BROWNSVILLE, February 18 - Until the UT System proposed a “new” and unnamed university for South Texas in December of last year, there had not been much demonstration of collaboration among the political leadership of this region.
Now the South Texas legislative delegation is fully engaged and working hard to have a hand in building a university for which there is no framework.
As addressed in previous Guardian columns, my assertion is that this is not really a “new” university but rather a retooling or retrofitting of two existing UT campuses into one. In either case, for this institution to be successful it must demonstrate certain essential elements. In this column I will present several for the consideration of the UT System to guide its planning process.
These elements include: making the student the primary client; setting the expectations for a new executive team; the key components of a strategic plan; the acquisition of intellectual and knowledge capital; developing a unique physical infrastructure and the development and maintenance of external revenue streams to drive innovation and creativity to sustain what is referred to as a 21st Century University.
Both the academic and political leadership in the Rio Grande Valley have used the term 21st Century University incessantly since December of last year. Suffice it to say that there is no 21st Century University, just a university for the community. Universities exist in a perpetual continuum that does not adhere to any time constraints.
The university that finally surfaces in South Texas should be one that recognizes that students are its most important clients. Its focus must be on student continuous development and academic sustainability that is measured by four-year graduation rates that are higher than the current rates of 12 percent to 15 percent at both of the UT campuses in the Rio Grande Valley. The performance evaluation of the president, the executive team and the deans as well as faculty must be normed to these outcomes. There must be accountability interwoven at all levels of the university for the success of our students.
It is imperative that there be a student economic sustainability strategy that is directed at acquiring student aid resources, expanding campus employment, acquiring funds for more scholarships, expanded internships and graduation with little to no debt. If this institution is to be a transborder leader then it must work with the Immigration and Naturalization Services to mine the intellectual capital of international students from Mexico that enroll in Texas institutions of higher education. I propose that Mexican students should receive a resident’s card along with their diploma from a border university if they have majored in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] disciplines. That is a policy challenge to the UT Board of Regents and the chancellor of the System.
Several publications have noted that while immigrants make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute 24 percent of the U.S. science and technology workforce and over 47 percent of the U.S. science and technology Ph.D.’s in 2009. Mexico’s young talent pool is just south of the Rio Grande and its participation and success in North American universities is critical to the success of any international economic partnerships along the United States’ southern border.
The success of any enterprise is correlated to the capacity and quality of its human resources. I propose that as part of the planning for the merger of UTPA and UT Brownsville that the UT System conducts an assessment of the assets and liabilities that are evident at both campuses. The UT System should evaluate the capacity and performance of the executive teams, faculty and staff to determine if they are the right fit for the task before the system.
The most outstanding quality of the executive teams should be that they demonstrate “transformative leadership” in their academic and professional portfolio and a commitment to constant change. This executive team should be one that is ready to put in place programs and allocated resources to change the status quo at the university and add value to the quality of life of this region’s disenfranchised communities. The most evident transformation should be demonstrated in the talent that comes to this region to serve our students and communities.
The “new” university must commit to the identification, recruitment and hiring as well as retention of the best talent in research and innovation. The challenge, according to technology-based industry leaders, is to find the right people and then convince them to move. Smart persons will attract other smart individuals to South Texas. This institution must also work diligently to eliminate cronyism that has for too long been the practice of some South Texas institutions. The planning process should be one that anticipates the future through the use of data to guide decisions rather than working to repeat processes that got this region to where it is now: at the bottom of this nation’s economic strata.
The planning process must also stress the short term; two years at most and set tangible goals that are linked to measured outcomes. Strategic planners have determined that planning in long-term cycles of five to ten years or more is not productive. No one can predict or forecast the future to that extend. The strategic plans recently proposed by UT Pan American and UT Brownsville should be discarded and a new process begun for a single accountability driven action plan. Another consideration, advised by several Silicon Valley leaders, is to diminish organizational bureaucracy. Their contention is that bureaucrats are inhibitors to the development and nurturing of creativity and the attraction of sponsors and advocates.
The history of Silicon Valley demonstrates that first-rate universities, with outstanding computer science departments, are the catalyst for the creation of technology hubs. In merging the two existing computer science programs at UT Pan American and UT Brownsville, the UT System must prioritize what intellectual and knowledge capital needs to be carried forward to the “new” university. Another priority, although external, lies south of the Rio Grande in Mexico.
At present, Mexico has the 15th largest economy in the world and will have the world’s 5th largest economy in the next 40 years; two generations from now. We are beginning to see evidence of the resurgence of Mexico’s economy, as reported in a recent series in the New York Times. There is a generally held proposition, from some economists and demographers, that in the not too distance future, that the five U.S. Southwestern states will attempt to convince the Mexican government to send it young and talented workforce back to America to assist with their regional economies. The American labor pool is aging and the reverse migration of formerly devalued Mexican undocumented residents may be an ironic twist of economic reality.
It is vital that the UT System develop a “Venture Capital Plan” to make the private sector in Mexico a major partner in the investment of funds to support technological innovation along the border. This “new” institution should commit to a business-planning model to acquire a continuous stream of financial resources from both the private and philanthropic sectors as well as federal and state governments on both sides of the border. It is necessary that the emphasis be on the creation of partnerships with the private, philanthropic, government sectors and the not-for-profit community.
While the business plan will be the foundation for the generation of fiscal resources, there must be a corresponding plan to develop a stream of prepared students. I propose that the “new” university develop a strategic plan with the 37 school districts in Region 1 to make public schools the university’s incubator to generate college ready students. To be successful, these students must demonstrate critical thinking skills, possess social skills and technology and numerical literacy, have a commitment to personal health and well being, be committed to community development and service, be financially literate, and be knowledgeable about American diversity. The students should have access to support services in their communities.
At a time of economic uncertainty and scarce resources, the “new” university must prudently evaluate the need for new facilities. Any facilities master plan that is set in motion should make the expansion of engineering and technology laboratories as well as business incubators a priority. These laboratories are necessary to encourage innovation and joint ventures with the private sector.
To state that there is a shortage of instructional and training facilities in South Texas is without merit. If anything, there is an abundance of instructional and training space; what is lacking is a plan and a vision to share the publicly owned facilities that abound in the Rio Grande Valley. This “new” university should work with the 37 school districts in Region 1 to develop a shared facilities plan. This plan would make use of the many updated science, computer and technology laboratories that are rarely used after the school day ends at 3:30 p.m. of each school day and are vacant on most weekends. I assert that many state-of-the-art technology assets are underutilized throughout the Rio Grande Valley and if more space is needed, there are 270,000 square feet at the former Amigoland Mall in Brownsville that was developed through the UT System partnership with Texas Southmost College in 2002.
The Rio Grande Valley is nowhere near being Silicon Valley, however it can become the economic linchpin between Mexico and the balance of the United States if it has a shared regional vision and a corresponding strategic plan. The “new” university will have a critical and challenging role to become the nexus of innovation and creativity for this border region. Talented, creative and innovative faculty and researchers, as well as investors, must believe that this region is one that is built on an unwavering trust of its political leadership.
A most critical element to consider here, I posit, is that talented individuals are mobile and that they will go where life is good. A recurring question from applicants for teaching and research positions at universities is about the community’s quality of life. That is where the university, as the hub for human and intellectual capital, has a challenge, to work with all regional communities to make the Rio Grande Valley a great place to live.
The “new” university in South Texas must be in an accelerated mode to be the broker of the Texas/Mexico borderlands’ intellectual and knowledge capital. This institution should be the catalyst for this region’s sustainable economy. That should be the core of its vision statement.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D. is the lead consultant of the Borderlands Consulting Group of Waco, Texas and Corrales, New Mexico. He founded the technology campus, the College Without Walls, for the Houston Community College System in 1991. He retired in August of 2012 as a tenured professor of research and leadership from the University of Texas Pan American.