In early January 2017, we chatted with Dr. Diana Natalicio, president of The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), who Time Magazine named one of 2016's 100 most influential people in the world.
President Natalicio discussed how thinking like an entrepreneur and an economic developer has served her well during her tenure at UTEP.
I’ve been president of UTEP for 28 years, and the world of public higher education has changed dramatically over that period of time. When I assumed this role, UTEP had been almost exclusively dependent for its funding on the state appropriations formula and, to a lesser extent, tuition. We were doing our education business and providing opportunities to students, but we didn’t spend a great deal of time at the end of the decade of the 1980s thinking about alternative revenue sources and strategies to become more agile and creative in developing new revenue streams. It became clear, however, that the growth trajectory in state funding – which accounted for more than 60 percent of our revenue at the time – was not sustainable, and that we had to begin to think about other funding options.
If this were a wealthy community—and if we served a predominately high-income student population—tuition increases might have been a very easy solution. But we truly wanted to be an opportunity generator for people in this historically underserved region, and we knew that we’d have to be entrepreneurial to achieve both educational access and quality; tuition increases simply weren’t going to be the answer. We began working hard on developing other strategies that would generate revenue and enable us to grow and to build quality, while continuing to ensure access and affordability for students of modest financial means.
We worked hard on diversifying our portfolio of assets. A high priority was building our research competitiveness, investing in infrastructure and faculty talent. We also had to leverage our auxiliary enterprises, real estate and many other assets that have helped us become a much stronger force for the future of this region. And developing other revenue sources and solutions has led us on quite an exciting journey.
The first big step for us was to begin to prime the research pump and to do everything we could to optimize the probability of securing external funding – not only from federal agencies, but also from corporate and foundation sources. That meant building an infrastructure here on the campus to support faculty members with the talent and potential to compete successfully. We needed to demonstrate to faculty that if they were entrepreneurial, we would support them. We also were committed to reinvesting in our capacity to generate more external funding. That meant building more facilities and creating more square footage so that researchers had space to do their work.
We learned early on when competing for major grants at the federal level that if the site visit teams didn’t see the kind of physical facilities and equipment required to do the work, they were dubious that an upstart like UTEP – which we definitely were at the outset! – could accomplish the work. So we invested strategically and used the money that we had, limited though it was, to acquire the resources needed. And we competed aggressively for matching funds. It was an all-out effort. Everybody on the campus worked together to try to make this happen. We were determined to become a research university but, most importantly, we were also absolutely committed to avoid jeopardizing the quality and accessibility of the undergraduate experience of the financially constrained students we served.
So our commitment to develop a research agenda was closely tied to providing a higher quality undergraduate experience and, therefore, an even better bargain for UTEP students who were paying lower tuition than their peers at most public universities. They benefitted because they were surrounded by a research enterprise that was making strategic infrastructure investments and creating jobs on campus for them. There was a synergy between research and undergraduate education quality because everyone understood that it wasn’t a trade-off. It was a collaborative effort between those of us committed to accessible undergraduate education and high-quality teaching and learning, and those who were doing innovative research. In most cases, they were the same people.
By far, the investment in a highly talented faculty and staff yields the greatest return. We compete as aggressively as we can to recruit people who demonstrate strength in the two dimensions that are most important to us: they are competitive researchers and scholars, and they are committed to sharing that competitiveness and dedication to quality with the undergraduate students we serve. Research and teaching are tightly connected. UTEP is not a divided campus; we’re a single university working very, very hard to ensure that everything we do is leveraged, and understanding that we all have responsibility for both access and excellence.
We are here as a public university to provide educational opportunities for residents of this region. That’s the role of public universities and the reason why they’re scattered across the geography of big state like Texas. If you lose sight of that fundamental mission, you’ve lost it all, I think.
We work as closely as we can with business leadership in the community, because we understand the inter-dependencies and the need for collaboration. Most of our graduates – an estimated 60 percent – remain in this region, so we have many alumni in far West Texas. They are business leaders. They are teachers. They are health care professionals. They are entrepreneurs. They play a broad range of roles. And we work with them to develop workforce models that are more productive for the region.
There are only two publicly traded companies headquartered in El Paso. That’s very limiting for us, when compared to such major metro areas as Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston or Austin. We simply don’t have large private-sector enterprises in the region. One of the consequences is that many of our graduates must leave the area to secure professional employment when they complete their degrees.
While we’ve been very successful through our focus on both access and excellence in increasing UTEP’s enrollment by 50 percent and doubling the number of graduates, the unfinished business is to help create more high-end jobs in this region – particularly for our engineering, technology and science graduates. UTEP began as a mining school and we graduate large numbers of engineers and scientists.
One of our challenges is that most of them must leave the area to secure meaningful and exciting work. That represents a huge brain drain when you consider the extensive investment that we have made in building quality undergraduate education and research competitiveness for them. At the time that the community really could capture a yield on that investment, those graduates instead are heading off to Lockheed Martin Aero in Fort Worth or to Google in California or to Bloomberg in New York … wherever they go, they’re clearly not here in El Paso. One of my top priorities now is to help make UTEP more of a catalyst for high-end economic development. We’re making progress, and I’m pretty excited about that, because I do think this is the last piece in the puzzle we identified more than two decades ago.
I think you have to change the economic development strategy. For a long time the border region has sold itself as offering a low-wage/low-skill workforce. That doesn’t attract the type of employers interested in competing for UTEP graduates. This issue has deep roots. One of our priorities 25 years ago was to try to raise the educational aspirations and attainment of all young people in the community. When I first became president, I visited school districts, meeting with superintendents, teachers and parents, to find out why so few Latino and low-income students were enrolling at UTEP.
They had set their own ceiling, in effect, by not considering higher education as an option. We managed to turn that around through a broad-based partnership with the school districts, parents and other community stakeholders. It required everyone in the community doubling down on the importance of setting high aspirations and educational attainment for talent wherever it may be. It’s been wonderfully successful and very exciting to see the impact.
Now we’ve got to do the same for the regional workforce strategy, growing companies that are already here and working with regional economic development teams to design creative and strategic efforts to attract companies that will hire engineers and advanced business students in greater numbers. We’re graduating talented students with unique skills and they’re going off to great careers. But all things being equal, many of them—a majority of whom are the first in their families to go to college—would far rather stay in El Paso if competitive jobs were available to them here.
Companies need to understand that if they set up some operations here—and in today’s telecommuting world, that’s not so far-fetched—they’re going to have an inside track on some of the best and brightest. It’d be wonderful to see UTEP graduates have more opportunities to stay in their hometown, inspiring their younger brothers and sisters to attain their own aspirations and playing an influential role in the lives of their families and this community. It’s far less expensive for them to be here than to have to relocate. But, obviously, we’ve got to pitch it in a way that makes sense for these companies – because they’re not in business to do us a favor; they’re in business to get the best talent to do the best work at the most competitive price. And that’s where we can excel if we can get their ear and deliver a clear message.
El Paso has been Texas’ best kept secret for too long a time. It’s a great place to live and to do business. There are so many opportunities here if people will just take a look. We’ve been battling a stereotype about El Paso and the border for a long time, and it was reinforced yet again by recent national political campaigns, creating an even bigger challenge for us. But as they say, challenges are also opportunities, and combatting border stereotypes can open up a conversation that enables us to talk about El Paso’s advantages.
We have a large pool of very special talent here with the capacity to be successful in a global context; most of our UTEP students are bilingual and have experience living and working in a binational setting. One of our priorities now is to think differently about how to successfully recruit our graduates back to this region after they’ve launched their careers and experienced life elsewhere.
Recruiting El Pasoans back to El Paso is not as big a hurdle as it might be to get people to come here initially, and we’re seeing more of that. We know El Paso offers many strategic quality-of-life advantages, and our challenge now is to package and communicate them more effectively.
Oh, there have been so many people who’ve had an impact, but the greatest influence surely was the opportunity to attend St. Louis University and experience the Jesuit education offered to me there. Like a majority of our UTEP students, I was first in my family to go to college. After attending a mediocre public high school that set low expectations for its mostly blue-collar students, I discovered Jesuit education, which was a total revelation, and I became a huge admirer of the Jesuits’ commitment to quality teaching and learning. They valued educating blue-collar kids like me.
That lesson, that passion, has been a most powerful driving force for me. The accessibility and affordability of St. Louis University at that time created huge opportunities for me and changed the trajectory of my life. And that’s what UTEP represents for our students. We’re here. We’re affordable. And we’re passionate about ensuring that our students have high-quality, life-changing opportunities. We strive for excellence, and never compromise on our expectations of ourselves and the students we serve. We’re determined to give our students the opportunity of a lifetime. FN
To learn more about the educational opportunities that the University of Texas at El Paso has to offer, visit their website, and check out the various educational resources the Comptroller’s office provides.