|SOCORRO, New Mexico, May 11 - Dr. Guy Bailey, the sole finalist for the presidency of UTRGV, is without a doubt the right individual for this most challenging assignment, to build a world-class institution in South Texas.
According to a UT System press release, “UTRGV is being designed as a 21st century university that will have global impact. The university is being created by combining the talent, assets and resources of UT Brownsville, UT Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center.”
The pronouncements from Austin are rather generic and expansive. It will be up to Dr. Bailey to design the architectural rendering that fits a 21st Century University, however it is defined. The outgoing chancellor stated that, "UTRGV is the fulfillment of the creation of a new model of excellence with the aim of transforming the quality of life, health and economic prosperity in South Texas and beyond.” The key word here is "fulfillment" which, unto itself, is a declaration of success on a yet to be functional institution. In my research discipline of socialization theory, this proclamation is referred to as a anticipatory reflection and in a way sets forth the positive hopes of the chancellor for his initiative.
The perspectives shared in this narrative are guided by my experience and roles as a former professor of leadership and director of research institutes at UT Austin, UT Brownsville and UT Pan American and my 47 years in higher education. I will describe those precursors that, I believe, are imperative to taking the first step forward on the march to achieving the vision of the UT System. Of concern here is what type of university does South Texas really need and what is the shared vision of its cross border constituencies.
In reviewing the university archives at UT Brownsville, one finds that in 1991, the then Governor of Texas and the Chancellor of the UT System made similar pronouncements and set great expectations for the UT Brownsville and Texas Southmost College Partnership. These pronouncements are almost identical to the most recent ones from Austin. History has demonstrated that this was a one-sided affiliation of convenience and that Texas Southmost College was literally annihilated by a compliant Brownsville based board of trustees and a president who lacked a regional vision and corresponding strategy.
A major impediment, I posit, to the success of the now defunct partnership was lackluster oversight and an expectation of accountability by the UT Board of Regents. Now, there is an opportunity for a rewind of the same video but thankfully without the same unprepared leadership and hopefully a highly prepared cast of professionals will lead this new university.
With the selection of Dr. Bailey, the UT System did keep its word to create a "new University" and for that we are thankful. What follows are those precursors that I contend are necessary for what surely will be an accountability and data-based strategy from a president that is well versed at the highest levels of academia. Dr. Bailey is surely aware of the different variations, models and strategies that are being bandied about that supposedly attend to the “university for the 21st century.” To me, the most crucial element is whether this institution will mirror the hopes and aspirations of its clients, the 92 percent Mexican American population on the north side of the Rio Grande and the 100 percent Mexican population south of the Rio Bravo. The vision, to become a globally significant institution, must first begin with it becoming a cross-border relevant university. Visions that are dispensed from high ground, the UT System in Austin, are without merit since they lack the insights and perspectives of South Texans who will be the beneficiaries of the products and services of this new university.
This new university must be about hope. Raymond Williams said that to, "be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing." The past three years have been replete with despair as students, faculty and staff at both UT Brownsville and UT Pan American worried about their future as well as the role and scope of the new university. Amory B. Lovins proposes that this is a world of big changes and that assistance is converging to help those whose hearts are guided by hope, brains by invention (which Edwin Land contends results in, "a sudden cessation of stupidity") and in the hands by the disciples of the severely practical." There is no room for the grandiose or for overreaching goals that are not grounded in the reality that exist in South Texas.
The following are those precursors that I have identified as vital to what I will refer to as Stage I of the development of UTRGV:
Precursor One: Focus on the development and continued sustainability of the social wherewithal of the residents of the cross-border region that encompasses South Texas and northern Mexico. The pipeline, of the essential elements, that demonstrate a sustainable community is punctured with holes and held together with duct tape. This university needs to expand the capacity of school districts to produce outstanding college and career ready students while abating attrition and expanding the quality of life of families. Dr. Danny King, superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District is implementing capacity development models that make the family the axis of success in school for at-risk children. These efforts have become part of the Clinton Foundation Global Initiative and should be the cornerstone of this new university's community engagement agenda. Dr. King should be a valued advisor to the incoming president. I have always contended that Dr. King "gets it" and his actions prove that he understands that without healthy families that success is temporal and quick to dissipate. Closing the Gaps begins with Closing the Gaps in the economic, health, education, transportation, environment and isolation that prevents South Texas families from accessing the benefits of being full engaged in a community.
Precursor Two: Do not get into the whirlpool that sucks every institution that proposes that it needs to be a Tier I research university. The vision and corresponding missions for UTRGV should be grounded in several stakes such as those that tie down a tent:
1.) Maintain an intensive and never-ending due diligence directed at always being in sync with the needs of cross border constituencies. Hargroves and Smith posit that, "even the world's biggest problems are falling before the power of a vision across boundaries [borders]." There will be naysayers among the faculty who believe that this is the moment to create a Tier I university for South Texas. To them, I would say, "if you are so gung-ho to be at a Tier I university then by all means update your vitas and start applying for positions at Baylor, Texas Tech, the University of Houston, Rice, Texas A &M and UT Austin.
2.) Review the present research capacity of the cadre of faculty at UT Brownsville and UT Pan American to determine if there is sufficient substance in their research capacity. If not, then jettison those that lack substantive skills and keep those that can perform the type of research that will drive this new university.
3.) Conduct an audit of the colleges/schools at both campuses and their corresponding departments to determine what to keep and what to eliminate. It is obvious that there is too much duplicity in the present mix.
4.) Create a Residential Post-doctoral Research Training Center that will serve as the continuous improvement facilitator to expand the research and teaching capacity of junior faculty.
5.) Establish a research agenda that addresses this region's needs and make those the essential elements of each college's strategic plan. At present the research that goes on at both UT Pan American and UT Brownsville is rather soft, especially in the social sciences and education, as is the dissertation research that is undertaken by doctoral students at both campuses. A research quality control committee should be established to review and evaluate the rigor of research that is undertaken by faculty and their student at the new institution.
Precursor Three: Set a goal to become the cross border region's economic engine. At present there is much happening in South Texas in terms of economic and workforce development but unfortunately, these endeavors are scattered and not coordinated or monitored by a third party. UTRGV should be the "Nexus Institution" for the provision of technical assistance, technology infusion, strategic thinking, evaluation, and continuous improvement of its targeted region's diverse public, private and not-for-profit agencies and industries. I believe that an outcome will be a shared vision to be competitive and sustainable as a region of the whole.
In 1997, Texas Comptroller John Sharp directed his office's Research and Policy Development Division to undertake a study of the Texas-Mexico Border region. The study's goal was to develop an economic vision and strategy for the region to guide state and local public policy for the 21st century. The research agenda focused on issues related to education, health, transportation, infrastructure, environment, economic development, and housing. In its final report, the Comptroller made this most telling observation, "if the Border region was the 51st state, it would rank last in all social indicators." Serious policy brokers and researchers should review the current status of this region and juxtapose the present data with that of 1991, except for the demographic, and there would be little wiggle room to demonstrate progress. Their findings should be used to guide a proactive research strategy at UTRGV.
This challenge may be the most pressing and one, which must be the top priority for this institution, as it becomes a responsive university that expands the quality of life of the residents of South Texas.
Precursor Four: Expand the technical capacities of both faculty and staff to write and manage competitive proposals. There must be strategic plans to acquire external funds via sponsored programs and institutional advancement. The strategy, to engage corporate and philatrophic communities should be one that conveys the message that this new university is one that operates from data base strategies that makes it worth the investment. My assessment of these operations, at both the Brownsville and Edinburg campus, is that the staffs are rather weak, ill prepared and not professional in the fields of resource development and fund raising. I recall sitting in planning meetings at both UT Brownsville and UT Pan American where the most salient point for institutional advancement marketing was the fact that we served an ethnic population that was mostly disenfranchised and poor. That is as close as one gets to asking for alms from the wealthy.
Precursor Five: Begin to build a Level 5 cadre of leaders immediately. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, suggests that great institutions develop great leaders and invest in their development, retention, and promotion. These are the leaders who are about the success of the enterprise, who care about the client, are committed to excellence and most of all, challenge everyone at every level to perform at the highest levels. To these leaders the only thing that matters is execution that results in success outcomes.
I propose that it is imperative that this new university creates a South Texas Leadership Institute to identify, recruit, continuously train and place leaders, both from within and outside of the university, in challenging roles. When he was asked about the success of Microsoft, Bill Gates said that he believed in placing the most prepared leaders in situations where the greatest challenges existed to succeed.
In reviewing the tenure of both the soon-to-be former presidents of UT Pan American and UT Brownsville, I see nothing that conveys their investment in the development of a leadership pipeline for South Texas. If there is one shortcoming, that we should not tolerate, it is the failure of those in leadership roles to expand the leadership pipeline of talented, energetic and committed individuals. It is these leaders that will work hard to expand the quality of life of cross border constituencies through the execution of best practices in leadership.
I have just finished reading Joel Kotkin's book, The Next One Hundred Million, in which he addresses the challenges and opportunities that the present and emerging demographic shifts will portend for regions of all types, whether rural, urban or those that exist in shared third spaces that overlap borders. Kotkin refers to an observation that was made by the French philosopher, René Descartes, when he first visited Amsterdam, the economic center of the Netherlands in the 17th century. Upon observing its competitiveness and resulting economic achievements, he commented that the great Dutch city represented an "invention of the possible."
I propose that the overriding challenge to the creation of a new university for South Texas will be that its invention must be directed at what is possible and not be encumbered by the erratic history of higher education in South Texas since 1991. The charge to this institution is to bring about change. Hargroves and Smith have observed, that no matter how determined an institution is to reinvent itself that change takes time to implement and there is no time to waste. South Texans have been on the waiting list for all too long and the attention and resources that this region is receiving may be rather fleeing, as other regions demand similar resources from the UT System and the state of Texas.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D., left UT Pan American in 2012 as a tenured professor of research and leadership. At UT Brownsville he directed the Cross Border Institute for Regional Development [http://blue.utb.edu/cbird/utb-tscfpageformat/homereports.htm]. While at UT Pan American he directed the Center for Applied Research in Education and the University of Texas Research Consortium. He resides in Waco, Texas and Corrales, New Mexico.