UTEP President Addresses Georgetown Convocation

UTEP President Addresses Georgetown Convocation

September 13, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Today we’re privileged to have with us
one of the most impactful leaders in higher education over the past four
decades someone who has changed the landscape of higher education in our
nation Dr. Diana natalicio the president of The University of Texas at El Paso
under her leadership UTEP has provided a model for expanding the communities that
have access to higher education while providing a deep context for research
and teaching joining UTEP in 1971 as a visiting assistant professor in the
Department of Modern Languages she has since become one of the most one of the
longest serving presidents in our nation she was selected as president in 1988
and she has transformed the University of Texas at El Paso
she’s increased the number of students from 15,000 to over 25,000 while also
increasing significantly the percentage of students who come from the Paso del
Norte area a region historically underserved by higher education today
80% of the students at UTEP are Hispanic and 55% are the first and their families
to attend college she’s also dramatically impacted the
research agenda of the school in 1988 UTEP had one doctoral degree program now they have 22 and their research expenditures have grown from 6 million
to over 90 million creating as Diana has described quote the only doctoral
research university in the United States that serves a predominantly
mexican-american student population close quote her work to deepen the
context for formation and inquiry at UTEP has also provided a framework for
the university to play a role in the social and economic development of its
local community from fostering community partnerships to help raise the
aspirations and educational attainment of all young
people to encouraging regional business development to educating a population of
young people for the local workforce with 60% of UTEP graduates choosing to
stay and serve in their home community this deep commitment to access into the
role of the University and serving the common good has made her a leading voice
in the national conversation on higher education she served on the Advisory
Commission on educational excellence for Hispanics Americans and on the National
Science Board she’s a principal investigator the National Science
Foundation program to increase participation in STEM fields and she
served in 2013 as chair of the board of directors of the American Council on
Education in 2011 she was presented with the order of the Aztec Eagle by the
President of Mexico the highest recognition bestowed to an individual
who is not from Mexico for her extraordinary public service
that same year 2011 we were privileged to have her here as a commencement
speaker for our School of Continuing study and to recognize her with an
honorary degree in 2017 she was named one of Fortune Magazine’s top 50 world
leaders and was included on the 2016 time 100 list of most influential people
in the world in 2015 the Carnegie Corporation of the New York honored her
with its academic Leadership Award and recognition of her exceptional efforts
to transform UTEP into a national public research university the world of higher
education has changed dramatically over these these past three decades and we of
the Academy have had the great privilege and honor of being witnesses to her
visionary leadership over the course of these years Diana we are honored to
welcome you back to the hilltop and to have you here today to offer your
reflections ladies and gentlemen is my pleasure to introduce to you
President Diana Natalicio thank you all so very much and thank you
for that more than generous introduction I think there’s very little left for me
to say but I will try to think of something I’d also like to offer my
congratulations to all of the honorees today what impressive individuals you
are and so well deserving of the honors that you’ve received my congratulations
I’m so pleased to be with all of you this afternoon and I thank you sincerely
for this opportunity to share a few perspectives from my vantage point on
the us-mexico border I live and work very happily in a place called El Paso,
Texas which is a city of 800,000 mostly Mexican American people which together
with its sister city across the border Ciudad Juarez Chihuahua whose population
exceeds one and a half million forms a vibrant binational
metropolitan area of nearly 3 million residents from its origins more than
four centuries ago and located equidistant between the Pacific Ocean
and the Gulf of Mexico along what is now the 2000 mile us-mexico border our
region has always served as a major migration and trade corridor through the
Sierra Madre and Rocky Mountains El Paso del Norte is literally the pass of the
north the University I’ve been privileged to serve as president for the
past nearly 30 years was established more than a hundred years ago as the
Texas School of Mines and metallurgy to prepare mining engineers for the copper
lead and zinc mines in both northern Mexico and southern New Mexico in
Arizona at 4,000 feet in elevation and more than 600 miles and a time zone away
from our state capitol in Austin we’ve developed a unique and some might even
say iconoclastic institutional personality most of us who live in El
Paso also find it difficult to under stand much less accept the ground zero
or war zone characterization of our border region in the current national
narrative the growing reinforcements of the border physical infrastructure
including the border fence which already exists or the wall which is threatened
now serves as a real highly symbolic and painful daily reminder of that deep
discord it wasn’t always like this when I arrived more than 40 years ago as a
new faculty member in linguistics at The University of Texas at El Paso I
marveled at being able to live in two countries at the same time I regularly
cross back and forth between El Paso and Juarez to eat to shop to visit friends
and attend cultural events sometimes more than once a day
longtime residents of our region including a large number of today’s UTEP
students staff and faculty have closed extended families whose members reside
on both sides of the international boundary and with whom they maintain
very close contact there’s a special energy about the confluence of people
and cultures in a border region scientists tell us that the most
interesting work a court occurs at the interfaces the mostly 1st and 2nd
generation immigrant population in El Paso is hi aspiring plucky and
industrious they believe strongly in the American Dream and most of them have had
to fight very hard to gain access to it the demographics of UTEP’s 25,000
students mirror those of the surrounding El Paso County from which 84% of them
come 80% are Mexican American and another 5% are Mexican nationals a
majority of whom commute to our campus daily across the International bridge
and through Customs and Border Protection every day more than half of
all these 25,000 students are the first in their families to attend college and
most of their families have extremely modest
chill means 40 percent of our students report an annual family income of
$20,000 or less student demographics have changed significantly since the
1980s when UTEP was a majority Anglo University in a majority Hispanic
community if you assume as we do that talent crosses all boundaries gender
ethnicity and race geography and socio-economic level it was easy to see
that far too much talent in the Hispanic community was being squandered for lack
of opportunities to develop it so one of my primary goals on becoming UTEP’s
president was to align the university’s demographics with those of the
surrounding region we should look like El Paso this was not at all an easy task
we had to challenge stereotypes as well as widely accepted traditional higher
education measures of prestige and exclusivity we began by studying feeder
patterns into UTEP from area high schools which high schools were not
sending us many or in some cases any of their graduates not surprisingly all of
the under-delivering high schools were located in the most Hispanic and lowest
income ZIP codes principals and teachers often describe
their students as not college material and many parents and even the students
themselves sometimes agreed with that assessment
there was a severe collective underestimation of the potential of low
income Hispanic stupor form academically and an unexpectedly strong conviction
that raising young people’s expectations would only lead to their disappointment
and dysfunction we were warned by many prosperous community leaders both Anglo
and a few Hispanic that we would have to lower standards if we admitted those
students and we would surely ruin our reputation
I should probably intravenous ASO I had otice bumper stickers that referred to
Harvard on the border a slogan that always struck me as more sad than
self-deprecating ly funny if that was indeed our reputation I considered it
quite ready for ruin we next studied admissions requirements including
standardized test scores and learned that although a very high SAT or a CT
might successfully predict academic success at UTEP a low score didn’t
predict much of anything except that standardized test score performance was
highly correlated with test preparation courses and tutoring – which most
low-income students didn’t have access so our focus then shifted to class rank
in high school which turned out to be a slightly more reliable predictor of
performance at UTEP but not perfect but since our quest was to ensure that not a
single talented and motivated young person would be denied an opportunity we
also decided to create a provisional first semester program which permitted
any high school graduates who did not meet our already very relaxed admissions
requirements to enroll for one semester one semester only under very strict
guidance so as to demonstrate their capacity and their determination to
succeed I should mention here that we did a recent post graduation survey of a
group of these so called provisionally admitted students and what we discovered
was that they include a project engineer at Apple an explosives technologist
specialist at NASA and a microbiologist at the US Geological Survey there’s no
doubt in my mind that as the only Texas public university within 300 miles we
did exactly the right thing and giving those young people a chance to prove
themselves all of this work in the late 1980s was data-driven we were developing
our own very robust set of regional performance metrics and engaging in high
customized data analysis the next step was to utilize those data to strengthen
the highly interdependent educational ecosystem in our region more than 80% of
our students are graduates of area high schools and 75% of the teachers in those
high schools earned one or more degrees at UTEP were a very isolated region this
closed-loop offered us exciting opportunities for innovative
collaboration strategic data sharing and reciprocal accountability in 1992 we
established the El Paso collaborative for academic excellence which was a
systemic reform partnership that included UTEP all 12 school districts in
our County the El Paso Community College and regional business and civic leaders
whose primary goal was to ensure a smooth pre-k through 16 pathway for all
young people in our region we celebrated the collaborative 25th anniversary this
year and this partnership has gained national recognition for its innovation
its success and sustainability the outcomes of this systemic reform
initiative have been extraordinary our historically underserved and low
resource to El Paso region has become one of the top Texas performers in
increasing student success at all levels especially for low-resource students the
collaboratives work and the growing trust it is fostered among educational
institutions in the region have already changed the life prospects for a
fast-growing number of talented young people in their families since 2000
UTEP’s enrollment has grown by more than 50 percent and degrees awarded annually
have more than doubled to 4,500 per year now you may be beginning to wonder why
I’m describing all of this to you the region I live in the people whose lives
a touch mine as well as the University that’s been my passion for the past
nearly 50 years well it’s that very passion that has led
me on a quest to share with educated and thoughtful leaders like all of you a
story about a region of this country that I don’t think is being fairly told
in fact my greatest concern now and growing concern is the growing
misrepresentation and even denigration of the highest firing and successful
Hispanic population along the historically underserved us-mexico
border and especially its young people I earnestly hope that each of you will
help me spread the word that there’s another narrative but there’s another
very compelling reason why I want to share this story with you the low
resourced Hispanic population with with with which we work at UTEP is not merely
a border phenomenon demographers tell us that Latinos have been and continue to
be the fastest growing segment of the u.s. population and they live and work
just about everywhere across the country today wherever they are they deserve
opportunities such as those that we’re trying to create at UTEP and it’s all of
our in all of our interests to become advocates for such opportunity
generation and the story isn’t really limited to Latinos either there are
talented and low-resource young people across this country from a wide range of
ethnicities races and national origins who also deserve opportunities to access
the one most likely pathway to life success which is of course a high
quality post-secondary education I have deep feelings about this because
although it was a very long time ago I was once one of those students and my
guess is that many of you were too I grew up in st. Louis and attended a
blue-collar public high school whose mission was to prepare its male
graduates for the workforce primarily for Union apprenticeships as plumbers
electricians and carpenters at such major into
streets as anheuser-busch and Monsanto the girls were expected to marry those
boys and most of us studied typing and shorthand just in case we needed to work
before those happy nuptials no one talked with us about attending college
much less about scholarships or other enabling strategies so like nearly all
of my fellow high school graduates I went to work I was a 17 year old
switchboard operator at a large industrial company the lily tomlin of
Nordberg manufacturing after a month of switchboard mastery I was utterly bored
and truly frightened by what appeared to be my dreadful future I somehow mustered
the courage to go to st. Louis University there were no public
universities in st. Louis at that time to ask about enrolling I learned that I
would qualify for admission but that I’d probably have to study very hard to
catch up with fellow students who were Slough high school graduates and
supposedly they claimed they’d read Dante now I didn’t know who Dante was
and I learned later that some of those claims were exaggerated
those billikins I assured slew and convinced myself that my family had
taught me to be a hard worker though I confessed that I lived in fear of
failure throughout my freshman year and perhaps even longer and I see that same
fear in the eyes of so many of the students who come to UTEP with their big
dreams the other major challenge that I faced was how to finance my education
primarily st. Louis University’s tuition which at the time was hold on to your
seats 375 dollars per semester with slews help
I found a half-time secretarial job at a small construction company near the
campus and with that in a tutoring job on Saturdays I actually got to tutor
stan musial daughter think about that since I’m a big baseball fan that was
very cool I almost forgot the Spanish that I was supposed to tutor so with
that those two jobs I was able to fully cover my investment in tuition books and
transportation like many UTEP students I lived at home
although there are parallels between UTEP students in my own shaky start at
SLU 50-plus years ago the higher education landscape has obviously
changed dramatically with a half-time job I could fund the full cost of my
high quality education half time job that isn’t possible today even at a
relatively low cost public university like Utah with tuition at $3,700 per
semester when earlier this year I was honored to be invited to speak at slews
commencement the thrill of returning to the launchpad that propelled me through
a life that’s been filled with so many rich opportunities was incredibly moving
for me but I also have to confess that my joy was tempered by the realization
that what slew did for me and many other blue-collar students like me 50 years
ago they really can’t do today higher education costs have escalated in both
private and public sectors and financial aid doesn’t come
close to covering those costs data on the growing disparity over the past 50
years in the United States baccalaureate degree attainment between students in
the lowest and highest socio-economic quartiles are extremely sobering in the
1970s 6.6 percent of young people in the lowest socio-economic quartile completed
bachelor’s degrees compared with over 36% in the highest quartile 40 years
later in 2010 the lowest quartile bachelor’s degree attainment rate had
risen by only two percent to eight point eight percent while the highest quartile
had doubled to more than 70 percent the growing disparity should be a cause for
alarm for every single one of us and the future doesn’t seem terribly rosy
appropriations for education in the public sector have declined in most
states including my own and tuition and fee costs and student debt rise in
response the challenges we face and attempting to execute UTEP’s access and
excellence mission grow more more daunting by the day and the policy
context at both federal and state levels is increasingly ominous so whenever
possible I commit to sharing YouTube’s social justice model and advocating
across the country for strategies to increase educational opportunities for
talented young people of modest financial means through such initiatives
and as enhanced financial aid and scholarships and work-study exchange
programs dual credit and early college high school although we certainly seek
to achieve social justice we know too that this nation’s global
competitiveness is also at stake it will depend on our success in
developing these young people’s abundant talent
starting with assuring them access to a quality higher education
I’m often asked why I chose to stay at UTEP rather than to move to a larger or
more prestigious university by now that should be as obvious to you as it is to
me I’m passionate about being able to pay back systematically and at scale
through my work at UTEP the incredible opportunity that the Jesuits at st.
Louis University offered me a high quality education at an affordable cost
UTEP is a place where the impact of such payback is palpable every single day not
only on such special occasions as award ceremonies and graduations what’s been
especially exciting for me too is that so many of you tips most accomplished
faculty and staff share this same passion to pay back for their own
opportunities through their work with UTEP students I can’t think of an
accomplishment that has given my UTEP colleagues and me greater satisfaction
than a recent Brookings study which ranked UTEP number one among all US for
search universities in fostering student social mobility why is that so
satisfying because unlike US News and World Report whose wealth and prestige
driven measures are poorly aligned with UTEP and the students that we serve this
Brookings study attempted to capture exactly what we have dedicated ourselves
to deliver for UTEP students over the past 30 years social mobility through
quality higher education by challenging traditional policies procedures and
metrics UTEP has been successful in creating amazing opportunities for large
numbers of students who add another place or time might not have had access
to them although Georgetown and UTEP are worlds apart in some ways on the higher
education landscape I know from working with president degioia and others here
today that many of you share this passion we know we are privileged to
work with talented and high aspiring young people whose bright futures we are
helping to shape for them we must be optimists despite
the extremely competitive and often discouraging higher education climate
there’s too much at stake too much important work to be done to ensure that
we leave this world a better and more equitable place for them than it is for
so many young people in the u.s. today educators play an especially essential
role in ensuring that this critically important work gets done and all of us
have been entrusted with this major responsibility I thank each and every
one of you for all you have done and will continue to do and I thank you very
much for this opportunity to be with you today