Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
When Gov. Preston Smith signed the University of Texas at San Antonio into existence on June 5, 1969, San Antonio joined the ranks of other major cities with four-year public institutions of higher education.
Now, as UTSA President Taylor Eighmy looks to lay the groundwork for the next five decades, the university again seeks to change the face of San Antonio and alter the city’s – and its students’ – trajectories with ambitious plans to expand the downtown campus, conduct more research, and boost enrollment.
In its 50 years, the university has graduated more than 131,000 alumni and it is the largest producer of degrees in the area. In the coming decade, Eighmy hopes to improve graduation rates and student success. He has combined this initiative with an effort to tie UTSA’s future endeavors to those of San Antonio. In the next 50 years, more change is a certainty.
“The rate of change that has happened here, over this short 49 and almost 50 years, is pretty remarkable, because institutions of higher education don’t pivot and change that quickly,” Eighmy said. “They are not used to changing. So much change has happened here and so much potential change is still on the table to be realized.”
What started out as an opportunity for local students to gain a public four-year degree has transformed over time.
With an enrollment of just over 32,000 students and ambitions to expand to 45,000 by 2028, UTSA now no longer serves a student body that hails primarily from Bexar County. Students come from across Texas in large numbers and from 86 different countries. Only 49 percent of the student population is from within Bexar County.
“Thinking back to 1969 [people recognized that] a four-year degree is a huge difference maker – it equalizes for everybody,” Eighmy said. “It doesn’t care about income level or ethnicity or politics. A four-year education opens the door to the world, and I think that is what everybody wanted back in 1969 and we still want that today.”
Roughly half of UTSA students are first-generation college students, said Paul Rodriguez, who oversees the university’s First Generation and Transfer Student Center. Almost 40 percent of students transfer from other institutions, he added.
Rodriguez directs projects that are funded by a federal grant designated for schools that have an enrollment of 25 percent or more Hispanic students.
He oversees a transition process for students transferring from Alamo Colleges and a mentorship program for transfer students and first-generation students. UTSA needs this kind of programming and to set the example for other similar universities, Rodriguez said.
“As a public four-year Hispanic-serving university in South Texas, we need to be setting the model for how to truly serve these populations,” Rodriguez said.
From commuter campus to lively student center
Comparing photos of the site for UTSA’s Loop 1604 main campus in 1969 to those of today’s vast network of buildings tells an impressive story of evolution at the 50-year-old institution. What was initially pasture is now a bustling area full of restaurants, retail, and student housing.
Although the university was commissioned in 1969, it didn’t welcome students until 1973. Classes started in leased office space until UTSA moved its operations to the Loop 1604 campus in fall 1975. At the time the campus was being built, it was nation’s the largest university construction project.
Longtime former UTSA President Ricardo Romo in part credits UTSA’s early 2000s growth from a commuter campus to what it is today for the development that has sprung up around the university. When he was named the school’s fifth president in May 1999, UTSA had one dorm and one on-campus apartment complex.
“We were a campus of 18,000 students, and everyone drove in and drove out,” Romo said. “A commuter campus doesn’t really have a college feel, the college atmosphere.”
Romo oversaw an effort to enhance this “college atmosphere” and began polling students for what they wanted from their college experience. Among the responses: student housing, enhanced sports offerings, and a street filled with bars and restaurants, similar to today’s Sixth Street near the University of Texas at Austin.
Because San Antonio already had affordable housing options and many students could live at home, the pressure to build student housing wasn’t there. But as Romo looked to the next phase of the university, he and other school officials saw a need to strengthen students’ connections to campus.
UTSA began adding to its existing housing stock. In 2002, the school housed just 2,000 of its 20,000 enrolled students on campus. UT System regents approved money for new dorms, but Romo said there wasn’t enough available to keep pace with increasing enrollment.
“We didn’t have the funds to build enough housing,” Romo said. “The whole area of UTSA [Main Campus] and surrounding areas has changed dramatically. There’s a lot of housing, a lot of apartments, and those attracted restaurants and fast food and theaters.”
UTSA officials also added a recreation center to campus to fulfill a long-standing request from students.
“[About] 3,000 students were using it every single day,” Romo said. “It was painful, almost to the extent it wasn’t even big enough for the students. … They were starving for something beyond the classroom and library.”
With the enhancements to campus life came growth in academics. Under Romo’s leadership, a structure of numerous divisions and departments under few colleges became multiple colleges. Today, UTSA boasts nine colleges, including an honors college and the College of Business, which houses a nationally acclaimed cybersecurity program.
In early 2017, Romo was placed on leave following allegations of inappropriate conduct related to hugs Romo gave employees. An internal investigation later found his behavior “more likely than not” violated the school’s sexual harassment policies, according to media reports. Romo resigned and a search for his successor took place, resulting in Taylor Eighmy taking the position in September of the same year.
While Romo’s tenure as president brought significant change and growth to UTSA, Eighmy has his own set of lofty goals to continue strengthening students’ bonds with the school and elevating the university’s profile within Texas and nationwide.
Planning for UTSA’s future
In the coming years, Eighmy has big ambitions: increase the four-year graduation rate by 10 percent, increase the six-year graduation rate by 20 percent, and add 13,000 students to the total enrollment.
The most significant physical representation of Eighmy’s plans is likely to be seen at UTSA’s downtown campus, located on the near West Side, where UTSA wants to triple enrollment, growing it to 15,000 students.
Eighmy took inspiration from Arizona State University, a school that developed its own downtown campus in Phoenix. In February 2018, Eighmy proposed three new downtown colleges, in urban education, urban science, and entrepreneurship.
Since then, UTSA officials have announced further plans for the downtown campus to host the National Security Collaboration Center, a School of Data Science, and a new facility for the College of Business. It launched the Urban Education Institute in January. The school also is planning a new residential tower in Cattleman Square that will include mixed-use space.
To fund this growth, UTSA has turned to the Legislature, philanthropy, and collaboration with the city of San Antonio.
After donating $15 million to the school to support the new school of data science, philanthropist and Rackspace co-founder Graham Weston hailed the $200 million plan to grow the downtown campus as “the biggest announcement in downtown in 50 years, truly.”
On UTSA’s 50th anniversary, the school plans to launch a $500 million capital campaign to fund initiatives in student success, capital improvements, and expanding the endowment. Some of this money will go toward attracting the “world’s leading researchers to San Antonio,” according to a university document.
Part of Eighmy’s vision for UTSA is an added emphasis on research, with the goal of achieving a coveted R1 Carnegie classification, a designation that indicates a world-class research university. Only 131 schools nationwide are so classified, including nine in Texas.
“We are really focusing on the idea that we don’t have to be beholden to the old models of what a great public research university should be,” Eighmy said. “We are in the driver seat because of many things: our demography, where San Antonio is, the fact that we are smack in the middle of the seventh-biggest city in the United States. … We are a university of the future sitting in the city of the future.”
The university president hopes UTSA can play a role in San Antonio becoming known as a higher-education destination.
“I would like in 50 years [for] folks to look back and [acknowledge] the idea of education being the great equalizer, and public research universities solving grand challenges for society, especially here in San Antonio,” Eighmy said. “I want them to [know] the things that UTSA embarked upon in 2019 were exactly what we needed to have for the next 50 years.”