrating that it can be done.
You have long-maintained that you are proud of UTEP’s ability to draw a student population that is reflective of the surrounding region. What are the challenges presented by serving a student population that is still low-income, still low on the social mobility ladder and still exhibits traits that seemingly haven’t changed much in the last 30 years?
Serving students of modest financial means is very difficult for many reasons. First of all, it means that in a climate of declining state support for higher education, you can’t simply increase tuition to offset reduced state funding, as institutions with a higher socio-economic student demographic often do. At UTEP, tuition must be maintained at a lower level because our students’ median family income is in the $35,000 range, and more than 40 percent of them report a family income of $20,000 a year or less. In this setting, tuition increases must be carefully managed to ensure that we do not price students out of the higher education opportunity that they have earned. At the same time, we must offer our students competitive degrees that will serve them well when they graduate. This means that we have to be very efficient because we can’t just say, “Well, if the students can’t afford to pay high tuition, we’ll simply have to cut corners on quality.” No! We’re committed to excellence. So, the challenge then is to do more with less, to take a good, hard look at every budget decision we make, and to execute in a way that optimizes both effectiveness and efficiency. Hard work!
You have secured a growing amount of buy-in from the El Paso community. There are various partnerships in various colleges that are helping students, and local businesses, thrive. How important is it to secure that support from external sources? How will it help UTEP navigate the future?
External financial support is extremely important, especially because we are serving a student population of modest means. Any external support we receive — for scholarships, faculty or program excellence — will help us achieve our goals and is always most welcomed. In fact, it’s absolutely critical.
Equally important are the many partnerships we have developed throughout the community. When I first became President, one of the clear priorities was more effective interface with our K-12 partners. Because 80% of UTEP students are graduates of El Paso County high schools, our success relies on the quality of their work; we stand on their shoulders. The quality of the preparation that our K-12 partners provide enables us to do our work more effectively and efficiently because students arrive better prepared for success at UTEP. Our major focus through the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence has been on building strong K-12 and EPCC partnerships.
We next turned our attention to competing for externally funded research because it had the potential to help move us toward our excellence goal. Grant funding was a major strategy to build UTEP’s research capacity, supporting acquisition of laboratory equipment, faculty whom we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to recruit, and doctoral program infrastructure. Our primary partners in this quest have been foundations, federal agencies and corporations.
Today, as the number of UTEP graduates has grown — to more than 4,500 per year — we have begun focusing more of our attention on UTEP’s role in regional economic development and the partnerships required to stimulate and sustain it. We have begun working with partners in the region who can help us create strategies to ensure that more of UTEP’s graduates remain in the community to contribute to this region’s prosperity and quality of life. Without a more robust economy in El Paso-Juárez, we will continue to invest resources in high-quality K-16 education to produce more competitive graduates, only to see them recruited to other major markets across the U.S. that offer not only higher salaries but greater opportunities for career advancement. So now we’re increasingly focused on UTEP’s role in regional economic development, to leverage our strengths to attract businesses to the community that will employ university graduates, and to support efforts of our UTEP faculty and students to apply their talents, energy and intellectual property to the creation of new businesses here.
Every year, UTEP inches closer to Tier One status. What will reaching that goal mean to you? Where will it rank in your long list of achievements?
I believe that UTEP has already become a Tier One university, which is simply another name for “research university.” UTEP is nationally designated as a public research university. In terms of research, we’re ranked among the top 200 of more than 3,700 colleges and universities across the country. You don’t hear the term “Tier One” much these days; in fact, even when it was very popular in Texas, nobody elsewhere understood what it meant. In any case, the label isn’t nearly as important as the actual accomplishments. We’ve focused on becoming more and more competitive in research, and we’ve succeeded beyond all predictions. Our annual research expenditures have grown enormously, from $5 million per year in 1988 to close to $95 million last year. In competition for federal research funding, the only Texas public universities ranked ahead of UTEP are UT Austin, Texas A&M and the University of Houston. So, from the point of view of federal funding, where only the most competitive proposals are funded, UTEP has been highly successful. Most people would say that’s not possible. But we did it. We’ve hired wisely, adding highly talented and hardworking faculty across the campus. We’ve invested intentionally and intelligently in research facilities and laboratories, and in the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, where dedicated staff have done a masterful job of stimulating and managing the development of a fast-growing research portfolio. We have converted UTEP’s research enterprise into one of our major sources of revenue. Very exciting!
In an era where women are feeling vastly more comfortable speaking out – in support of various causes, in support of each other – you stand as a beacon of hope. What is your message to women, young and old, who are working through challenges to reach their dreams?
First and most importantly, all of us – women and men — must believe in ourselves. If you don’t believe in yourself, why would anyone else believe in you? I think that in addition to helping students build their competencies, it’s equally important that educators help them build their confidence. That’s part of what the UTEP Edge is all about. I’m convinced that confidence is one of the great differentiators between students of modest means and those from more privileged backgrounds. With privilege generally comes greater self-confidence. More privileged students seem to have more self-confidence, derived from broader life experiences. Less privileged students sometimes tend to be more hesitant to recognize and act on their considerable talents. They sometimes don’t quite believe in themselves, their talents and their potential.
Related is the importance of setting high aspirations. Dreaming big requires confidence, but also courage. Setting lofty goals means that you are not willing to settle for more modest accomplishments, but rather will continue to stretch yourself beyond what others might consider your limit. Never allow others to place a ceiling on your dreams! Achieving big dreams also requires passion about what you do and a determination to work as hard as necessary to achieve it. You have to believe in what you’re doing, take pride in the ways in which you’re making a difference and continue to be excited and energized about the difference you’re making. Women from many backgrounds often underestimate their capacity to succeed on big stages. Although that picture is changing, change has been too slow. Women university presidents may be far more common today than when I became president 30 years ago, but women remain underrepresented not only in university presidencies, but in CEO and board positions and just about everywhere else. But let’s remember too that impact isn’t measured in job titles. Whatever role you play, you are going to have an impact. And people, whatever their backgrounds, are doing that every day.
Longevity is far from your only asset. You are a difference maker. It’s why you have collected so many personal accolades throughout the years. So many of your accomplishments could be considered crowning achievements for most people. Yet, you show no signs of slowing down. What keeps one of the world’s 100 most influential people going?
Oh, just my passion for what I do. I love what I do. I love working with young people. I love the disarming quality of students who say things that sometimes you would not expect. I think it’s important to be disarmed from time to time, not to be so stiff that you can’t see that you have foibles, to be able to laugh at yourself. But more than anything, I think I’m infinitely curious about everything. I love to learn new things. I love to hear about people doing work that I couldn’t imagine doing myself, whether it’s in the arts or in engineering, or wherever else it might be. I find it so fascinating to realize the full range of things that people do. And one of the great advantages of being a university president is you get to learn about a lot of things that people are doing on a large campus like this. It’s my great privilege to get to know people who are doing every kind of research imaginable, they’re having experiences that I can’t even imagine myself, but I can learn from them about all of these things. So university life is a wonderful life because it is filled with rich learning opportunities.
Author: Pablo Villa – UTEP Communications