TAOS, New Mexico – There are many regions, throughout the globe, that have historically been isolated and insulated from the mainstream of the flow of resources to expand the quality of life of their populace.

When the dam breaks there is general exuberance as resources and initiatives begin to flow to affect the region’s quality of life.

Occasionally, these occurrences are immediately labeled as “transformative.” In some instances, these initiatives include the revamping of existing higher education institutions, the development of new industries, the expansion of infrastructures, and the receipt of resources that are not commonly provided to expand certain regional capacities.

Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr.

All-too-often these events are seen as “game changers” in role and scope. There is generally much self-congratulation and aggrandizement and hoopla that leads to a temporary sense of euphoria. A prevailing windfall is political currency for those that line up to receive undue and unmerited credit for events that had little to do with their vision.

What is common practice, in developed regions such as the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Silicon Valley in northern California or the Boston Corridor, is declared as an affirmation that a formerly disengaged or disenfranchised region “has made it.” My experience tells me that it is not that simple.

In this commentary I will present several factors that regions, with emphasis on the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley, should consider as they identify the essential elements for sustainable transformation.

I propose that this transformation must be constant, accountability based, measurable and directed at meeting the needs of citizens for the present without sacrificing the well being of future generations. The action items and related questions that follow present some parts, but not all, of the essential components for developing a road map to a sustainable future. My reflections are based, to an extent, on the shared wisdom that is found in Hargroves and Smith’s 2005 publication, “The Natural Advantage of Nations and their 2010 publication, Cents and Sustainability: Securing Our Common Future by Decoupling Economic Growth from Environmental Pressures.”

Before a dialogue can be initiated about transformation, it is necessary to identify the essential elements of this arduous process. It is distractive to listen to the muddle of politicians, ill informed regional leaders and governmental bureaucrats who declare that certain events or initiatives will be transformational. Of concern here is what they do or don’t know when they make these pronouncements.

I offer that there are several issues and questions to consider as we explore what regional transformation is or is not and how it is defined. The most salient definition, to me, is that provided by Alan Atkisson who states that, “we need a transformation that is a wave of social, technical, and economic innovation that will touch every person, community, company, institution and nation [regions] on the Earth.” As supplements to Atkisson, I propose that we consider the following elements as we become engaged in understanding the “transformation” phenomena.

First, an acknowledgement that “business as usual is not a safe place to stay” when we consider that it is necessary and appropriate to develop strategies that are inclusive in scope and that are anchored in the participation of the most disenfranchised of the constituencies of a region. The standard patronizing and top down way of doing business should not be tolerated in regions that propose to be moving to a higher tier of development. Any efforts at transformation must be grounded in strategic thinking that reflect a commitment to a data based vision that is constantly assessed so that guidance can follow to anchor policies and practices that lead to success outcomes.

In regions, such as the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the residents of isolated barrios and colonias should engage themselves in their own revolution and demand a seat at the planning and policy table. In my experience, in south Texas, it appears that the self-anointed leadership treats these communities in a supercilious manner then presents them as a reference point to make a case statement for development but ignores them when the resources are allocated for the expansion of their quality of life.

A second focus item is a corrective action response to the question: What is wrong with where we are? To simply overlay new initiatives and enterprises on an existing framework that was flawed from neglect and an absence of maintenance to sustain transformational development is rather simplistic and evident in many regions that issue proclamations that they have arrived. The example here is the “founding” of a new university for south Texas by joining two institutions, UT Brownsville and UT Pan American to create a single institution, UT Rio Grande Valley. There is nothing in the archives that demonstrates a longitudinal and strategic planning process replete with institutional development support or oversight from the UT System and there is no evident due diligence to justify this undertaking; the data to guide this initiative is sorely lacking.

Both of these institutions were flawed, especially the Brownsville campus, since they were treated as orphans by the UT System and were more useful as a source of Mexican American enrollment data to buttress federal student diversity mandates. Neither institution has a longitudinal history of achieving extraordinary student success outcomes that convey to the taxpayers a return on tax investments that has resulted in a highly qualified cadre of college graduates that can compete in the world economy. The graduation rates and debt ratios of these institutions are dismal since on average students graduate within six to eight years and have accumulated over $16,000 in debt. Now, the political pundits have declared this “new” institution the next great Tier One University and yet it does not officially come into existence until fall of 2015. In essence they have tasted the pudding before it was either fully cooked or served.

Other matters that require our attention and consideration here are that the dismal outcomes of public schools in south Texas that are not part of the transformation dialogue. The question that remains unattended and avoided is: What will the pipeline of college ready high school graduates who can participate and graduate with competitive skills to participate in the world economy look like from hereon? A cursory review of the data from these resources the Intercultural Research Development Association, the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education informs me that the talent pipeline from public schools to Texas institutions of higher education is leaking and literally patched by duct tape due to inadequate funding from the Texas legislature. The stimulus to transform south Texas higher education is contingent on ameliorating the 30 percent dropout rate and low achievement outcomes of high school graduates from the thirty-seven school districts in south Texas.

A third essential element that surfaces here is the need to use current and timely data and information to guide decision-making. Hargroves and Smith propose that what is lacking in many regions to achieve sustainable development and transformation is reliable information, and dissemination of that information to empower people, whatever their station to act. But also importantly in this information age, we all need critical literacies to be able to most effectively and wisely use this information.

David Orr, one of the world’s leading environmental educators, has argued that the environmental crisis is actually a crisis of education. Orr’s position is that, “the challenge we face is first foremost one of the mind, perceptions, and values; hence it is a challenge to those institutions [colleges/universities and public schools] presuming to shape minds, perceptions and values.” Without an educated constituency there is no sustainability and it is critical for effective participation in decision making at all levels of regional transformation. This is a constant and never ending challenge to the leaders of educational institutions in south Texas.

A fourth facet is the need for us to challenge “simplistic thinking” which M. Scott Peck views as one of the biggest problems that is facing the world today. Such an orientation is a glaring impediment to the actualization of regional transformation. Peck defines this type of thinking as having these characteristics, “one of the major dilemmas we face as individuals and as a society is simplistic thinking-or the failure to think at all. It isn’t just a problem, it is the problem…Thinking well is more urgent now-perhaps more urgent than anything else-because it is the means by which we consider, decide and act upon everything in our increasingly complex world…If we are to think well, we must be on guard against simplistic thinking in our approach to analyzing crucial issues and solving the problems of life.”

It is imperative that we challenge data free pronouncements about what is yet to transpire as if they are indeed, as the French say, a fait accompli or a declaration that something that is to happen has already been deemed a success. Those are the common statements from different south Texas entities and different tiers of leadership about the success of the newly proposed medical school for south Texas or the designation of the new UTRGV as the next great transnational research university. The ongoing frenzy about the booming energy industries is also positioned as the next tier in this region’s economic salvation without a thorough corresponding strategy to address the resulting environmental disasters that are bubbling to the surface to destroy the topsoil of this region.

The newly proposed and modified higher education institutions that are emerging in this region are still in their nascent stage of development. I hold that it is too early to attribute to them certain qualities when academic, operational and academic plans are still under revision and modification. It is disheartening to learn that my academic colleagues at the pre-existing south Texas universities will have to apply for their current positions. So much for rewarding the faithful servants. These are the committed faculty and support staffs that toiled during the years of scarcity and succeeded, to a degree, while being led by academic charlatans whose primary agenda was their status and expanding non-existent leadership credentials while setting aside the needs of their students.

One Austin based federal bureaucrat even went as far as declaring that an outcome of the development of SpaceX, UTRGV and the new medical school, was, “that the Rio Grande Valley’s traditional brain drain is going to end and students from across America are going to start moving to the region to study and build a career.” Such an observation is rather naïve in that it is proposes that the best and brightest of students, that are graduating from south Texas high schools, will no longer seek to go north to Texas A&M, UT Austin, UT Dallas, Rice, Baylor, TCU, SMU and the other geographic points of the compass. The remodeled versions of higher education in south Texas must become excellent and competitive and maybe when such happens; then the outward migration of young talent from south Texas might be abated. My sense is that such is still one generation away from actualization.

Regional transformation is not a script for a film by Kevin Costner that proposes that if one builds it they will come. All one need do is to read the glut of billboards from many universities that proliferate the highways in and out of south Texas. The universities north of the King Ranch are actually increasing their recruitment and resource allocation efforts to attract the top students from south Texas. Students and their families, I know, are becoming more knowledgeable consumers and will seek the most challenging academic programs and financial resources to sustain their careers. Geography has no value and offers no barriers no matter how many institutions one builds; these post-secondary institutions must be competitive in every aspect of their practice.

Another element to consider, I posit, is one at the core of transformation; the development of intellectual and knowledge capital. Tom Peters, in his book Re-Imagine states that: “We are in the midst of redefining our basic ideas about what enterprise and organization and even being human are-about how value is created and how careers are pursued. Welcome to the world where “value” (damn near all value) is based on intangibles-not lumpy objects, bur weightless figments of the “economic Imagination.” We are in a “brawl with no rules.” What can we do? Relish the Mess! Enjoy the Fray!.. We have entered the Age of Talent. People (their creativity, their intellectual capital, their entrepreneurial drive) will do better than ever. But to attract and retain the Awesome Talent, organization [or a region] must offer up an Awesome Place to Work.”

Hargroves and Smith propose that, “what we need now in every nation [at the micro level, in every region] are processes, partnerships and collaborations that pool the collective wisdom of the best in academia, government, research and development bodies, the community, business and government.” That is the prevailing challenge to the transformation of the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley. It has to be a region that is attractive to those with intellectual and knowledge capital to develop and sustainable development that benefits all segments of this region.

A serious review of south Texas higher education, especially in Brownsville, will find that young and talented administrators, academicians and researchers were driven away by arbitrary and incestuous human resources policies that rewarded incompetents because they were literally family, loyal to the leadership or had been “one of us” for decades. South Texas will only become a magnet for talent if it is perceived as an awesome place to live, work and raise families. The practice of employment and promotion patronage must cease to exist otherwise it will undermine the sustainability of sorely needed talent in south Texas higher education.

The final challenge, that no one seems to bring forth, will be on how success is measured to ascertain this region’s transformation. Unless the leadership is held accountable for tangible outcomes that demonstrate a return on investment on millions of tax dollars, transformation may become another catch phase in the history of this disenfranchised region of south Texas.

Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D. is a native Tejano Chicano who conducts, publishes and presents his research on current and emerging issues that impact the quality of life of the Mexican American community of the southwestern United States.

Acevedo left a tenured professorship at UT Pan American in 2012 and on occasion consults on projects that are directed at community, economic, workforce and leadership development. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone and do not reflect those of any institution or organization.