Texas A&M International University: Present and Future
Two reasonable and obvious questions present themselves to any candidate for President of Texas A&M International University: why would you want the position? If appointed, what would you do? For me the answers are connected, closely related to my perception of where we find ourselves as an institution. This university today embodies an extremely complex mixture of old, well-developed, and superior programs, coexisting with new initiatives and projects only just begun. Even our programs in teacher preparation and international business, disciplines we were founded to pursue, have today evolved far beyond their character of even five years ago. As Provost, I have initiated and championed growth, change, and expansion at every level of University life. I believe that my deep roots, both at the University and in the Laredo community, position me to lead Texas A&M International University to a new level of excellence, a new sense of what we might be, coupled with a clear understanding of who we are and what we have been.
Any discussion of the Office of President of a university must begin with an unclouded recognition of the President as the Chief External Officer of the institution. It is the President who exhorts students and faculty, recalling our origins and pointing toward our possibilities. It is the President who describes, interprets, proclaims, and defines the University—its mission and activities—to the community, the region, and the world. The President must communicate passionately and forcefully the strengths of the University; then, in conjunction with the Office of Institutional Advancement, the President must coordinate and lead efforts to secure new and additional resources.
American higher education increasingly perceives that, as Columbia University’s Michael M. Crow has stated, “knowledge is a form of venture capital.” The University must partner with local businesses and capitalists, offering the vast array of goods and services that both academic programs and continuing education provide. My intimate familiarity with both our own inventory of programs and with the burgeoning Laredo community will enable me to seek out and form those vital partnerships. A central priority for me, as President, would be to link for mutual benefit Texas A&M International University and the Laredo business and professional community.
A second external opportunity, at present in need of scrutiny and expansion, challenges us to form a closer and more direct connection to principals and counselors in Laredo’s schools. Bluntly stated, we must reach Laredo’s college-age youth in a way we have yet to do. Last spring, over 2,300 students graduated from high school in Webb County. Our freshman class that next September numbered 297. The University provides access, but the overwhelming majority of young Laredoans are not continuing their education beyond high school, and of those that continue, only a small number elect to attend our University. The President must see his or her role as increasing participation in higher education in Laredo. At present, in Laredo, we have access without significant participation.
As Provost, I committed the University to participate in Gained Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP), a federally funded initiative. I petitioned the grant coordinator to fund Faculty Fellows from the University to mentor, model, and guide fledgling Advanced Placement programs at one Laredo high school. This program, unique in the state, has received national recognition as a necessary link between what happens in high school and what is expected in a university classroom. But the responsibility to connect school and university is far too broad a mandate to leave solely to expanded efforts by faculty and staff. The President must lead the effort to establish vital connections to our local schools, to break down barriers, real and perceived, and to invigorate collaboration in the pursuit of common goals. As President, I would establish a Council of Principals to meet regularly at the University and in the schools, to dialogue and to devise strategies to improve both preparation for and participation in higher education.
As a part of the process of improved school-university integration, the President must become a familiar sight to teachers and students in Laredo’s high schools. Counselors and principals tell me that a large percentage of Laredo students still view the University with apprehension and uncertainty. “Do I even dare to dream that I might become a part of that?” they ask. This unfortunate perception can only be addressed by a physical presence. My own experience as a faculty member, partnering with local teachers to team-teach Advanced Placement courses in Spanish literature, gives me both a personal and academic connection to Laredo schools. As President, those relationships will provide a sincere and direct invitation to participation in our University.
If two major external opportunities, in the community and in the schools, remain for the President to pursue and to develop, the internal life at Texas A&M International University is at present, by contrast, well-defined and positioned for sustained growth. When I became Provost, however, a daunting internal challenge was to recognize and then to protect and to nurture the wide and disparate range of personnel, programs, and projects simultaneously housed under this roof. Nothing reveals our protean reality more clearly than our faculty. A large portion of our faculty was recruited to carry a heavy teaching load and to craft their careers around becoming generalists in their fields. Until very recently, all faculty carried 12-hour teaching loads that often required as many as three or four preparations per semester, topics often not in that teacher’s principal field of training.
With access to doctoral studies now about to become a reality in three of our four colleges, expectations have changed. Today, dossiers for promotion and tenure which as recently as five years ago would have perhaps been judged adequate might today be rejected by faculty committees and deans. Newly recruited faculty in select fields must arrive prepared both to serve as superior teachers in their fields and to carry research agenda adequate to the demands of doctoral programs. To protect and support teachers and scholars prepared to make significant contributions to their fields, we instituted a two-track plan to allow tenured faculty to choose to emphasize either teaching or research. This dual focus, difficult to administer, at times even misunderstood, must continue and even be strengthened. The table must be large enough and the embrace generous enough to include both career teachers who have invested a large portion of their professional life in this institution and scholars who regularly publish in their field.
Our academic structures and procedures now undergird the variegated growth we experience. Tireless efforts by faculty and staff have put in motion a prodigious array of programs developing in all segments of university life. To recognize what is already thriving and healthy is at least as important as to recognize challenges which call for change. Having served as Provost of this University, I know now what is already firmly and appropriately in place, what must be allowed to continue to unfold with uninterrupted support.
First on our collective agenda is accreditation for the College of Business Administration, followed by a beginning of the doctoral program in International Trade. Cooperative programs in Curriculum and Instruction and in Hispanic Studies will bring doctoral classes to two other colleges. Indispensable projects now well under way but in need of the President’s understanding and support include:
*creation of a Freshman Year Experience, together with an enhancement of our efforts at retention and academic enrichment;
*an International Justice Center to draw under one intellectual roof the myriad state and federal programs and agencies charged with administering justice in Laredo;
*a greatly expanded program in Distance Learning, already provided for in the Center for the Study of Western Hemisphere Trade;
*enhanced opportunities for study abroad, already begun by our Office of International Programs, including reciprocal programs with universities throughout the world;
*an effective plan to fulfill our commitment to partner with the University of Texas Health Science Center extension at Mercy Hospital, to provide as our part of that initiative a comprehensive program in Allied Health and master’s level work in nursing;
*support and resources for efforts to combine in new and vital ways programs in social work, public administration, health, and business administration;
*a child care program linked to the study of early childhood in our College of Education;
*an aggressive development of the Center for the Study of Western Hemispheric Trade, with Laredo to become a locus of scholarly and entrepreneurial efforts for the hemisphere;
*a greatly expanded offering in science and technology, focusing first on graduate programs for teachers of math and science, and articulation agreements to allow prospective engineers smooth and immediate entry into existing programs.
At present, Texas A&M International University, thanks to aggressive effort by the A&M System, the University administration, and our legislative team, is close to seeing appropriations for Phase IV or a finished campus. Thirty years of dreams and sweat, by Laredoans of every stripe, have brought Texas A&M International University to its present moment. The new President will inherit an institution positioned for explosive expansion at all levels. He or she must establish priorities which undergird a passionate commitment to the life of the mind, and then charge the Provost and deans to guide and to execute the academic program. The President’s external role, by contrast, is one only he or she can discharge. The new President must fully understand and support all the projects and initiatives described above, and at the same time labor in the community, region, and the state to carry the University’s message and to secure additional resources to make our dreams a reality. Both Laredo and its University are unique organisms, idiosyncratic in their evolution, pointed today toward a glorious flowering. The work to date has been exemplary. The stage has been set. We need now move boldly forward to occupy the role prepared for us, to fulfill the promise we and the State of Texas made when we were brought into being.