Diana Natalicio

In the center of campus last Friday, the big Bhutanese-style digital marquee counting the days until the start of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration displayed a big “4” on a bright orange background.

As of this Wednesday, Jan. 1, UTEP officially begins a year-long celebration of its founding as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy 100 years ago.

That makes 2014 a big year for the university and for its president, Dr. Diana Natalicio, who has headed the school for a quarter of its 100-year history.

The Centennial Celebration is more than a yearlong celebration of the university’s past 100 years; it’s also a project that is transforming the campus and a capital campaign that is raising $200 million.

Near the digital marquee last week, bulldozers tore into the center of campus – part of the campus transformation project, which is turning roads into pedestrian walkways and parking lots into green plazas, as the university works to shed its commuter campus image and replace it with a reputation as a national research university.

“UTEP has changed. We’re a different university,” Natalicio says.

Over the last decade, UTEP’s annual research expenditures have grown from $31.1 million to $79.6 million. Its fall enrollment has grown from 17,232 in 2002 to 22,749 in 2012. And degrees awarded grew from 2,185 to 4,345, according to a UTEP fact sheet.

In that same 10 years, nearly $400 million has been invested in infrastructure to accommodate the growth, and degree completions have grown dramatically, with an 85-percent increase in undergraduate degrees earned.

Over the course of its history, UTEP has awarded 110,000 degrees, Natalicio says.

Nearly half of UTEP students come from households with incomes under $20,000; more than half are first generation college students.

UTEP is also El Paso’s 6th largest employer and adds an estimated $1.3 billion to the county’s economy each year.

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 scholar.

Her time at UTEP 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.

Since Natalicio was selected as president in 1988, UTEP’s annual budget has grown from $65 million to more than $400 million and doctoral programs from 1 to 19.

Natalicio sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about UTEP’s future, how the university has changed and the real definition of a tier-one national research university.

Q: What is the latest on the Centennial Celebration?

We have a lot of plans; we really have a lot of plans. We hope to engage the entire community in our Centennial Celebration, because we really are El Paso’s university and we would like to extend the celebration out into the community.

We have a lot of ideas not only about bringing people into the campus, but also to take our Centennial Celebration out, for example, to the schools and to other settings where people can participate in the excitement of 100 years of educational opportunities in El Paso.

Q: How can the community get involved?

There are a variety of ways the community can be involved. We are posting events on a calendar online as they are scheduled. Our Minerpalooza, for example, which is an annual event, is going to be a super Minerpalooza – a Centennial Minerpalooza.

We are going to have some really very, very good speakers this spring. We’re going to have a big open house in the spring as well. For a weekend, we are going to showcase departments and colleges.

We are going to have faculty members giving lectures. We’re going to have demonstrations of various science and engineering things. We will have fine arts performances, something for everybody really.

We will have opportunities for people to come inside the walls, if you will, of the buildings and learn more about what goes on on the campus. Because I think not enough people really do realize how much research is under way and the kinds of exciting experiences that students get as a result of having competitive faculty and facilities.

Then we are going to go to every single school in the community over the course of a few days and visit with young people at different levels, and we are going to talk about UTEP and what it means to the community.

I hope we can have some representatives of the royal family in Bhutan come visit the campus this year. We’ll see whether it works out.

The business community is a key to the Centennial Celebration, because it was really the business leaders of 1913 who got it all started. I mean, business leaders in 1913 made a decision that they wanted a school of mines, and they felt that having a school of mines would enable this community to capitalize on the mining industry in the region.

They raised the money and got it started – $50,000 to buy that first building. So we really want to celebrate that. It was the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, the business leadership, that did it.

Q: How do you hope to involve the business community in the Centennial Celebration?

Well, we very much want to get more business leaders in the community to be better acquainted with the work that we do at UTEP.

We can sell El Paso more effectively as a place to do business if there’s a clearer understanding of the real power that we’ve amassed on this campus in terms of brainpower, in terms of research laboratory power, in terms of all of the infrastructure we’ve built here.

UTEP has changed. We’re a different university; it’s much more research oriented, much more aggressive and much more competitive. I think a lot of people don’t know enough about that. Everybody that comes is surprised.

What we haven’t done as a community is to pull our assets together to tell a much more convincing story about all that this community does that is outside of the realm of the stereotype that many people outside of El Paso have of this community.

Q: You talked about connecting with the community. As much as the community has talked about tier one, the growth of UTEP and its Centennial Celebration, sometimes it does feel like UTEP is in its own bubble – physically separated from the city as it is by cliffs and Interstate 10. How are you working to better connect the university to the community and ensure its story is being told in the community?

You know, that’s really an interesting point, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. As a society, everywhere, we are much more attracted to the new than we are to the existing.

Anything that is new just gets a tremendous amount of attention and then it falls of the cliff and something else emerges as being new; this is our short attention span problem as a society. It’s understandable because of the way media approach things – that new is always going to be something that people want to cover and be involved in.

But that sort of steady contribution, that steady presence, kind of gets taken for granted after a while. So I think what we have to do is remind people and to create interest. I mean, 110,000 degrees that have been earned on this campus over the last 100 years – that’s really quite significant.

Q: To prove your point, I’ve got to ask you what the newest and latest is at UTEP. What’s the next big project? The Centennial Celebration, I imagine, is as much about looking at the past 100 years as it is looking forward to the next 100.

Precisely. It really is important we keep that balance between celebrating our distinguished past and anticipating what is going to happen in the future.

We very much want to construct another research building. We feel that we will be able to increase our research activity and therefore revenues. We have a site. We had hoped to get tuition revenue bonds approved during the last session of the Texas Legislature. We still have those plans, so that is very much on our radar screen…

Q: Hemmed in by cliffs and I-10, aren’t you going to run out of space here soon?

That building actually would be built on a footprint that would be created by demolishing two buildings – Barry Hall and Burges Hall. Barry Hall has been closed for almost 30 years, so something really does need to be done with it. Burges Hall is also not a very functional building.

Q: Why a research building?

It provides space and laboratory support for researchers who, if they have it, can submit proposals for funding that would add to the overall revenues we are bringing in.

For example, in chemistry we were trying to recruit Dr. Luis Echegoyen, and until we could demonstrate we had the space he and his team needed to do the research that they were conducting at Clemson, there wasn’t a willingness to relocate. So to recruit faculty, you’ve got to be able to offer them some space where they can do their work.

Q: The centennial is more than a big celebration, it’s transforming the campus and is an ambitious capital campaign.

Definitely. The real transformation is a transformation in attitude about the university. Changing the campus, the physical infrastructure at the center of the campus, is a very important legacy of the centennial, because it speaks to tier one and to being a research university.

When you have cars and traffic and parking at the center of your campus, it speaks commuter campus; it speaks students coming in, taking a class and zipping away. That’s no longer true at UTEP. Students spend the day here – many, many of them.

Symbolically, having a Centennial Plaza says this is a place you come to think, to share ideas, to provoke each other to think harder, and it speaks to the fact that we have become a research university along the way.

The capital campaign is very important, because we set a goal that some people thought was ambitious – $200 million. We’re going to make that goal; there is no question. We are at $194 million, so we will exceed our $200 million goal. That is a big step – not just for UTEP, but also for El Paso.

Q: How have the demographics of UTEP’s student body changed in terms of age and such?

I don’t think the age is all that different. We’ve always had a mix of traditional university age students, but also adults and people who go to school part time and so on. But one really interesting trend is how there is much higher demand to live on campus. So we are going to build some more student housing.

One of the big differences between the old group that lived on campus and the new group that lives on campus is now a majority of the students are from El Paso County.

Q: Really?

Yeah. So these are students who want that full college experience and they get that by living on the campus, spending their time here. And that’s a really important statement about the change in attitudes on the part of young people in this community.

Many still do drive to UTEP, but even those who come every day spend more time here. So there is a much stronger bond to the campus than there used to be.

Q: You’ve mentioned tier one a couple times. Where is the university now in its effort to become a national research university? One of the benchmarks set by the state was 200 doctoral degrees awarded per year. UTEP awarded 128 during the 2012-2013 academic year.

And we just awarded a record 61 at our latest commencement, so we are making steady progress toward that goal.

Several years ago, we recalibrated the doctoral degree benchmark, because we did a study on major research universities and the number of doctoral degrees that they award. One hundred seemed like a much more accurate threshold, and we’ve already exceeded that. But if you look at 200, we’ll get there.

We were trying to set goals for ourselves that were consistent with what research universities our size, without a medical school, have. Looking at those numbers, $100 million in annual research expenditures and 100 doctoral degrees seemed like very good benchmarks.

Q: How much does UTEP have in research dollars?

We’re at $84 million. We’re on a trajectory that we aren’t going to grow by leaps and bounds, but we are going to grow steadily, and that is very encouraging.

Q: Any thoughts about UTEP sports? It was a rough season for the Miner football team and new coach Sean Kugler.

Coach Kugler is obviously rebuilding, and it’s hard; and it’s hard to be patient, but we have to be. I’m very excited about women’s basketball. Coach Keitha Adams is just phenomenal.

Our women’s sports are doing great. We have new coaches in volleyball and in softball. Have you met them?

Q: No.

They are terrific. Both of them come with really sterling records. Both of them started this fall, and they are off to a great start.

A lot of times we pay attention to the high-profile sports, football and men’s basketball, but there’s so much good work being done in the other sports. We are trying very hard to do the right thing with respect to encouraging young women to participate in sports.

Q: Anything you would like to add?

The centennial is really such an important milestone, not just for UTEP but also for this community. What we really hope for is that everybody gets as excited about this as we are.

It is a real chance for us to come together as a community and say: look at all we have here in the way of assets. Let’s define ourselves in terms of those assets rather than pick on ourselves for what we don’t have or blame ourselves for our inadequacies as a community; we are awfully good at that.

Q: As UTEP embarks on its next 100 years, what’s next for you?

For me? Well, I guess the next legislative session will be in 2015. It goes on. There are just so many things to do – so many things to do.

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

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