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George E. Martin: The TT Interview

The president of St. Edward's University, a private Catholic university in Austin, on the state's primary grant program for students of private institutions, as well as the increasingly global nature of higher ed.

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St. Edward’s University, a small private Catholic university, has occupied a hill near downtown Austin for more than 125 years. But George E. Martin, who has served as president since 1999, hopes to push the school’s reach far beyond the borders of its 160-acre campus.

“If you’re operating a gas station somewhere in West Texas, you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on in other parts of the world because it has a direct daily impact on your business,” he told The Texas Tribune in an interview in his office last week. “It’s not just the oil. It could be the food you’re selling in your store. It’s unavoidable.”

Growing its international presence through partnerships with foreign institutions is among many changes that are part of the university’s strategic plan for 2015.

Of course, before students can take advantage of opportunities abroad, they must first gain access to St. Edward’s, which prides itself on its diverse student body. About three-quarters of its students are Texans, and more than 25 percent are Hispanic.

There’s a very significant number of students who are first-generation, low-income students, as well as students at the higher end of the spectrum,” Martin said. “There’s a real mix there.”

The effort to expand academic access to all populations is a common theme in higher education statewide, as is the occasionally conflicting need to help more students succeed in reaching graduation.

While a private university like St. Edward’s may have more leeway than a public institution, there are still public policies that affect their access and success mission. Most notable, perhaps, is the state’s Tuition Equalization Grant (TEG) program, which provides students with grants that supplement the difference between tuition at private and public institutions.

Martin recently sat down with the Tribune to talk about TEGs, changing demographics, and the increasingly global nature of higher education.

The following is an edited and abridged transcript of that conversation.

TT: How closely does a private university have to watch the upcoming legislative session?

Martin: We would vary, but I would say there’s a common issue, and that’s usually handled by the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, which is a lobbying organization for independent universities in Texas. They look at primarily TEGs. 

This session, certainly, we’ll also be looking at gun carrying laws. Then there are other issues that pop up now and then which are relatively minor. There are some issues that are specific to individual universities or part of the independent group, such as tax laws related to oil on campus and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, not all of us have oil on campus.

TT: How crucial are TEGs for an institution like yours?

Martin: I’d turn that around and say they’re crucial for students. Those grants go to the students, and it basically gives students a chance to have a choice of either going to a public university or an independent university.

I think it’s an advantage to the taxpayer, because the grant the student gets to go to an independent university is actually less costly than the state support that would go to a student at a public university for attendance there.

It helps both the needy student as well as the middle class student. Most of the recipients are Pell Grant recipients, which are the most needy students. But about 40 percent are middle class students with family incomes 52,000 or below.

TT: Is there any concern surrounding the state funding for the program?

Martin: The concern last time was how much money was going to be cut. We were cut about 20 percent. That’s a meaningful amount of money these days for any institution. 

This time, we’re just hoping to maintain what we have. What we’re really hoping for is no further cuts.

TT: How are changing demographics affecting higher education in Texas?

Martin: If we look at the challenges that are facing higher education in the United States today, we’re not producing enough graduates to fill the jobs that are going to be available as early as 2018.

And we’ve got an effort by the Obama administration, a promise to produce 20 million more degrees. That creates a problem of access. How do you provide sufficient numbers of seats and access to students across the board to help reach that goal?

Many of them, given the demographics, are going to be minority students and students who don’t have the same economic wherewithal that the students in the top echelons have. How do you provide that access to them and how do you provide them with a quality education?

We already have the diverse population; almost half of our students are minority. you look at the socioeconomic diversity — it’s quite broad. But the point is we bring them in and give them all the same high level of excellence in education.

We try to give students what they need for their future. Their future means that they are going to be operating in a global world. If they’re really going to be prepared for their future, they’ve got to be able to experience other cultures and other parts of the world during their undergraduate education multiple times.

TT: Is this global push new for St. Ed’s or has it always been there?

It’s relatively new. It’s part of our Strategic Plan for 2015. It’s almost a continuation, in a different way perhaps, of the whole founding principal of the university. The university was founded by French missionaries, so it was a global action that created the university. This kind of brings it full circle. We have what we call a portal campus in France close to where we originated. We also have partners in Japan, Korea, Germany, Scotland, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina and Mexico. So we’re spread throughout the world.

I think it changes the students’ perspective. We got a $3.75 million grant from the Japanese government for a program that we created with the Asia Pacific University and the Catholic University of Korea so that our students study together. That sends our students over there and brings their students over here. Part of that is not only the physical going and coming, but there’s the technological coming and going too.

What I’ve seen happen is that students begin to understand that when they discuss a concept, one’s cultural background leads to a very different definition of what that concept is.

For example, “genocide.”

“Genocide” means something different to a student from North Africa, to a student in Europe, to a student in the United States. But when you get that exchange going on, you start to see light bulbs going off. It can only happen in peer-to-peer discussion. When you talk to people your own age about those kinds of things, you really start to see the world in a different way. You really start to begin to understand when you read a newspaper why someone in a different country, in a different culture, is looking at a problem that you’re looking at in a very, very different way.

But because you understand that, you’re able to work with them and be less threatened by it and more motivated to work with them to achieve a common solution.

TT: You mentioned the technological aspects. Is there something lost if you don’t have that physical experience?

Martin: Absolutely. You’ve got to walk down the street or through a town, not knowing the language and you’ve to make your way through there. You’ve got to get something to eat, find the right train to get on. If you think about the expectations of people working for American corporations with operations abroad and what that’s requiring, you’ve got to be able to do that. After graduation, we hope our students are fully capable of navigating a world that requires those skills.

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