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Diana Natalicio, President, University of Texas at El Paso - El Paso Inc.: Q And A

Diana Natalicio, President, University of Texas at El Paso

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Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013 6:00 pm | Updated: 10:48 pm, Sun Feb 10, 2013.

Exactly 25 years ago this Monday, Feb. 11, Dr. Diana Natalicio became president of the University of Texas at El Paso. And next year, UTEP celebrates its founding as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy 100 years ago.

Since Natalicio, 73, was selected as president in 1988, UTEP’s annual research expenditures have grown from $5 million to $76 million, and doctoral programs from 1 to 19. Its enrollment has grown from 14,971 to 22,700 students, and the annual budget from $65 million to more than $400 million.

Over the past decade, nearly $400 million has been invested in infrastructure to accommodate that growth, and degree completions have grown dramatically, with an 85-percent increase in undergraduate degrees earned.

Capping it all off is Natalicio’s recent selection to chair the American Council on Education, which calls itself the nation’s most visible and influential higher education association. She is to be sworn in as chair in March.

But Natalicio’s time at UTEP really goes back more than 40 years, when she first came to the university to teach linguistics on a one-year temporary contract, filling in for a professor who was on leave.

“I realized this is the place for me. I like the students a lot. I really love teaching them, and I love the Southwest. I love the mountains; I love the outdoors. Being on an international boundary where I could live in two countries at one time, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Natalicio said.

Her career path is unusual. While one often moves up by moving around in academia, Natalicio stayed at UTEP, rising from her temporary position in 1971 to president in 1988.

“I knew our strengths and I knew our weaknesses and I felt we were an institution that could do a lot more than we were doing,” she said. “I had really big ambitions for the university.”

Natalicio grew up in St. Louis, Mo. She earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Louis University as well as a master’s degree in Portuguese and a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. She then went to Brazil as a Fulbright student.

Natalicio sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about UTEP’s past, its future, the arduous path to tier-one status, and baseball.

Q: A lot has changed since you became UTEP president 25 years ago, and there is really no way to detail it all here. But what are some milestones that have meant the most to you?

It’s hard to pinpoint only a few; there have been so many. One of the big ones occurred just a few years ago when we graduated our 100,000th student. When you think about that in terms of impact on a region… what would this region be like if we hadn’t afforded an opportunity to 100,000 people to get a degree and go on to productive and satisfying lives?

There are a lot of new buildings and each one of them represents a milestone of sorts – a step in our development. We had a plan to increase our research capacity and accommodate the expected enrollment growth, and all of those things have played out. They are all fantastic facilities that we could have only have dreamed of 25 years ago.

The growing reputation that UTEP now enjoys nationally is another. Twenty-five years ago, when I would go to the East Coast and introduce myself as president of UTEP, people were often quizzical. Sometimes they would say, “Didn’t you win the national basketball championship in 1966?” and I would say, “Yes, but we have been very busy since then and done a lot of other things.” Now people know right away who we are.

I’m very proud too of the changing student demographic. We look like El Paso now – we didn’t in 1987. Today we mirror the demographics of the region we serve, and there are very few universities that actually accomplish that. We’ve tried very hard to fulfill the notion that talent is everywhere, and it crosses all the boundaries, and it is our job to provide opportunities for that talent to develop.

The greatest progress has been in our own self-confidence as an institution. When I became president of UTEP, I thought we were too modest in our ambitions. I felt like we could do a lot more, and there were a lot of naysayers. There were a lot of people who told me it was too much – we would never have doctoral programs, and we would never be able to get the kind of research grants that other universities got. Well, you had to ask the question: why not?

We were afraid to fail, so we tended to be modest in what we would aspire to. Now we’ve grown in our confidence because we demonstrated that if we set our mind to it, we can compete with anybody.

Q: What’s next?

Next is our Centennial Celebration, which is a very big deal. We’re going to be 100 years old next year, and there is a great responsibility to be a good steward of that celebration. You only get there once in a hundred years and you have an obligation to get it right.

Q: What’s the latest on celebration preparations?

We are doing quite a lot to prepare, certainly for activities and events next year, but in April we will be going to Austin. On April 16, 1913, the Texas Legislature passed a bill authorizing the establishment of the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy. The first students enrolled the following year, in 1914.

We are going to have an event in the capitol, and we’re going to have resolutions on the floor of the House and Senate – just make sure everybody in Austin knows UTEP is celebrating its 100th birthday and we are a very important part of the state of Texas.

It’s hard in a big state like Texas, especially when you are on the western edge, to get attention, so this 100th anniversary is really an opportunity to do that.

A legacy of the Centennial Celebration will be this campus transformation project we have undertaken. We are going to change completely the climate on campus – it is not going to be dominated by vehicles any more. There will be shade structures, trees, places you can gather. The result of that is it will be a much more pleasant place for people to spend time.

There are beautiful designs that have been done; they are really spectacular. Really the last street change we made on this campus was in 1968, and that’s when we had something like 10,000 students. Our sidewalks are too narrow, and there are safety issues of major magnitude when cars and pedestrians come together.

Q: Yeah. Some of the four-way stops and crosswalks on campus can be rather scary.

They are scary, and I have been worried about them for quite some time. This whole central area of the campus will have no vehicles.

Q: What about changes on the academic side?

We are continuing to build new doctoral programs. You may remember we set two goals for our tier-one quest. Tier-one is definitely achievable within a 5-year timeframe.

Q: Let me interrupt you there. UTEP could be a nationally recognized, tier-one research institution in five years?

That’s right. No question.

Q: That certainly ties in with the ambition you were talking about. Some would say that’s wishful thinking.

How do you define it? Nobody is out there with a magic wand that taps you and says you’re tier-one now. We’ve defined two parameters that are evidence of playing in the tier-one arena.

One is $100 million in annual research expenditures. We are at $79 million now, and that’s up from $8 million 25 years ago. There is no reason why we can’t get there with the new facilities we have and the faculty we’ve been able to recruit.

The second is 100 doctoral degrees awarded every year. We have 19 programs and another waiting for approval in Austin in biomedical engineering. Those programs are maturing. All of them but one were approved since 1990, so they are all relatively new programs. We granted about 75 doctoral degrees this past year. There’s no reason why we can’t make this.

Q: A few years ago, the state set some benchmarks for tier one, including $45 million in research-specific grants for at least two years, awarding of 200 doctoral degrees per year and $400 million in endowments. I know at the time you thought some of the benchmarks were outrageous.

I still do.

Q: How do you reconcile those state benchmarks with UTEP’s tier-one goals?

That’s a work in progress certainly. We don’t agree that all of those criteria are really relevant. If you remember, one was a Phi Beta Kappa chapter and another membership in the Association of Research Libraries.

The reason we set our own goals is because we didn’t want to drive any investments on our part toward those criteria we didn’t think were relevant. In other words, we were not going to spend a lot of UTEP money to get a Phi Beta Kappa chapter or get the library certification.

Tier one is in many ways simply your performance at a certain level on a national playing field. I don’t think you need these highly specific criteria they put in the bill. Some would question why it was done in the first place, and I don’t really know. I don’t think Texas is well served by those criteria.

Q: Some worry that, in some ways, UTEP becoming tier one wouldn’t be a positive change – that it degrades access and takes the focus off of academics. How concerned are you that tier-one status could fundamentally alter the academic culture here?

That’s what we spend most of our time trying to avoid. The culture changes in the sense that the environment is much enriched through the presence of active researchers in the new laboratories here. The culture is changed in the sense that undergraduate students get paid jobs in research laboratories instead of working off-campus in jobs that have nothing to do with their learning. About 2,500 students had jobs on campus last year – that’s a lot of jobs – and about 1,400 of those were paid directly out of research grants.

Becoming a research university for the right reason, which is what UTEP is trying to do, means creating an environment that’s enriched for every single student. Undergraduate students should be the primary reason for creating a research university, so when they graduate they can compete with anybody, anywhere. It’s for the students, not in spite of them.

I’m so glad you raised the issue because, once in a while, I hear people say, “Well, that means my son or my daughter won’t be able to go to UTEP.” On the contrary. Your son or grandson is going to want to come to UTEP because we offer, at an affordable cost, the same quality of education that students in more affluent settings have access to.

Q: UTEP has run into one roadblock after another on its quest to become tier one. One of the more controversial ones last year was how UTEP and the University of Texas at Arlington were excluded from the state’s multimillion-dollar Competitive Knowledge Fund. How important is it that UTEP have access to the fund?

Very important. We earned it. We fulfilled all the obligations of the Competitive Knowledge Fund. We cannot allow us to be left out when we have met the criteria.

Q: If UTEP met all the criteria for access to the fund, why has it been excluded?

That’s a really good question; we wish we knew the answer to that. We get a lot of very murky responses, but our delegation is well aware of it. The University of Texas System has endorsed the quest that UTEP and UT-Arlington have made. This is something we are working on right now. It’s really not fair. We are having to do everything everybody else is doing without the resources that come with it.

These are all distractions in some way from what we should be spending our time on, which is building our research capacity, or doctoral programs, graduating more students and so on. It’s frustrating when these things come up.

Q: What were some of those murky responses?

Well, people talk about the difference between it being in statute and being language in the riders to the appropriations bill. Things like that – procedural stuff.

Q: Isn’t UTEP exactly the kind of school the fund is meant to help grow?

Yes, I would agree and so would Arlington. We have made that very clear, and there are people in the legislature who absolutely agree with us. From what we have heard, there is considerable support for our positions. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Q: Another thing that would seem straightforward, the graduation rate, has also caused UTEP a lot of grief. I understand a state rule required universities seeking approval of new doctoral programs to have a graduation rate equal to or above the state average.

The news on that front is really good. Even though people still use the term graduation rate, they don’t use it in the same way they used to. We’ve made a lot of inroads into helping people understand what graduation rates in the traditional sense actually measure – that is only students who start and complete a degree at the same university.

Q: The problem, of course, being that excludes students who start in spring, may have transferred from say, El Paso Community College, or who might stop and restart their education.

Yes. Because of that, the metric being used more now is the number of degrees awarded, rather than graduation rate.

It’s really an issue for a university that serves a lot of transfer students and a lot of students whose lives may not be easily adapted to completing a degree in four years, full-time. So 70 percent of the students who graduate from UTEP don’t get counted in our graduation rate even though they graduate, because they didn’t start here as full-time, first-time freshmen. That’s ridiculous. What’s the point of a measure that only counts 30 percent of your students?

Q: There’s a bigger theme here. It sounds like the traditional education model is clashing with a new one.

It is. It’s been many decades in the making. We consider the graduation rate to be a mid-20th century measure. Today, only 15 percent of students in the entire United States are enrolled in four-year degrees on residential campuses – that’s it. Everybody else are transfer students; they go from one university to another – that’s the 21st century.

Q: College is becoming unaffordable for more and more young people, and they are either skipping college or are burdened under the crushing weight of student loans. What can be done to reverse this trend?

UTEP’s been really, really good at this. Our tuition and fees are the lowest among all of the emerging research universities in Texas, by far. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the net price of an education at UTEP is the lowest in the entire United States of any research university. Now net price simply means tuition and fees minus financial aid and scholarship awards. So, when you pull those things together, you end up with $2,543 a year.

Q: Essentially, you’re talking about the out-of-pocket cost for students.

Exactly.

Q: It seems nationwide more people are questioning the value of higher education.

It is really, really important that El Pasoans advocate for higher education because we are a community that hasn’t had enough. We’ve been undereducated historically and you pay a big price for that.

Some of the amenities we are now seeing in the community are a function of a better-educated population. These are professionals who earn salaries that enable them to go to restaurants and buy cars and buy houses and do all the things that people do when they have resources – attend concerts and movies.

We really have to recognize that when somebody else gets a degree we are all better off – every single one of us. Remember, more than 55 percent of our students are the first in their families to go to college. We have a long way to go as a community – that’s exciting. That means we can build on this momentum in ways that will really make a difference. So I see a bright future ahead for El Paso.

Q: UTEP is mostly landlocked. How is it going to continue to grow physically?

We have more land than you might expect. We’ve acquired some property along the periphery of the campus. We have the Rudolph Chevrolet property and the Las Palmas building where they have the LifeCare Center for example.

We are acquiring property here and there, but this campus transformation is also about that. We are building a road that circles the campus and parking garages – a fourth one will go in near the Hilton Garden Inn – and are going to be saving space that would otherwise have been devoted to surface parking, which isn’t a very efficient use of space. We also own property, and are going to build some student apartments, just north of the softball field.

Q: What about purchasing the former Asarco land?

Well, we did look at that but there are a lot of complexities there. Risk management and environmental issues are very significant there. The University of Texas System is unlikely to acquire any property that has any kind of environmental tail hanging on it.

Q: There’s the most-polluted piece of property where the smokestacks are, across Interstate 10, and then there’s the land on the east side of Interstate 10 adjacent to UTEP that appears to be far less polluted. That’s out of the question too?

No. We would like very much to work on the land between Interstate 10 and UTEP’s land on the east side of Interstate 10, and we’re talking about that and looking at it. In the current framework, though, we have restrictions we probably can’t overcome.

Q: Are the UTEP Miners going to stay in Conference USA?

Certainly for the next year. I’ve learned in athletics that one doesn’t really make predictions. Again, it’s a distraction. But the instability of conferences really does trouble me, because it’s really destabilized intercollegiate athletics in a serious way.

We thought for a time there was going to be a merger between Conference USA and Mountain West, and that looked like a very promising strategy. That would have been a very good arrangement for us.

Every time you leave a conference, you pay a penalty and when you join a new conference, you have to pay an entry fee, so careless conference changes are very expensive. If you make a mistake… I’m not sure I would have been all that excited about joining the Big East conference. We didn’t really make a big press for that, and if you look at what the Big East was and what it is today and how they are reconstituting themselves, you have to say, “Gee, was it worth it?”

Unfortunately, there’s just so much money in intercollegiate athletics. We’re very, very happy to be in Conference USA. We have some great new schools in Conference USA, and it has managed the instability about as well as any conference has.

Q: With the addition of Minor League Baseball in El Paso, might there be enough interest for UTEP to bring back a men’s baseball team?

Baseball is a game that I absolutely love. Stan Musial’s recent passing was really a sad day, because he was kind of my idol growing up. I used to put 6 on the back of my t-shirts to imitate him. Musial sort of captured for me, and many people in my generation, something very special in baseball. Baseball, like all sports, has changed a lot.

The issue with UTEP baseball is really financial. Can we afford to do baseball? And it’s not just about baseball, because if we were to add baseball, we would add so many male athletes then we would have to have an equivalent number of female athletes.

Those would both be non-revenue sports, and we just don’t have the money. Intercollegiate athletics has become a much more expensive part of most budgets.

Q: What’s next for you?

I don’t really have any plans. I’m not thinking about any major change in my life.

Q: Retirement?

No. I don’t think much about that; I’m having too much fun. I still am very upbeat about UTEP and what we are accomplishing, and I can’t imagine doing anything that would be more satisfying than what I am doing.

UTEP has hit its stride right now, and we are making really good progress on a lot of fronts. I hope people in the community understand just how important that is to the future of this region, because a major university with a large research presence and all the quality of life things a major university can offer really does make a difference in this community.

As we move forward over the next several years, we’re building on a lot of momentum, and that is very exciting because I see similar developments in a lot of other areas in the community where we seem to be getting some traction, like the new baseball team.


Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.

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