Frank Duran

A Conversation with Diana Natalicio 30 Years Later

Frank Duran
A Conversation with Diana Natalicio 30 Years Later

In 1988, newly appointed UTEP President Diana Natalicio appeared on the cover of Nova Quarterly, the alumni publication that is now UTEP Magazine. Inside, the issue kicked off with a Q&A between President Natalicio and Editor Dale L. Walker. Thirty years later, President Natalicio engaged in a similar interview, this time with UTEP Magazine Editor Jenn Crawford.

Jenn Crawford: Thirty years ago, you sat down with Dale Walker, editor of what was then Nova Quarterly and is now UTEP Magazine, just after you took office as President of UTEP. You and Mr. Walker talked about your “priorities” for the University, which boiled down to access and excellence – increasing the number of doctoral programs offered, enhancing research efforts and increasing extramural funding, and strengthening programs for undergraduate students, especially first-generation college students. How would you rate UTEP’s and your success in addressing those priorities in the last three decades?

Diana Natalicio: I think we’ve done a remarkable job as a team to define our access and excellence mission, raise our expectations, set aggressive goals, change the scope of the work that we do, strengthen our sense of purpose and the intentionality of all that we seek to accomplish. On the access front, we achieved exactly what we set out to do, and we did it even more successfully than I might initially have thought possible, primarily thanks to our highly talented and totally dedicated and student-centered team across all sectors of the campus, but also to UTEP’s strong alignment with two major national higher education trends at exactly the right time. The first of them was increased attention on Hispanic-Serving Institutions and the students they serve, and the second, a growing national narrative on disparities in degree attainment across socioeconomic levels, with specific concerns about squandered talent, and higher education’s responsibility to better serve economically disadvantaged students to foster their social mobility. With a strong conviction that talent was everywhere, and our work to better align our student demographics with the 80% Hispanic regional population, UTEP rapidly became one of the largest Hispanic- majority universities in the United States. With the high correlation between ethnicity and socioeconomic level in our society, UTEP also focused intensely on how best to address the needs of students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile: 40% of UTEP students today report an annual family income of $20,000 or less.

On the excellence front, we’ve grown the number of doctoral programs from 1 to 22, and greatly increased research productivity and the extramural funding to support it. Creating a competitive research/doctoral climate was critical to our access mission: UTEP students should not only have access, but access to the highest quality educational experiences which would enable them to compete successfully with their peers across the globe. We were bold in our determination to achieve our highest aspirations as we developed and sustained highly innovative strategies over the past 30 years. As I said at Convocation, lasting change takes time and unwavering commitment. It requires steadily building on existing strengths and addressing head- on needed improvements to achieve ever higher levels of performance. Thirty years seems to have rushed by because we were aggressively building on UTEP’s strong foundation while always trying to add value with each step forward.

JC: What would you consider to be UTEP’s greatest success in the last 30 years?

DN: I think by far our greatest success has been our capacity to achieve both access and excellence for a student population with an unusually broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. We’ve been especially successful in figuring out how to create opportunities for economically disadvantaged students and how to offer a university environment that both supports their needs and provides them with a level of quality that will ensure that when they graduate, they are able to compete with their peers anywhere.

JC: What are your priorities now, in the last months of your presidency? What do you hope UTEP will accomplish before you turn the University over to its next leader?

DN: I hope we can reinforce and stabilize the progress that we’ve made, and make sure that it is fully ready to serve as a foundation for the next 30 years in our institutional development. We must be proud of the progress that we have made and of our resilience in pushing toward our ambitious goals, and we must be confident in setting ever higher goals for the future. As we move into this leadership transition, we’ve been working on such issues as orderly succession planning for administrative positions. Over the past two years, we have recruited four new deans, and we’re recruiting two more now — in business and nursing — all of whom will be entrusted with sustaining our strong set of values and our deep institution-wide commitment to access and excellence. UTEP’s success has solidly rested on steady, highly intentional progress, and we must ensure that this administrative transition will offer a clearly marked pathway that new campus leadership can follow to capitalize on the progress that’s already been made and ensure continuity in our mission and strategies to achieve it. My expectation as I close this chapter in my personal journey, is that I’ll be able to cheer on the next leadership team members as they confidently grab the UTEP baton and successfully continue the race. For me, it’s absolutely critical that we not lose the hard- won ground we’ve gained.

JC: What do you think has been the key to your success as President, and your longevity? At so many other universities, presidents stay for only a few years. In fact, at 30 years, you’re the longest-serving current president of a public doctoral research university in the country.

DN: I think most people fall into one of two categories: there are those whose satisfaction is derived primarily from being something, and others whose fulfillment comes from getting something done. I’m a “do something” kind of person. I very much enjoy working hard to do things that lead to clear results. I don’t focus much on titles or status. What’s important to me is getting something done, knowing that my work is having an impact, and having evidence that I am helping others to optimize their impact. I love to attempt to create conditions to enable everyone to succeed and to draw satisfaction from their success, often against all odds. UTEP is not the best-funded university on the planet, we’re located far from major power centers in a relatively isolated geographic region, and we don’t serve affluent students, but we haven’t permitted any of those factors to serve as an excuse for lowering our expectations of ourselves or our students. We fully acknowledge and appreciate our context and determine the best way to make it work for us. As a result, we have developed a national reputation for innovation by tackling issues that many other institutions might allow to become major constraints on their aspirations.

It’s also very important for an institution that’s not regularly on the national or international radar screen to gain greater visibility. Visibility really matters in attracting the attention of individuals or organizations that may have resources to invest, and we’re obviously interested in their investing those resources at UTEP. But if you’re invisible to them, that’s not likely to happen. Much of my effort has been focused on getting UTEP’s message “out there,” making UTEP better known and more visible to those who may be helpful to us in one way or another. Many of the national committees and boards that I’ve served on have offered me opportunities to increase UTEP’s visibility and present UTEP’s message. They enabled me to place UTEP in contexts where we otherwise wouldn’t have been, and at a minimum we stimulated curiosity about who we are and whom we serve. And these opportunities also offer great learning experiences for me to place UTEP within a variety of larger contexts. I’ve always tried to share this contextual learning with colleagues on the campus to amplify its impact on our understanding of where we fit in the bigger public higher education picture.

The strategy is really multifaceted. As President, what I’ve really cared about is helping ensure that UTEP’s mission translates into effective activity, bringing all the pieces and parts together. Many people have told us that access and excellence are incompatible goals, that they are mutually exclusive, that there aren’t sufficient resources to do both. Well, we set out to prove that this claim of access and excellence incompatibility is simply incorrect. We worked very hard to demonstrate that you can win by strategically playing the cards that you’ve been dealt, rather than spend time yearning for a better hand. Winning by overcoming odds gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Departing UTEP for a more elite job or institution was never part of my game plan.

JC: What has been the hardest part of your job?

DN: Resources are always a major issue – having sufficient resources and having to constantly scramble for them. I would, for example, love to be able to award a generous scholarship to every single talented student of modest means – that would be wonderful! – but obvious resource constraints prevent us from doing that. To be sure, limited financial resources restrict our doing many, many things that we would love to be able to do, so that’s definitely frustrating, but the upside is that these same resource limitations make us far more creative and innovative in how we do our work.

JC: And what has been the most rewarding part?

DN: Spending time with our students is what I enjoy the most, interacting with them, listening to them and learning from them. I especially enjoy learning about their hopes and dreams and love the often disarming perspectives that they offer. They will ask questions or make comments that provoke my thinking about something in a way that I hadn’t considered before.

I know that my faculty colleagues appreciate that, too. I recall a faculty member in history who, upon accepting a major teaching award, commented that his research was greatly enhanced by questions that his undergraduate students would ask him, which differed markedly from those his colleagues might pose, and thereby enabled him to think about something in an entirely new way. Faculty and administrators learn much from students with whom they interact in the classroom or laboratory, or anywhere else, and I love to engage in those interactions.

JC: From early on, you envisioned UTEP as a University that must not try to emulate other universities, but as one that must forge its own path based on the specific needs and qualities of the students and region it serves. As the leader of that journey, are there role models or mentors you have looked to through the years to help direct your own path, and by extension, UTEP’s? 

DN: I think public higher education has become far too status-driven. Ignoring major institutional differences in location, student demographics and governance, universities across the U.S. increasingly focus on their U.S. News rankings and on the prestige measures, such as average SAT scores of entering students, which determine them. From the outset, it was clear that identifying peer or role model institutions for UTEP would be quite challenging, because of our determination to create a new 21st century public higher education model. We noted that too many “peer” institutions fall short of achieving their full potential by focusing excessively on complying with metrics that are poorly aligned with their realities. Despite criticism for disregarding standard metrics, too many of which are highly correlated with family income, we were determined to build UTEP’s own pathway to institutional success. In the process, we have not only served our students and region more successfully, but have also gained growing recognition as a model public research university that successfully serves a 21st century student demographic.

UTEP is now viewed as a national leader in demonstrating the viability of our access and excellence mission. We have evidence that commitments to both access and excellence are not only achievable, but actually complement each other in very productive ways. We are convinced that the success we have achieved would not have been possible if we had sought to model ourselves after most other universities. I consider myself extremely fortunate that UTEP faculty and staff willingly accepted the risk of pursuing a highly nontraditional access and excellence mission and, as our innovative public university model has developed, it’s been truly exciting to see their willingness evolve into enthusiastic engagement. We clearly couldn’t have made any of this happen without those committed — and intrepid — members of the UTEP faculty and staff who actively worked to develop new strategies to educate historically underserved students.    

On a personal level, I found it equally difficult to identify role-model presidents whose institutional settings, missions and student demographics were sufficiently similar to UTEP’s to enable them to help provoke my thinking in new ways. In the late 1980s there were no universities serving large populations of Hispanic students of modest financial means, except in Puerto Rico. In addition, UTEP’s STEM origins as a mining school differentiated us from most comprehensive universities with liberal arts or teacher preparation histories. Instead, we sought to learn from a group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities whose presidents were generous in sharing their experiences and insights. A number of them had successfully managed to serve their student populations well through fostering a climate for STEM teaching and research. The university leader who comes immediately to mind is Dr. Norman Francis of Xavier University in New Orleans. Among his institutional strategies was the development of a highly competitive pharmacy program which enabled Xavier to build on and grow its STEM strengths. He was very thoughtful, entrepreneurial and, perhaps most importantly, very student-oriented. I learned much from him and admired him greatly. Dr. Francis’ long service — more than 40 years — also taught me an important lesson: real, lasting change takes time!  

Although not role models per se, many individuals who were associated with federal agencies and foundations, both public and private, were also extremely helpful in pointing me toward opportunities to build UTEP’s research infrastructure, especially in science and engineering. These individuals were very helpful in sharing not only their insights, experiences, and professional networks, but also a strong commitment to creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged populations in our society.

JC: In addition to your dedication to UTEP and your commitment to its access and excellence mission, there’s something else that stayed constant during the last 30 years, and that’s your iconic hairstyle. There’s even a campaign based around it. Have you intentionally kept it the same all these years?

DN: I’ve never thought much about it, actually. I’m not very hair-focused, nor do I spend any time considering hair options. There are so many other things that are more important to me. When I went to high school I had very short hair and then it grew, and I liked the ease of simply pinning it in a barrette, and moving on to more interesting issues. We all wear clothes, we all manage our hair, but those activities don’t have to consume major attention.

JC: What do you think about this interest in your hairstyle? I’ve even heard people wonder if you’ll let your hair down in retirement.

DN: Probably not. I have no idea what I’ll do after I retire. Maybe I’ll wear a baseball cap all the time. What’s been interesting to me is the focus on my hair. I never thought that this would become so fascinating ... and it didn’t start with the recent campaign. Through the years, I have received quite a few emails, notes and comments, mostly from women, who tell me how impressed they are that I never colored my hair or changed my hairstyle. They would comment that they considered me very bold to resist making changes which, for me, offered the far easier option. I didn’t feel bold at all. Frankly, I’d rather be known for pitching a no-hitter in the major leagues, but since that didn’t happen, I guess a bold hairstyle is a good fallback.

JC: Speaking of retirement, where are you planning to live?

DN: In El Paso. This is home. I’ve lived here 45 years. It’s where I have lived longer than anywhere else, and from my first days here, I’ve enjoyed just about everything about El Paso. I’ve traveled widely and lived in many other places, but on balance, El Paso has been a perfect fit for me. It’s about livability. El Paso is large enough to offer most amenities, but not so large as to create major congestion … not too small, not too large, just right! I have always found especially appealing the idea of living in two countries at one time, as we do on this border (though I do long for the days when cross-border access was far easier than it is now). El Paso’s landscape, its desert and mountain vistas and its huge bright blue sky with glorious sunrises and sunsets is stunningly beautiful. During my frequent walks, I often stop suddenly to enjoy the special light that surrounds us. There aren’t many cities that wrap themselves around a large, mountainous outdoor recreational area. And El Paso’s climate suits me very well: I love the daily temperature range, and despite — or perhaps because of — my St. Louis roots, I am not a fan of humidity. Most of all, my enthusiasm for El Paso is constantly nourished by the very special people who live here. They are respectful, tolerant, kind, humble, generous, and extremely warm and friendly. Many newcomers tell me how remarkably different El Pasoans are from people in so many other places. We are all fortunate to be here!

JC: You once told a story about your early years as a UTEP faculty member, and how you would grow lots of kale in your garden and bring it to your office to share with your colleagues. Is gardening something you would like to do more of in retirement?

DN: In my retirement, I hope to enjoy gardening on a very small scale, perhaps a handful of potted plants! I loved gardening when I lived in the Upper Valley and had a large vegetable garden, where I spent time working almost every day during the growing season. The garden was a very tranquilizing place: just me and my radishes, tomatoes, asparagus, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, green onions, and of course my abundant kale crop. In those days kale wasn’t as popular as it’s become today, but I ate a lot of it in Portugal when I lived there and liked it, especially in Portuguese potato soup. Kale grew very well in the Upper Valley … perhaps too well! In those days it was hard to give kale away; today, I might be able to earn a living on my annual kale crop! Gardening was also physically demanding, so I got plenty of exercise. At this point, I’m not quite as committed to growing vegetables as I was then, so I’ll continue to access my vegetables from other growers. Gardening also requires discipline, and what I’m looking most forward to now is not waking up every day with a fully booked calendar that obliges me to stick to a strict schedule. That will be quite a change … and in many ways — at least initially — quite a relief!

JC: What else are you looking forward to?

DN: I want to travel. I’ve had the privilege of traveling to all seven continents across the globe, but there are many places that I haven’t been and would like to visit, and I hope to get to many of them. I’d also like to re-visit some very special places that I especially enjoy, and I’ve already made plans to travel to Portugal where I lived many years ago. So, both new and familiar places should keep me moving across the globe. And I love taking road trips in the beautiful western U.S. states. I especially enjoy pairing learning with traveling. I’m not a go-to-the-beach-and-sun-for-two-weeks kind of traveler. What I like most is to go to places with fascinating stories to tell, such as Turkey or Croatia or Uganda. My absolutely most memorable trip was to Antarctica, and especially the South Pole. It was an incredible adventure and learning experience. It was very hard to imagine that I was the person, whose face was barely visible through the wrapping of a huge parka and bunny boots, whom I saw in the silver globe marking the South Pole. For me, travel to different places always offers one of the best ways to re-charge my awareness about nearly everything, putting in a different perspective what I think, believe and value, so I hope to be able to do more of that. 

I want to spend more time with my brother because we don’t see each other very often. He’s enamored with St. Louis where we grew up, and I’m enamored with El Paso, so we simply try to connect as often as we can, which often involves either baseball or travel. I also want to watch more baseball. I find baseball games both stimulating and relaxing, so I was thrilled that a group of UTEP Engineering alumni surprised me with season tickets to the Chihuahuas’ forthcoming season … that’ll mean a lot of baseball and a lot of bratwurst and beer!

Another possibility may be to continue some professional engagement. I’ve had contacts inquiring about my interest in consulting and board service opportunities. I’m trying hard to resist any urge to make such commitments now because I want to give myself a chance to step back and think about what will make me happy. Over the long term there may be some professional activities that would be interesting, but not just now. I want to avoid over-programming my retirement.

JC: You’ve maintained a very fast pace and a very busy schedule as President, and your work has affected tens of thousands of lives – as just one measure of your impact, UTEP has awarded more than 91,000 degrees during your presidency. You’ve been going nonstop for more than three decades. How do you prepare for the changes coming – for the slower pace, for a quieter life less in the spotlight?

DN: I think I’ll adjust to the change of pace in stages. Initially, I will likely enjoy breathing a great sigh of relief. I relish the thought of not having to leap out of bed at 4 a.m., rush off to the airport to fly somewhere, arrive barely in time for a meeting — and sometimes not — and experience the frustrations of flight delays and uncomfortable hotel rooms. I won’t miss that at all. I am looking forward to being able to sit back and say, “I am under no pressure to get something urgent done today or even tomorrow or the next day.” Now, I hasten to add that I’m not sure just how long that mellowness will last and I’ll be ready for the next stage in my retirement. I do get restless or bored fairly easily when I’m not operating at full speed. The trick will be to shift my considerable energy toward reading what I haven’t had time to read, listening to music and seeing art, traveling to interesting places and doing all the other things I’ve always enjoyed but seemed to never have time for. However, it’s almost impossible to know how the transition will evolve. Within three days of my retirement, I may say, “Wow, I’m going to have to find something else to do ... and right now!”

JC: What emotions do you experience as you think about handing this off to someone else?

 DN:  I have great hope that the search committee and Board of Regents will identify an individual who has a passion for what we do at UTEP. It’s obvious that presidential candidates should have extensive higher education experience as well as administrative and leadership skills. But, for me, the single most important set of qualifiers is an eagerness to embrace and defend the attitudes and values that make UTEP so special. As searches focus on candidates’ resumes, and the prestige of the institution they attended or worked at, they can certainly overlook their critically important fundamental attitudes and values. There’s no question that you must present an impressive resume, but you really have to embrace UTEP’s values and be able to defend them when there are pressures to do otherwise. If you don’t deeply believe in the efficacy of UTEP’s public research university model, it will be very hard to resist pressures to “normalize” or become more “mainstream.” 

Another dimension of leading UTEP is cultural: I think it’s very important that my successor either be Hispanic, or have a “working knowledge” of Spanish, and regard the U.S.-Mexico border region as interesting and appealing; someone who is experienced and interested in Mexico, and is committed to continuing to develop an institution that plays a leadership role in responding to the changing U.S. Hispanic demographic. It’s extremely important that UTEP stay at the forefront of Hispanic higher education. We are one of the largest Hispanic-Serving Institutions in the U.S.; 80 percent of our students are Hispanic. One of our long-term goals, which we have proudly achieved, has been to ensure that UTEP’s student population mirrors the demographics of the surrounding region that we are here to serve. We also have made a strong commitment to recruit Hispanic faculty who can serve as role models for our students, and we are proud that UTEP now has one of the highest percentages of Hispanic faculty among all U.S. universities. With growth in the Hispanic population across the U.S., UTEP has a special responsibility to play a leadership role in diversifying U.S. public higher education. 

JC: How do you think you’ll stay connected to UTEP? Will you have an office on campus? Will you do any teaching? Will we see you at football and basketball games?

DN: I haven’t gotten that far in my thinking about all that. I would love to be helpful in any way I can, serving as a sounding board, providing support or advice, and sharing UTEP’s recent history. Most of what UTEP does today has its roots in historical precedents, synergies, even conflicts; relationships that people today may not fully understand. I want to do all of that, but I don’t want to, nor be perceived as, trying to insinuate myself into the day-to-day business of the university. That’s got to be the responsibility of the new president, the provost, the deans, the faculty and staff, and everyone else associated with UTEP. It’s achieving a balance; I’d like to be viewed as a reliable and totally supportive resource.

JC: Transitioning to a new president after we’ve had a steadfast leader for 30 years won’t be easy for the campus, either. Is there any part of you that is worried that UTEP’s progress will stall in this transition?

DN: My concerns fall into two categories. First is the selection of the next UTEP president. I think it’s critical that we get that right. The UTEP president’s role differs from most others because of our unique setting, student demographics and mission. As a result, prepared resumes may or may not be good sources of information about the values and compatibility of specific candidates within UTEP’s ecosystem. It’s critical that values and commitment to a unique student population like ours be a major factor in evaluating candidates’ fit. There are very few universities anywhere that look anything like, or do their work in the same way that UTEP does.

There’s also the strength of the UTEP team on the campus. Faculty, staff and administrators have fully embraced a strong set of institutional values, as is evident in our low turnover rates. UTEP team members enjoy their work here. Gary Shteyngart commented that compared with people across the U.S., UTEP faculty appeared to be far happier and optimistic than people in other settings he visited on his cross-country tour in search of happiness. We love what we do, and I’m convinced that many higher education professionals from across the country would also enjoy being here to experience the joy of playing a role in UTEP student success. So in addition to finding a good candidate fit for the presidency, our faculty and staff must continue to be strong in executing and, when necessary, defending the mission of the institution, not only through their words, but in the powerful results of the work that they do.

With a president who is comfortable and proud to represent UTEP and the students we serve, and a continuing access and excellence commitment from faculty and staff, UTEP can sustain delivering on its huge promise. Without these factors in place, UTEP’s success in creating authentic opportunities for our students, and our momentum toward redefining public higher education will likely slow, because there’s constant pressure to normalize institutions like UTEP, efforts to drive us toward measuring ourselves with the success metrics used in other university settings. UTEP has developed a fundamentally different approach to fulfilling its access and excellence mission and serving its student demographic, and our future success will depend on our continuing to pursue the strategies that have enabled us to succeed in our unique setting with our 21st century demographic, and drove us toward becoming a national model. Successfully educating our 21st century demographic is UTEP’s primary responsibility, to enhance our students’ success, but also to help create a roadmap for those institutions that may want to follow in our footsteps. We have the privilege of working with the talented and hard-working students who come to us with their high aspirations, and our success in serving these students well has propelled us into playing a leading role nationally in effective 21st century public higher education.

JC: What message do you have for UTEP alumni?


DN: Most important for alumni is an understanding of how proud we are of them and their many accomplishments, and how important they are to UTEP and our visibility across the globe. The exciting careers that they are pursuing, and their many accomplishments, represent the strongest validation of UTEP’s success. Their individual successes are a reflection of their talent, and the way in which UTEP has helped shape it. Their success in careers, workplaces and communities will help UTEP become better known for the quality of its graduates. They have a very special opportunity to demonstrate their pride in UTEP’s strengths and their appreciation for the impact that UTEP has had in their lives. Our fast-growing number of UTEP graduates will greatly increase UTEP’s visibility in settings across the country and world.

We also hope that UTEP alumni will remain in contact with and support UTEP in a variety of ways, from mentoring our students and graduates, helping them learn about career options and finding jobs, to urging their employers to recruit at UTEP if they don’t currently do so. And, of course, our alumni are welcomed to contribute financially to UTEP. No gift is too small to make a difference.

JC: What is your charge to those of us who plan to stay at UTEP: the faculty, staff and administrators? How can we help continue the momentum of UTEP’s success and push the University and its students to achieve ever more ambitious goals?

DN: Keep the faith. Just keep steadily building on all that we’ve accomplished. We’ve discovered and developed a set of strategies that work in our ecosystem, so no major surgery or change is required, at least in the near term. What will be required is a commitment to continue identifying opportunities to do even better tomorrow what we’ve done today. We have a strong foundation upon which to build an ever-better UTEP, in response to changes in students’ needs and research challenges. Most importantly, we all must continue to trust that the UTEP model that we’ve developed has not only proven itself, but is one worthy of continued development and dissemination.  Our UTEP students and students like them across the U.S. deserve nothing less.