As she spent the last week in her university office reflecting on more than three decades of service to the people of El Paso, University of Texas at El Paso President Diana Natalicio was forced to describe her fondness for the school against the backdrop of a mass shooting that took the lives of 22 people earlier this month at a local Walmart.
But when asked how the city will move on and what message she’d send to the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez community, Natalicio found comfort in what she helped build at the school during her 31-year tenure as president.
“I think we can become, much as UTEP has become, a national model for a community that is going to stand up for itself and is going to continue to defend the people who are the subject of this attack,” she said last week. “We have a voice, and this is when we need to use it. And coming together and speaking as one is going to make a difference.”
Natalicio, 79, whose last day at UTEP was Wednesday, has learned something about standing up and going against the grain. Being the first woman to become the school’s president has defined her career, and she says it has helped her change the 25,000-student campus in many ways since 1988.
“I don’t have regrets. I am really happy with what we’ve accomplished,” she said. “I was privileged to have 30-plus years. Lasting change takes time.”
The changes Natalicio have overseen include obtaining the R1, or top tier, status as a research-focused university, an accolade the school obtained earlier this year. The university’s yearly research expenditures grew from $6 million to $95 million during her tenure, according to the school’s communications team, and doctoral degree programs have grown from one to 22.
Natalicio’s tenure will also be marked by her fight against what she said are metrics that pigeonhole universities and their students through rankings that, in her view, don't capture the complexities of every campus community. UTEP boasts a student body that is 80% Latino, including more than a thousand who make the daily trek from Ciudad Juárez — making the campus unique in the University of Texas system — and Natalicio has argued that the graduation rates and metrics published in U.S. News and World Report's closely watched college rankings aren't fair to UTEP students.
The most recent edition placed the university in the 230-301 ranking nationally.
She’s also fought to make UTEP an open-enrollment school where test scores don’t determine admission.
“How can we justify denying an opportunity by rejecting the admission of a student on the basis of a test? It’s immoral,” she said. “And that’s what social mobility means to me, is the willingness to challenge those sacred cows and say no, that can’t apply here. It doesn’t mean that we are compromising on standards at all.”
She said she never considered whether speaking out against those sacred cows would threaten her job.
“I wasn’t career driven; I am mission driven,” she said. “I am extremely committed to public, higher education, to promoting the success of young people who are written off in so many other places.”
Raymund Paredes, the outgoing commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said he initially questioned Nalalicio’s tactics that challenged the status quo. But now he knows better.
“When she was talking about being an open-admission university and being a top research university, I said, ‘Diana, you’ll never do that,’” Paredes said. “The last time I saw her, I said ‘Diana, you proved me wrong. You did a lot more in this regard than I would have expected.’”
And he agreed with her fight against measuring her school byfour- and six-yeargraduation metrics.
“They have a lot of students [at UTEP] that are working full time and going to school part time,” he said. “She said for a lot of years that if you calculate graduation rates, you would find out that we do better [over time] than the national data suggests.”
Natalicio has also built a reputation for being more hands on than other university presidents. It’s part of knowing — and standing up for — UTEP’s student body, said Higher Education Coordinating Board Deputy Commissioner David Gardner.
In 2015, the Texas Legislature was debating a bill that would have eliminated in-state tuition for undocumented students. Former Gov. Rick Perry approved the Texas Dream Act in 2001, but various lawmakers had been trying to repeal it since 2011.
A story published by The Texas Tribune about the 2015 bill, republished by another media outlet, had been altered to give the impression that international students, including Mexican students who have student visas, would be affected if the Dream Act was repealed.
Natalicio said her office was flooded with calls from concerned students. Instead of asking an assistant to take care of the issue, she made the call to the Tribune herself to clear up the matter. (The publication later issued a correction on its version of the story.)
Gardner said he wasn’t surprised.
“She’s engaged. That relates back to her being concerned about her students," he said. "They aren’t just these people she sees around campus. She talks to them; she knows them.”
He added, “I am stunned she’s been there that long, and it hasn’t seemed that long. There are some people that can be there for five years and it seems like 50.”
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will take the helm at UTEP this week, but her appointment by the UT Board of Regents has concerned many UTEP faithful who have pointed out her previous anti-LGBTQ statements and who question her ability to support the school’s diverse population.
Natalicio has acknowledged the controversy surrounding her replacement, but she declined to weigh in on the controversy this week.
“I just don’t feel comfortable, as she’s coming in, commenting on all that,” she said.
In the coming weeks, Natalicio said she hopes to watch her beloved St. Louis Cardinals play during the home stretch of the Major League Baseball season and said she’ll stay active delivering lectures around the country on higher education issues. But she has no plans to leave El Paso.
“It’s home for me. I am absolutely in love with El Paso,” she said. “I love living here. I love the people here. Everything about it, I love.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Natalicio's last day at UTEP, which was Wednesday.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso and Raymund Paredes have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.