Entrepreneurs sometimes like to say that the best education one can get is by attending the school of life. For UTEP’s new business school dean, it’s his job to let students know about the best of both real-world experience and classroom learning.
After about nine months on the job, James Payne, dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas at El Paso, is still doing a lot of learning as he settles into his role in El Paso.
“We want to really elevate the profile of the college both in academic circles and on the community side,” Payne said. “We want to be more focused in terms of our community engagement and our partnerships with the business community.”
Payne has previous experience at institutions both public and private, as well as varying sizes. He was the provost of Benedictine University in Chicago prior to coming to UTEP.
“The community is very friendly,” Payne said. “That’s one thing that stuck out to me. I’ve lived in large cities where it seems really segmented, but I don’t get that feeling here. It’s a very safe community. It’s been great, and the weather’s been great.”
He received his bachelor’s degree from Berea College, a small private university in Kentucky, where he’s originally from. He was the first in his family to go to college, and Payne said UTEP’s focus on access was one of the things that drew him to El Paso.
Payne started at UTEP in May 2019. Robert Nachtmann, the former dean of the College of Business Administration, also known as COBA, retired in 2018.
Payne sat down with El Paso Inc. last week in his office inside the COBA building. He talked about the new real estate minor, UTEP’s relationship to the business community and his unique college experience.
Q: What were your first impressions of the university and how’s it going now that you’re here?
President (Diana) Natalicio did a great job of elevating the profile of UTEP. You see that in terms of measures of social mobility, the access/excellence mission you hear about. I’m the first generation in my family to go to college, so that access piece appealed to me. The other piece that’s refreshing is the excellence piece. With the transition to President (Heather) Wilson, and you had Bob Nachtmann as dean for nearly 13 years, a lot of it has been transitions. There’s a lot of change taking place. The majority of the deans are relatively new, within the past two or three years.
I think coming in, the COBA is really trying to get an understanding of how the college has operated historically. With the new president coming in, trying to have an understanding of President Wilson’s vision and the operational side, and making sure that the college of business is aligned with that, is what I’m working on right now.
Q: What are some of the new things going on at the COBA?
There are several things. We’ve been involved in trying to understand the needs of the business community. We have very bright students graduating from UTEP, and we want to keep them in the community. We’re listening to businesses and seeing how we can do that.
The other piece of that is we’re really working with The Borderplex Alliance and another vetting mechanism, to recast our business advisory council. We’re trying to start having conversations around our curriculum with people in the business community, both alumni and not, to see how we can improve our curriculum and have thoughtful conversations on what we need to do that.
We’ve been working with Prudential Financial for the risk management academy. That’s doing quite well, and we just had the first group of students pass the exams. That was interesting because there we’re serving to meet a workforce need for Prudential and their interest in locating in El Paso.
We also have an ADP human capital management academy, which has been doing quite well. We also have Lockheed Martin for enterprise resource planning. That’s been doing quite well.
Q: What are some of the college’s challenges in trying to align the curriculum to meet industry and community needs?
The challenge is that higher education institutions need to adapt in how they’re responsive to that in terms of developing the curriculum. The one thing it takes is time. The faculty own the curriculum and they design it. Everyone has different perspectives on where things are going. We have these conversations of how to do that. In some cases, that helps inform what kind of faculty we need to recruit. My job is to present that to the provost and make the case for what positions we need.
Q: What’s been the process of building up the real estate minor, and are there plans to add a major?
Part of it was the commercial real estate community sharing the need and the faculty taking ownership to develop it. The key for that is bringing in that practical experience from the commercial real estate community. It’s valuable for students to get that practical piece.
They used to have a real estate major years ago. For whatever reason, it’s no longer here. Everything’s built on student demand in terms of developing that. There’s a possibility that over time, as we build up student interest, it could develop into a major. Right now, it’s embedded in the current finance curriculum.
Q: Where do the graduates of the COBA go? Do the majority stay in El Paso or go somewhere else?
One thing the industry wants is to retain the talent. I think that’s across the entire university. We have students who get recruited nationally, at Fortune 500 companies. We have a number of students who go that route and then return to El Paso. They go away for whatever reason, they want something different or a new experience. They come back.
We also really want to develop a pipeline for students for opportunities in El Paso. That’s one of the reasons I’m having conversations with The Borderplex Alliance, with alumni, with heads of companies, to understand how we can facilitate that. A lot of it is making students aware of the opportunities available here. We do a very good job with investing a lot of time and energy in professional development for students.
We’re really focused on the aspect of how we can facilitate engagement with the industry. And everyone wants to continue having more economic development in the region. Since I’ve arrived, what I’ve tried to share with people is that it’s one thing we have to focus on as a business school: How can we provide outreach and engagement with the business community?
Borderplex has been very willing to invite us to have conversations. What’s been refreshing for me is that I think the business community is willing to have those conversations, which has been really insightful for me in learning what the needs are.
Q: What are some of the skills you’re seeing that graduates need to have to be successful when they leave UTEP?
There are general skillsets that I think translate regardless of which industry they’re in. The general ones are ones that embody a lifelong learner. Industries are looking for those individuals who have that ambition and intellectual curiosity to continue to learn. Things are changing so fast. Positions that were there 10 years ago are no longer there, and we don’t know what the jobs are 10 years from now.
You’re looking at how adaptable the students are – things like critical thinking, oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning. The overarching thing is the intellectual curiosity. I can’t reiterate that enough. They have to understand why things are changing and how they can transform the skills they have. Sometimes that requires they get a little more in the weeds and get additional training, like a certification, to adapt that position.
Q: How is the COBA’s location along the border shape curriculum and what the college does?
We’re kind of a living laboratory. We really aspire to be a leading business school that’s serving a binational business community and region, and be recognized for it. We’re already unique. I can’t think of another region as large as ours where you have two countries.
The students have been exposed to two different cultures, two different countries and two different languages. It’s an appealing skillset. Maybe they don’t realize it. But looking at U.S. demographics as a whole, that’s a very valuable attribute. The 21st century demographic is changing. This region is a model, and the rest of the country has to understand the diversity aspect. In that sense, it sets UTEP apart.
Q: Our region is among the top 10 largest manufacturing hubs in North America. How does that fit into the COBA’s curriculum and mission?
When I got here in the fall we reached out to Index (Juárez), an organization of maquilas. I wanted to meet folks. They were nice enough to host us. We went to Juárez and met with them. We’re trying to get a sense of our programs at the master’s level. And we’re trying to get a sense of their needs over there. We’re seeing how we can facilitate or partner with the companies that are part of the Index, in terms of their professional development and workforce. It could be through our master’s programs, through professional development certifications.
The other piece we try to understand is through our centers. We have a number of centers in the college. Tom Fullerton heads up the Border Regional Modeling Project. It’s a very elaborate model and trying to get a sense of the region’s economy, then projecting out in the short and long term on what sectors are going to be doing economically.
That modeling is pretty sophisticated, especially when you’re not dealing with just the United States. It’s a challenge to keep running that model and get the data you need to do the work you need to do.
The Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness is really focused on trying to understand the data of the region. They also do a number of projects.
We also have the Mike Loya Center for Innovation and Commerce. We’re trying to map out the entrepreneurial ecosystem, what are all the different entrepreneurial oriented entities within the El Paso region.
The Hispanic Center for Entrepreneurship collects survey data from Hispanic-owned businesses to get a sense of why they’ve been successful, what have been hurdles and issues they face.
Q: Tell us more about your experience going to Berea College.
I grew up about 35 miles from Fort Knox in a rural county with one high school. I went to Berea College, a small private liberal arts college with about 1,600 students.
It goes back to what drew me to UTEP. Berea College is pretty high on the social mobility aspect for students. They generally focus on students from the Appalachian region. They don’t charge tuition, but everybody has to work. They worked me to death. My senior year I was ready to graduate. But it was a really good opportunity for me. I was the first in my family to go to college.
I applied to some graduate schools. The best deal I got was at Florida State University. I went from a small school to Florida State.
My first stint in administration was at Illinois State University. Then I was down at University of South Florida, University of New Orleans, Georgia College and Benedictine. I’ve been exposed to a lot of aspects of higher education – public, private, institutions that are financially sound, others that aren’t. I think it strengthened my appreciation for the challenges of higher education, like in any industry.
Q: What are you enjoying about El Paso?
I’m learning more and more every day. People are really receptive and really friendly. The weather’s great. I try to get out hiking and stuff and getting outdoors when I can.
I recently got married, and she likes short excursions. We’re always looking around and driving down roads. It’s a beautiful landscape. We’ve been in parts of New Mexico, other parts of the region. She’s got an itinerary set up and I follow orders. But it’s good.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.