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After a decade and a half at the University of Texas at San Antonio, interim Provost Mauli Agrawal is saying goodbye to the city’s largest university in preparation for a move midwest. Agrawal will assume the role as chancellor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City on June 20. His last day in San Antonio has yet to be determined, but he will finish out the spring semester at UTSA.
The chief academic officer prepares to depart after holding several positions throughout the university – professor, associate dean of research, dean of the College of Engineering, vice president for research, and finally, interim provost.
UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said he hopes to have a new provost in place by June 1.
Agrawal has grown roots in the community outside the university as well, serving on the board of trustees of the Southwest Research Institute, BioMed SA, the Texas Research Park Foundation, and the San Antonio Medical Foundation.
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) said Agrawal will be missed, not only at UTSA, but throughout the city.
“Mauli has been deeply engaged, not only with the university, but with the larger community of San Antonio in helping us build infrastructure in STEM fields and well beyond that,” Castro said in a statement following Agrawal’s announcement. “He’s a true gem and we’ll truly miss him. He’s a collaborative leader who takes advice and guidance from all sides and helps everyone march forward together. He both listens and leads.”
As dean of the College of Engineering, Agrawal oversaw a 40 percent increase in enrollment, 50 percent increase in faculty, and 400 percent increase in research funding. In 2010, he collaborated with then-Mayor Julián Castro to create the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at UTSA. The institute received a $50 million pledge from CPS Energy.
In his new role, Agrawal will oversee all aspects of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, one school within the four-campus University of Missouri System. Agrawal’s new school has an enrollment of more than 16,000 students, half of which are undergraduates. UMKC also enrolls roughly 33 percent of students in graduate programs, including in doctoral degrees through the law, medical, and dental schools.
Agrawal spoke with the Rivard Report the week following his announcement about his tenure at UTSA and what he looks forward to with his move to Missouri. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Rivard Report: How has UTSA changed in your 15 years with the university?
Mauli Agrawal: The university has gone through some very incredible changes over the past 15, 20 years. [That] goes back a little before I got here, when I was at UT Health [San Antonio]. At that time in the late 1990s, the transformation started. This was mostly a commuter school with four buildings, and in the past 20 years, things have just exploded.
We are a very good school right now on the cusp of becoming a Research One, Carnegie R1 school. Student population went from something like 18,000 to 31,000. Graduate programs went from one or two Ph.D. programs to 25. So just on all fronts, and not just numbers, but [through] quality and different disciplines – we are No. 1 in cybersecurity – it has been an incredible transformation. As I look out of the window and see all of the buildings, it was like none of this was here.
RR: You held a number of different positions throughout your time with UTSA. How did your role in shaping the university transform over time?
MA: Increasing levels of responsibility. I started as a program director of the joint biomedical program between [UTSA] and UT Health [San Antonio], then associate dean for engineering, and then I got appointed dean for eight years, so I just had supervision of the college of engineering.
But [I was] only looking at engineering, and then my next position was vice president of research. I had to change my perspective because I was looking at research across the whole institution. So now I am looking at not just engineering, I am looking at the English professor and what he or she does for research.
Then, the transition from there to provost. [As] provost, all the colleges report to me, so I am basically the chief academic officer. Now you are not just looking at research. Pretty much the whole mission comes under the provost – teaching and research.
RR: What has been the biggest challenge in these transitions?
MA: You have to change your perspective. The other piece that becomes interesting on a daily basis is [that] as it becomes more complex, [you spend] most of your day in meetings. Anybody that comes in brings a different issue so you have to change hats very quickly. At one point, the problem is with an undergraduate, to what is the next five years going to look like for research, and then a third person walks in and says, “Here is the budget for the next six months.”
RR: Did you have a favorite part of your time at UTSA?
MA: The whole growth and enthusiasm and energy that has evolved on campus. I still think when you walk on campus, you feel a palpable energy and excitement.
A lot of these buildings didn’t exist. [On] some of them I got to actually work with the architects in designing the buildings. It is just a very great sense of accomplishment. I am thankful I was part of this phase of growth.
RR: What qualities do you want to see in your successor?
MA: Think outside the box, take action, and speed. Because with Dr. Eighmy’s plan, he has got to do it quickly. He can stretch it out over three decades or can do it in one. And I think the world doesn’t wait for anyone, or for three decades. I want to see a can-do attitude. When you decide on big things like this, you need to have the right attitude.
RR: Having filled so many academic roles, have you always aspired to fill a big-picture position like chancellor?
MA: I think it is the next logical step. I have always been very connected with the community here – perhaps above and beyond what is necessary for the positions I have been in. I’ve been involved with the economic development discussions within the city, where should education go. So, it comes more naturally to me, that piece of it. And now it will be my responsibility.
RR: What drew you to the position with the University of Missouri-Kansas City?
MA: When I looked at going back to the modern, urban university, you need all the elements of the university. I look at UMKC, [and] they have a very highly recognized and nationally ranked theater arts programs, which nowadays is becoming very rare, especially at public universities. They have all the medical disciplines in the university – medical school, dental school, nursing school, and pharmacy. And then, on the other side, they have engineering and management and business and education and biological sciences. They have all the pieces you need to make a good university.
[UMKC] is the only public university, the only major university there, so the city is really behind it. And the city is evolving very quickly, so my contention has always been that all great cities are anchored by a great university. If you look nationally, you would see that. I saw all the pieces on the city side and on the university side. And you just have to put them together.
RR: How will your students at UMKC differ from those at UTSA? Will their challenges be any different?
MA: Demographics are different there. More than half the students are white. Then the second biggest group would be African Americans. Hispanic population is still low, but from what I hear – at least in the city – that is beginning to grow rapidly. So having said that, there are still a lot of students on financial aid.
No. There are certain states where the number of high school graduates is going to grow rapidly. Texas is one of them, perhaps the leader. But the Northeast is going to actually see a decrease. If you look carefully and see where that increase is coming from, it is going to come primarily from minorities and underrepresented groups. And there is a big overlap of socioeconomic depression there. All of those groups need a different type of help structure than what universities have traditionally given. The universities that will adapt will survive.
RR: What will you miss about San Antonio?
MA: Tacos. We have also set down roots here, so in some ways we will not be leaving. We will most likely maintain some kind of presence here because we have been here for 27 years and we know all of our friends here. So it is not “Goodbye, San Antonio.”
Who knows? When we get older we may end up back here, because we think of this as home.