The only way out of this political mess of an era we’re living through is to debate it, according to a self-proclaimed debate nerd.
Richard Pineda, chair of UTEP’s Department of Communication, has been at the university for 16 years. He began his tenure as communication department chair in August and said at times it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose.
“There are a lot of meetings, a much bigger set of responsibilities because you have some managerial impact on faculty members. They are a very unique set of people with a set of needs and responsibilities,” Pineda said.
You might recognize Pineda’s face from various news stations, where he sometimes serves as a political commentator. Or you might know him from his job hosting High Q, an academic competition for high schoolers on KCOS.
Pineda has his finger on the pulse of all sorts of El Paso political issues and is attuned to how the city lags behind in things like voter education and engagement. But at the core of his job are his students, Pineda said, adding that he feels a great responsibility to be able to impact their lives.
“The student part is what I love most about my job,” Pineda said. “I find the most significant thing we do at UTEP is making this impact on the student body.
“What we do and should always be doing is education, yes, but it’s also about life lessons and figuring out what things are going to turn, how you’re going to turn.”
He received his undergraduate degree from Baylor University in Waco and returned to UTEP for his masters. He received his doctorate from Wayne State University in Detroit.
Pineda spent an hour with El Paso Inc. in his office inside Cotton Memorial on the UTEP campus and discussed everything from the benefits of speech and debate to El Paso’s evolving media scene.
Q: You’re a couple of months into your tenure as chairman, but you’ve been at the university for 16 years. What’s new in the Department of Communication?
One thing that’s really unique is that the nature of the department always moves with the flow of the university. UTEP has been given this tier-one status, a high-performing research institution. It’s really important because it’s how we draw faculty and bring people to work here, and it’s also part of our ability to tell people how we’re different.
When I did my interview process for department chair, I said I think the department of communication is one of the most engaged departments across campus.
Every faculty member in our department does what they teach. If I go to political science, I might get a scholar who studies the court system. They’re not a lawyer, they never went into the courts or make judicial decisions, but they study that. The person teaching your public relations class was or is a PR expert, understands that field and is there to create opportunities. That is amazing.
When we do our faculty events, I ask everyone to stand up if they have a UTEP connection, and a lot of them do. That makes us really unique. One of the reasons we have an impact on our students is because faculty can talk to the experience of being in El Paso, growing up here.
I have faculty members who are world-renowned in what they do, and it’s an amazing point of pride. These are people who are really good at what they do. They’re at the top of their fields, and they chose to be in El Paso.
One of the things that’s cool about this job is that I see students at the beginning of their journey, then at the end when they’re graduating. It’s so amazing to see students start and then see them after four years. You’re like, this matters.
In the moment, teaching 200 students that are in their first semesters of college, I have an opportunity to change the way they look at the world, and it’s a huge responsibility. I’m able to put choices on the table for students.
I think people have a misnomer for how professors work. It’s about knowledge, for sure, but it’s also about creating opportunities. The part of my job that I love is when the light bulb goes off, and somebody will have this thing, this is what I want to do or this is where I want to be. I love it.
Q: How have the first couple of months been with Heather Wilson as the new UTEP president?
One of the hardest challenges I suspect Dr. Wilson will have, at least in this first year, is differentiating herself from Dr. Natalicio. That’s both a great challenge to have and also a weighty one.
Everything is constructed around a particular vision and structure. It doesn’t matter how dynamic or experienced you are, coming into somebody’s shoes that have been there for that long and doing so in a stable fashion is hard.
Dr. Wilson is doing well. The role that’s most complicated for a president is to balance the community interest and the community desires for education and the things that come with that, and then balancing the forward trajectory of the university. It requires a strong, strategic vision.
We’ve got somebody now who has a different perspective on strategy, but someone who came up through the Air Force and understands some of the pressures of politics and bureaucracy. That’s really helpful.
I think one of the challenges is making the connection with the students and the stakeholders. While people are nervous about difference and they’re nervous about the trajectory of the institution, I think difference is good.
We should be a little bit uncomfortable about how any kind of system works because it’s out of that we sort of say, this is the best solution or the best way to handle the problem.
She was a college debater, and so was I. That comes with a lot of credibility for me. Someone who comes to the table with that skill set, regardless of political history, in my mind you already come with a skillset that makes you more adept to deal with an organization like this.
Q: What was your event in debate?
This is one of my favorite things to talk about. I host High Q for KCOS and jokingly describe myself as king of the nerds. It started in high school. I was hooked within minutes of listening to my first policy debate. Through high school, I did CX and foreign and domestic extemp, and oratory at times.
I have a fund I set up at the El Paso Community Foundation several years ago in my grandparent’s names, which is to provide money for high school speech and debate activities. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t use my speech and debate training.
I like doing interviews, and they never throw me or get me nervous. I’m pretty quick on my feet, even with left-field questions.
Q: There’s a lot going on in El Paso for elections, including a mayoral race and a city council seat. What do you think we need to be paying attention to heading into the fall?
Do we create pathways to get more people registered to vote, and are the pathways structured and engaged? This is where we as a community are failing ourselves.
We’ve got to find as many ways as possible to register people to vote and to explain to them the social and political significance of making that decision to vote. And we have to go one step further. Local campaigns will spend a lot of time registering people to vote and make that a point of pride in their campaigns. But then we fall short of voter education. We don’t talk to people about procedural questions, like if there might be a runoff, which means your first vote doesn’t count in the second vote.
In terms of issues, El Paso is still very personality-driven to a certain extent. Personality still moves the barometer in a way that thoughtfulness or education do not. It behooves us to demand that candidates are well educated and have experience that can be replicable to a higher position.
It’s saying to people, if you want someone to lead you, it’s not enough that they can make you laugh or smile or feel comfortable. They have to push you a little bit. We have this tendency sometimes to be driven by personality in the political world without substance to have real conversations. I don’t think that’s a huge ask.
What ends up happening a lot of times is this last-minute race to fill out a candidate form. We haven’t done a good job of creating layers of people who might be interested in politics. It’s tricky. There’s no reason that the county Democratic and Republican parties can’t get together and run a seminar that explains how to become a candidate, how to register, how the money works.
There are some things that are valuable in terms of shared knowledge that are so important for a democracy.
Q: What’s the state of media in El Paso?
As department chair, I’m exceptionally proud of the multimedia journalists we produce that stay here. You see shining moments of just amazing journalism. The coverage across all platforms after the Aug. 3 shooting was exceptional. They rose to a level of excellence that’s hard to compare to other moments.
I’m proud of the product we produce, but it’s harder and harder to find outlets to make sure they stay in El Paso and have an impact on the media fields.
There are a couple of issues. You’ve got the shrinking of the local daily. That’s always problematic because, as the paper gets smaller, there’s less information that’s going out.
Part of the challenge is to try and reinvigorate conversations about daily press. You have one paper in town that can do that. The next thing is finding niche publications.
The hardest thing is the consumer. You have to figure out how to train your consumer to want to engage in the consumption of news. Journalists are trained to tell a story based on reporting facts, but in J-school you’re not really taught how to engage more readers. But clearly that’s where we’re at. We need to figure out how to connect with stakeholders in a meaningful way.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Right now, the biggest part of my life is sort of trying to figure out how to be mobile again. In November 2018, I lost most of my left foot. I’m diabetic and caught an infection and had to have the top part of my foot amputated. You spend a lot of time having to rethink stuff you do.
I like to play golf and don’t know how to do it anymore. Over the last several months the things I like to do I’ve had to step back and figure out again. There are some challenging moments. I have a permanent disability, and you never think about that until you’re in that moment.
If I’m really stressed out, my most Zen thing to do is to go to Costco. I’ve always been a shopper, and I like it because it’s largely a social exercise.
Q: Here’s the question that everyone gets asked: What’s your favorite restaurant?
This is going to drive my wife crazy, but Peter Piper Pizza, full stop.