Steve Riter, Ph.D., came to The University of Texas at El Paso in 1980 with expectations to stay for about five years and then move elsewhere to find his next professional opportunity. Instead, UTEP provided him with enough challenges across the academic spectrum to keep him interested and on campus.
Riter, whose most recent titles are vice president for Information Resources and Planning, as well as Macintosh Murchison Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, decided recently to retire after 39 years with the institution. During that time, he has held the titles of professor, department chair, dean of the College of Engineering and Provost, to name a few.
Regardless of his designation de jour, there always was one constant in Riter’s approach to his job and that was to enhance student success. His breadth of knowledge and experience that grew through the years gave him a perspective that helped create a University that could provide students, especially those from the region, with access to an excellent education and a brighter future.
The native of Providence, Rhode Island, reflected recently on some of his accomplishments at UTEP from his third-floor office on the southeast corner UTEP’s Undergraduate Learning Center. The bare walls and moving boxes on the floor in early December 2019 hinted at an imminent departure. His official last day is Dec. 31, 2019.
Riter said he was proud of the many large research grants he brought to campus, his role to start UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management in 1989, and his efforts as provost from 1996 through 2005 that led to six of the University’s doctoral degrees to include two he wrote himself as well as major contributions to a few others. However, he was most proud of his work in collaboration with UTEP President Emerita Diana Natalicio and others to attract students from the region and create systems to enhance student retention and degree completion.
“There has been a culture change in that we no longer feel like our role is to monitor a gate to see who comes through and succeeds,” he said. “Instead, we’re trying to figure out how to get students that have the talent and ability and the willingness to work hard through the process and out the door with a degree that would enable them to realize their own dreams. That’s the thing I take the greatest pride in.”
Riter, the son of a sales clerk father and homemaker mother, grew up as an introvert who liked to build things, especially motorized model airplanes. The first-generation college student earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 1962. Riter received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Houston in 1967 and 1968, respectively.
He spent a few years with the Army and NASA before his first job in academia with Texas A&M University in 1976. He quickly rose through the ranks, but decided to apply at UTEP for a position as professor and chair in the Department of Electrical Engineering.
Since then he has taken on numerous campus roles and earned the respect and admiration of many colleagues who have praised his leadership and contributions to the University. Many marveled at his willingness to accept assignments outside his area of expertise to assist the University and its students. For example, he became the interim dean of the College of Education in 2013 and agreed to be the University’s first vice president of Information Resources in 2006.
Jose Huerta, assistant vice president of telecommunications infrastructure, called Riter insightful because of how he used his professional experiences to make technology and academics work to benefit the University’s students, faculty and staff. The Division of Information Resources is a consolidation of Enterprise Computing, Information Security, System Integration, Technology Support, Telecommunication Infrastructure and the University Library.
“The impact (Riter) had on the modernization of the University’s telecommunications infrastructure environment has been a direct contribution to UTEP achieving the R1 rating it recently received,” Huerta said in reference to the University’s inclusion among the nation’s top public research universities by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. “I believe that without his leadership and vision, the University would not have achieved the current information technology environment capable of meeting the high demand of current and future educational and research initiatives.”
In his current post, Riter has overseen the installation of new technology and tech programs such as the expansion of campus Wi-Fi and the free service of personal computers to students and employees. Additionally, he oversaw the expansion of the University’s wireless network to where it ranked among the best in The University of Texas System, and the extension of the campus’ fiber optic network infrastructure into northern Mexico, which enabled universities across the U.S. to connect directly with universities in Latin America.
Iris Niestas, assistant vice president of System Integration, recalled that she approached Riter in 2009 when she was a UTEP data management manager to get his support for her idea to use technology for faster and more secure course evaluations. She said the Faculty Senate initially rebuffed her, but the body changed its mind after Riter got involved.
“Technology has become critical to student success and he knew that was going to happen,” Niestas said.
Maggy Smith, Ph.D., professor of English, said she worked with – and learned from – Riter when they worked together for about 10 years in the Provost’s Office. She said she benefited from his energy, creativity and willingness to try new ideas.
Smith said one of Riter’s greatest contributions might have been to spearhead the creation of the Entering Student Program, which helps freshman and transfer students learn more about what the University offers to help them succeed. It has benefited thousands of Miners since its inception 20 years ago. She said it mimicked a similar program Riter launched successfully for science and engineering students.
“(Riter) always stepped up,” she said. “He always said ‘yes.’ I’ve worked with a lot of good people at UTEP, but Steve is a prince.”
Robert Stakes, associate vice president for Information Resources, Library, has known Riter since 1982. He called him an individual who cared about others and their ideas.
“You don’t feel as if you work for him as much as you work with him,” Stakes said.
Riter, who will move with his wife, Eve, a retired real estate agent, to Scottsdale, Arizona, to be closer to family, said he enjoyed being part of the El Paso community. The feeling was mutual.
The City of El Paso presented him with its prestigious Conquistador Award in 1992 for public service. He joined the El Paso Public Service Board in 1996 and led an effort to set long-term bi-national water utilization policies. He also served on the board of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra (EPSO) for seven years starting in 1997 to include one year as chair (2001-02).
Ruth Ellen Jacobson, EPSO executive director and 2018 Gold Nugget from the College of Liberal Arts, called him a great chair who motivated others.
“He was a wise man and a solid leader,” Jacobson said. “He was a very important component in our development. It was an honor to work with him.”
Riter said that he has considered retirement for several years, and thought the change in University leadership was a good time to act. He said UTEP President Heather Wilson, who took charge of the campus in August 2019, has her vision for the institution, and it will take several years to attain. He said leaders need individuals who will commit the time to achieve their goals and he, who is almost 80, decided that it would be best for him to step down.
He said he has no immediate retirement plans, but added that friends in higher education have asked him to consider interim administrative assignments or to work as a consultant. He said he would consider his options, but would be content to focus on his health and a good book, probably a mystery novel.
“This has been fun,” he said of his association with UTEP. “The hard thing about retirement will be finding another thing that will be as much fun.”
Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications