By Pablo Villa
Photo by J.R. Hernandez
In 30 years at the helm, Diana Natalicio has made indelible marks on UTEP. She’s done it the same way she has done everything else – through hard work.
Diana Natalicio has spent three decades leading The University of Texas at El Paso through scores of higher education milestones. Her formidable efforts have rendered a campus with raised expectations and an upward trajectory.
In the decades ahead, she hopes that mindset will continue to provide for the unique makeup of students that the University serves.
President Natalicio announced in May that she will retire after 30 years at the helm, a run that makes her the longest-serving current president of a public doctoral/research university in the country. However, she will remain in office until her successor is named.
In the meantime, President Natalicio will continue to lead the campus utilizing a trait she has always possessed – an unbridled work ethic. She has never shied away from exerting effort in the pursuit of objectives. “She’s the same person now that she was back then,” said Sharon Croissant, one of President Natalicio’s childhood friends. “She was voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ in high school. It’s not a surprise she is where she is today. She’s always been a hard worker.”
That much was evident in the first job President Natalicio secured after graduating from Grover Cleveland High School in her native St. Louis.
She found employment as a switchboard operator at Nordberg Manufacturing. In quick fashion, she was maneuvering the tangle of connection plugs across the phalanx of answering jacks with aplomb.
“I mastered every function on the switchboard,” President Natalicio said of her first job. “I could connect, disconnect, transfer, conference call, everything. I called myself the Lily Tomlin of Nordberg Manufacturing.”
But proficiency didn’t bring contentment. Before long, navigating the jumbled mess of cords became repetitive and monotonous. President Natalicio couldn’t help pining for something more.
“After a month, I looked at that switchboard and I thought, ‘This is it? This is going to be my life? I’m going to work at this box?’” she said. “So, I began to think, ‘I have got to do something else.’”
That epiphany – and work ethic – led to the first of many bus rides to St. Louis University, where she earned her first college degree. And a route to history.
Positive Force in Higher Education
In addition to being the longest-serving current president of a U.S. public doctoral/research university, President Natalicio is also the all-time longest-serving female president of a public doctoral/research university or four-year public university.
But it’s not only her longevity that has been astonishing. She has deftly guided the University to national prominence as a research institution, all the while being relentless in ensuring access and affordability for the student population that it serves. In 2016, the Brookings Institution recognized UTEP with a No. 1 ranking among all U.S. research universities for fostering social mobility.
The accolades bestowed upon President Natalicio have been impressive, too. Over the past two years, she has been named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people as well as one of Fortune magazine’s top 50 world leaders, honors that validate her leadership.
“My long service to UTEP has been an incredible run,” Natalicio said. “It’s been absolutely amazing to me that we have been able to sustain our vision and mission over the past 30 years, and I strongly believe that much of our progress has been directly attributable to the consistency of purpose and commitment of so many UTEP team members who derive great satisfaction from creating opportunities for talented young people, whatever their means.”
Her accomplishments and stature have served as inspiration among the most pre-eminent of names.
Paul L. Foster, former chairman and current vice chairman of The University of Texas System Board of Regents, said President Natalicio has long been a linchpin for UTEP and will leave behind a position that is both profoundly challenging and highly coveted.
“Dr. Natalicio has served UTEP and the UT System with distinction for more than 45 years,” Foster said. “Her 30 years at the helm as President are marked with one recognition or commendation after another, not only for our fine University but for Dr. Natalicio, personally. She will be very difficult to replace. But, with the legacy she has created, I have no doubt that her position will be highly sought after. And since she is staying on until her successor is in place, it is not time to say goodbye, but rather it is our opportunity to express our gratitude and admiration for her commitment to higher education and to our community.”
Francisco Cigarroa, M.D., former chancellor of the UT System (2009-14) and a pediatric and transplant surgeon, said he was initially struck by President Natalicio’s intellect, her focus, and her ability to communicate with UT System trustees and members of the legislature. More impressive, he said, was her commitment and passion for UTEP.
“The impact that Diana has had both in developing an outstanding administrative team but also outstanding faculty and staff is incredible,” Cigarroa said. “To see how UTEP has grown under her watch – the growth in student enrollment, to see UTEP become a research/doctoral university, to see the growth of doctoral programs. No matter who you are, no matter what angle you’re looking from, one can only conclude that her vision and her leadership have been profound for El Paso and for the border region. Everybody salutes Diana. I certainly do. She’s been one of my greatest teachers.”
Cigarroa wrote his vision statement for the UT System in El Paso. Apart from the scenic, serene setting, Cigarroa said the knowledge that one of higher education’s biggest success stories is present in the Sun City was substantial motivation for crafting a plan for the course of his chancellorship.
“Diana has been able to do unbelievable things probably in the most fiscally conservative manner that anyone could’ve done it,” Cigarroa said. “She’s proven that you can grow excellence on the border and that you can become a research-intensive university with a demographic that reflects the Texas-Mexico border. I think her vision of developing a research-intensive university with a 21st century demographic is right on. I remain in awe of Diana Natalicio. She is a force, a positive force in higher education.”
Competence and Confidence
UTEP’s growth is easily marked by many tangible numbers. Since President Natalicio took the helm in 1988, the University’s enrollment has gone from about 14,000 to more than 25,000. The annual budget has increased from $65 million to $450 million. Research expenditures have risen from $6 million a year to $95 million a year, and doctoral programs have grown from one to 22. The University has been designated as a research/doctoral university and has been nationally recognized under her guidance.
But UTEP leaders say that growth has materialized in more ways than can be reflected by statistics.
Gary Edens, Ed.D., vice president for student affairs, said President Natalicio has instilled a culture of success that comes from a daily commitment to her vision of offering a quality academic experience. Her drive and enthusiasm is infectious, Edens said. Her work ethic sets a bar that the rest of the campus can’t help but follow.
“Every bit of growth that UTEP has seen in the last 30 years was built on the back of a very strong vision from the President,” Edens said. “It’s not an easy vision. It comes from having a passion for what you’re doing, a collaborative approach to leadership, and possessing a really strong work ethic. No one works harder than the President.”
Edens has had a unique view of President Natalicio’s impact. He was a student at UTEP involved with the Student Government Association when he met her for the first time while attending a University dinner.
“The President at the time was Haskell Monroe,” Edens said. “He, of course, sat at the head of the table. In comes this woman who sat next to me. We started talking and I was very quickly impressed. Since then, I would see her on campus regularly. She was always extremely supportive. A year later, I found out she was named our next President.
“It’s been amazing to see what she’s brought to UTEP. It’s this excitement, this energy, this development that comes from strong, consistent leadership.”
As it does for Edens, the notion of instilling a culture of success speaks to Elena Izquierdo.
Izquierdo, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education, had close knowledge of President Natalicio well before she was a University leader.
Izquierdo was one of Natalicio’s students. The future president arrived on campus in 1971 as an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics. Izquierdo found her to be a phenomenal instructor. But more than that, she was a master motivator, one who pushed the young Izquierdo to pursue a doctorate at Georgetown University. Izquierdo looks back on the journey on which she was urged to travel and sees the beginnings of a life devoted to offering opportunity.
“She was already doing then what has become the vision and the mission of this University, which is access and excellence,” Izquierdo said. “I didn’t see it then, but I see it now. She knew I was ready so she pushed me out of the nest. She gave me access.”
When Izquierdo reached Washington, D.C., she arrived with feelings of insecurity. But before long, she realized her time under Natalicio’s mentorship had prepared her well.
“Competence is very good. But competence without confidence won’t get you anywhere,” Izquierdo said. “That’s what we offer our students when we make it accessible for them – confidence. They can do it. They’re smart. That’s what President Natalicio has going now.”
That dedication to students has never wavered, said Estrella Escobar, associate vice president for external relations and communications. Escobar has served for 17 years on President Natalicio’s senior administrative team. As such, she has had an intimate view of the torrid schedule President Natalicio maintains and the constraints it can put on her time. Yet, Escobar said, students always make up the crux of the work she does.
“I have been most inspired by Dr. Natalicio’s dedication to the students UTEP serves,” Escobar said. “No matter how many national or international boards she serves on, no matter how many recognitions she and the University receive, she never loses focus and her total commitment to them never wavers. At the core of every decision she makes is how to make life better for our students. Her vision of access and excellence is genuine, and at the end of the day, the voice in the room that always brings the conversation back to our students is hers.”
A Balanced Commitment
President Natalicio wasn’t always so self-assured.
When she began classes at St. Louis University, President Natalicio said she battled with the weight of expectations and her own perceived lack of knowledge.
“I was underprepared and scared,” she said. “After I got there, I thought I’d fail because everybody else seemed to be better prepared than I was. So, I was very, very lacking in confidence. But I managed. I’m a very hard worker. So, I worked hard and I studied hard.”
That diligence led to a Fulbright scholarship in Brazil, an experience the President said helped shape her world view and made her feel at home when she arrived in El Paso. Her initial employment at UTEP was meant to be a one-year assignment. But President Natalicio was quickly taken by her students and her newfound home. She moved through the ranks as a department chair, dean and provost, roles that formed her own view of UTEP’s strengths, opportunities and what needed to be done to ensure a more productive path forward.
On Feb. 11, 1988, Natalicio took the first step on that path after being named the institution’s 10th president. Her first challenge was shifting a line of thinking that UTEP’s success rested on its ability to emulate the nation’s most highly lauded institutions.
“We were attempting to imitate model institutions that weren’t anything like us, and so long as we tried to become them, we would never find our own strengths and never achieve our own distinction,” President Natalicio said. “So, I worked very, very hard with colleagues across the campus to understand who we are as an institution, whom do we serve, and how can we do that best? Those were the questions that we wrestled with on campus and in the community.”
She has steered UTEP through those challenges masterfully. In addition to the academic and research growth, there are stark physical changes the campus has undergone, including a project that completely transformed the heart of campus into Centennial Plaza. Construction continues today with the Interdisciplinary Research Building (IDRB). The $85 million, 162,000-square-foot facility is being built on the western fringe of campus. The IDRB is part of a highly intentional strategy to increase UTEP’s capacity to foster interdisciplinary research collaborations among faculty across the campus. It is scheduled for completion in fall 2019.
For all her efforts, President Natalicio has collected a commensurate amount of recognition. In 2015, the Carnegie Corporation of New York honored her with its prestigious Academic Leadership Award. In 2011, the President of Mexico presented her the Orden Mexicana del Aguila Azteca, the highest recognition bestowed on foreign nationals. She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award at The University of Texas at Austin, and awarded honorary doctoral degrees by St. Louis University, Northeastern University, Victoria University (Melbourne, Australia), Georgetown University, Smith College and the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon (Mexico).
Despite it all, President Natalicio maintains that any success attributed to her is the product of a collaborative effort and a collective buy-in to a model that is now serving as an example to the rest of the country.
“The UTEP team expects me to push hard, to be aggressive in articulating UTEP’s mission and work toward changing the national narrative about the role of public research universities in the 21st century,” President Natalicio said. “I hasten to add, however, that UTEP’s success has always been the result of a huge team effort; no one does anything alone. Most UTEP faculty and senior administrative staff are individuals who are here by choice, attracted by the opportunity to contribute to our increasingly recognized access and excellence mission, which serves as the solid foundation upon which our success continues to be built.
“We’re one of the few universities that has successfully achieved a balanced commitment to both access and excellence. A growing number of universities have begun to emulate UTEP’s model in their mission statements, and we’re pleased with that because there is so much more work to be done to ensure equitable access to higher education across the U.S. today.”
The seed to pursue that work was planted long ago.
“I get tired just thinking about it,” said Croissant, who met President Natalicio in kindergarten. “She keeps a schedule that human beings cannot possibly keep. But that’s who she is. It’s amazing, here’s this kid that I went to school with. There she is now being recognized by the world.”
While the time to step away is near, President Natalicio said she remains too passionate to not continue delivering her best effort while she occupies the campus’ highest seat.
“I love what I do. I love working with young people,” President Natalicio said. “I love the disarming quality of students who say things that sometimes you would not expect. I think it’s important to be disarmed from time to time, not to be so stiff that you can’t see that you have foibles, be able to laugh at yourself. But more than anything, I think I’m infinitely curious about things. I love to learn new things. I love to hear about people doing work that I couldn’t imagine doing myself, whether it’s in the arts or whether it’s in engineering or wherever it might be. I just find it so fascinating to realize the full range of things that people do.”