Frank Duran

Unflinching Commitment

Frank Duran
Unflinching Commitment

When Diana Natalicio, Ph.D., first set foot on The University of Texas at El Paso campus as a visiting assistant professor in 1971, she never imagined she would one day lead the University as its President for 30 years and positively impact thousands of lives along the way.

By Pablo Villa

Four decades later, Ngozi Ubani Ochoa, Ph.D., arrived on a UTEP campus that was on the cusp of a physical transformation. It was fitting, since Ochoa possessed a desire to further her own academic career by changing course.

Related: See a timeline of UTEP milestones through President Diana Natalicio’s 30 years of leadership.

That notion of shifting focus is a significant part of what put President Natalicio on the path to the University's highest leadership role. After graduating from Grover Cleveland High School in her native St. Louis, President Natalicio 
found employment as a switchboard operator at Nordberg Manufacturing. It was a job she quickly mastered and grew disenchanted with. Before long, she enrolled at St. Louis University and subsequently became the first in her family to earn a college degree.

For Ochoa, the move to El Paso was prompted by her then-fiancé, who had been accepted into UTEP's Doctor of Physical Therapy program. Ochoa was fresh off earning her bachelor's degree in Spanish from The University of Texas at Austin.

At UTEP, she was drawn to the numerous degree programs offered by the College of Engineering and set off on a path to a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering.

The same year Ochoa shifted her educational goals, President Natalicio announced UTEP's 2011 Campus Master Plan, the latest salvo in a long line of physical and academic enhancements
to the campus. The 2011 Campus Master Plan promised a core campus that provided unprecedented access to pedestrians and bicyclists. In addition to a host of other projects, the document seeded plans for an interdisciplinary research space on the campus' western fringe.

Related: A Conversation with Diana Natalicio 30 Years Later

Both of those changes have come to fruition - the Campus Transformation Project, headlined by Centennial Plaza, was dedicated in 2015, and construction is ongoing on the $85 million, 162,000-square-foot Interdisciplinary Research Building (IDRB). Ochoa saw her educational goals through as well, completing her bachelor's degree in industrial engineering in 2013 before earning her doctorate in materials science and engineering in May 2018.

While the stark changes to the campus' landscape were visually striking and served as evidence of academic and student population growth, when Ochoa was considering graduate-level opportunities, she benefited from UTEP's burgeoning research capacity, a facet of the campus that has continually strengthened throughout the last three decades - a timeframe that coincides with President Natalicio's storied tenure.

Research Growth

President Natalicio was named to the University’s top leadership role in 1988. She is the longest-serving president of a public doctoral/research university currently in office, a run that began its closure in May 2018 when she announced she would retire once a successor is named and takes office.

While a chapter in her higher education story is ending, President Natalicio has left indelible marks on the campus she joined 47 years ago, including a commitment to research.

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“One of President Natalicio’s biggest contributions was to make sure that faculty understood the implications and advantages of having that combined mission of access and excellence,” said Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., vice president for research in the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects.

When President Natalicio took the reins of the campus, few faculty members were submitting grant applications, Osegueda said. At the time, there was a small set of professors who would compete for the limited opportunities available.

“There was a stigma among the faculty that, ‘No, we are not good enough to get the big, national grants. So, we have to wait for this minority set-aside funding,’” Osegueda said. “What President Natalicio did was set a very clear expectation that if you are going to be a faculty member here, you are going to write proposals to seek external funding to conduct and support research, and support the students.”

President Natalicio points to a specific grant – one acquired through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Research Improvement for Minority Institutions (RIMI) program – as the catalyst for setting UTEP on a trajectory that continues to ascend.

“We were one of the first Hispanic-Serving Institutions to get a RIMI grant many years ago,” President Natalicio said. “It was critical because it enabled us to purchase a piece of equipment – it was an electron microprobe – and it was the first large piece of equipment that we bought. The reason that we were able to do it was that it was a matching grant. We didn’t have the full amount of money, but we were able to get it in collaboration with NSF. That really got us going. That enabled us to recruit people, to build out the lab. It’s a small seed that you plant and then it grows. This one has grown very well with the wonderful ecosystem that we have created here at UTEP.”

That ecosystem has fostered a nearly 1,500 percent increase in research expenditures from $2.6 million to $95 million during President Natalicio’s tenure, and enhanced the educational experiences of UTEP students.

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‘Exactly What UTEP’s Mission Outlines’

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Such has been the case for Ochoa. To complement her graduate-level work, she sought out the assistance of Stephen Stafford, Ph.D., professor of metallurgical, materials and biomedical engineering, who in 2013, began his involvement in the Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR).

What Ochoa found through CASSMAR – a cross- functional, multidisciplinary center focused on risk reduction research to make commercial human spaceflight safe and successful – was an opportunity to conduct pivotal research on one of the aerospace industry’s highest-profile disasters: the catastrophic failure of Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003.

“We are fortunate to have received nine pieces of Columbia debris as part of a loan program with NASA,” Ochoa said. “This speaks directly to UTEP’s mission in advancing the El Paso region through education, application and commercialization of key discoveries, and the dissemination of knowledge.”

Ochoa looked at sub-structural components located near the shuttle’s overhead windows. In particular, she analyzed thermal damage to titanium and aluminum portions of the craft and found features of combustion that differed from previous hypotheses. Ochoa’s work, in combination with others at CASSMAR, has yielded a clearer picture of how the disaster unfolded.

“These are findings that will be considered in the design of future space vehicles,” Ochoa said. “Our work also demonstrates to the aerospace industry the critical need for more comprehensive materials investigations for reactive materials in high-temperature, low-oxygen, low-pressure environments. That dissemination of knowledge is exactly what UTEP’s mission outlines.” 

Striving for Exceptional Standards

Diana Natalicio sits for an interview in 1988.  Photo by David Flores

Diana Natalicio sits for an interview in 1988. Photo by David Flores

While increased access to exceptional research opportunities has been a noteworthy development during the last 30 years, there has been another concurrent evolution that has enhanced the value of a UTEP education. 

“One of the most significant and noticeable changes that I have witnessed over the years relates to the President's personal investment in University life,” said U.S. District Judge Philip R. Martinez, who graduated from UTEP in 1979 before moving on to Harvard University, where he earned his law degree. “When I was a student, the University President was not a presence on campus. At that time, the ‘ivory tower’ style of management did not afford students the opportunity to witness and appreciate the leadership efforts of the administration. President Natalicio has personally invested herself in the life of the campus by participating directly and consistently with the professors, the students, the staff and the community in a way that is unprecedented.”

That recognition of the role that UTEP plays in the life of the region has yielded record enrollments and exponential growth in academics, Martinez said. He has had a unique view in watching that progression play out. Martinez was co-chair of UTEP’s Centennial Commission, a body of 100 individuals formed in 2004 tasked with developing a vision for the University in 2014, UTEP’s 100th anniversary.

The commission’s charge was “not to foresee the future, but to enable it.” Martinez said the panel did that, in part, by adopting the same embrace of the campus, community and region as President Natalicio has throughout the years. Martinez added that her ability to encourage others to become invested in a common vision has produced a campus that affords a high degree of access, yet has accomplished it without sacrificing the exceptional standards required to successfully complete educational requirements.

“We should all be particularly grateful to those who were involved in her selection as UTEP’s President years ago,” Martinez said. “Their confidence and trust has been well placed and validated. Undoubtedly, the two pillars which she embraced in recognizing their importance and compatibility in the educational dimension (though considered mutually exclusive by others) will hopefully continue to play a significant role as we continue forward in allowing UTEP to become all that it can be. President Natalicio has been, is, and will forever be that good and faithful servant to which each of us called.”

President Natalicio’s contributions to the annals of UTEP’s history are many. In the pages ahead, look back at key milestones in campus history from the past 30 years, monumental construction projects and some of President Natalicio’s notable personal accomplishments.

UTEP President Diana Natalicio: Chief Engineer

Keith Fong (B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’88 and B.S. Metallurgical Engineering ’89) originally delivered these remarks during the College of Engineering Homecoming Breakfast on Oct. 6, 2018.

Diana Natalicio's transformational accomplishments as UTEP President over the last 30 years are the success of the engineering mindset. Perhaps she is not degreed as an engineer, but she thinks like an engineer.

Keith Fong (B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’88 and B.S. Metallurgical Engineering ’89) with UTEP President Diana Natalicio.    Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

Keith Fong (B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’88 and B.S. Metallurgical Engineering ’89) with UTEP President Diana Natalicio. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

As engineers, we look at the product, process, or system we're responsible for and question: What is it supposed to do? Is it delivering the intended outputs? What are the underlying assumptions? Are those assumptions correct? And, critically, is it capable of more?

Education is the path to success for individuals and the community. Dr. Natalicio saw that UTEP wasn't fulfilling its purpose – too many students were not attending who should have been. Among those who entered, too many were not succeeding. UTEP was not a powerful engine for economic development.

In fall 1988, there were 14,971 students enrolled and for all of 1988, 1,485 students graduated – about 10 percent. The fraction of Hispanics in the student body was less than in the community, total annual research expenditures were less than $5 million for the University, and there was only one Ph.D. program in the entire University.

Great engineering is marked by deep insight that is obvious in retrospect. For example, the Wright brothers did not invent the airplane. Their insight, after looking at the work of others, was that no one was working on the most critical element of flight – three- axis control. That was their most important invention.

Dr. Natalicio's insight was that intelligence and ability are not distributed by family income, gender, race, SAT scores or ZIP code. Most college rankings are effectively based on wealth – the highest- ranking schools have the richest, most privileged applicants.

Genichi Taguchi, whose concepts have driven higher quality, higher performance, and yet more economical engineered products, said, "The engineer's work is to convert low-quality raw materials into high-quality product." That is not the mindset of higher education. Most academics believe outcomes would be better if only the students were better.

To be clear, Dr. Taguchi didn't say that only low-quality raw materials are the source of high-quality products – you use high- quality raw material where it is required. He really was articulating the Pareto Principle: there are a few vital elements that create most of the effect. You need to know what are the most critical inputs and ensure they are present and capable. What are the vital elements that Dr. Natalicio identified? Well,

prospective students needed to believe they should be here. The local schools needed better teachers. Pathways needed to be created for entering students. Students needed systemic support. Faculty who share the vision needed to be recruited. The whole campus had to be redesigned.

Dr. Natalicio imagined the machine that is UTEP and set about building it. PreK–16 programs and College of Education ties were made with the local school districts, the Mother-Daughter program was created, faculty and administrators who shared the vision were recruited, innumerable support systems were implemented, and Dr. Natalicio engaged UT System leadership and leadership across a range of fields at all levels to provide necessary resources.

Successful engineering is about failure and iteration. It requires persistence and dealing with reality. It also means working under challenging cost constraints and time limits. Speaking of cost constraints, UTEP squeezes blood from a turnip to maintain significantly lower tuition than any peer institution.

Where is UTEP today? It is an institution recognized across the country and the world for both research and the ability to educate nontraditional students. This fall, there are 25,151 students, and for the 2017-18 year, 4,842 degrees were awarded – just over 19 percent, almost double the rate of degrees awarded compared

to 1988. Two-thirds of all UTEP degrees ever awarded have been during Dr. Natalicio's tenure – that's about 90,000 degrees. There are 22 doctoral programs, six in the College of Engineering. There is about $95 million in annual research spending now. The student population reflects the El Paso population, including the fraction of students whose family income is less than $20,000 per year.

Dr. Natalicio, for 30 years your formal title has been UTEP President, but your true role is UTEP Chief Engineer.

You re-imagined higher education and then tenaciously went about re-engineering it to show others that what was thought impossible is, in fact, achievable. UTEP and the landscape of higher education are transformed. The work is not done, but a powerful system has been built for creating prosperity for the Paso del Norte region and its citizens.

We thank you and congratulate you for the transformation that you have made to UTEP and our region.