Nirenberg on Romo: ‘More Questions than Answers’

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UTSA President RIcardo Romo speaks about how he wants to leave on a high note. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

UTSA President Ricardo Romo speaks to Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) about "leaving on a high note" during an event in September 2016.

Last week’s announcement that University of Texas at San Antonio President Ricardo Romo suddenly had been placed on administrative leave left many in the community shocked and bewildered.

The only communication from the University of Texas System came from Chancellor William McRaven in a Feb. 14 email, which said Romo had been placed on administrative leave “pending a review of allegations related to his conduct.” No other information was provided, and university officials have refused to comment on the nature of the allegations in question.

One week later, no further clarification on Romo’s status has been provided. Coming just months before his planned retirement, the matter raises questions about whether Romo’s successful tenure as president will end under a cloud. 

“This is not just any elected official or businessman. This is one of San Antonio’s favorite sons,” Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said Tuesday.

District 8 is home to UTSA’s main campus, and Nirenberg considers Romo a vital community partner in charting the future of both the district and the city. With the UTSA master plan underway, that partnership would move forward with Romo’s successor. 

“As the city’s only public research university, UTSA’s future direction must not only reflect the values, aspirations, and traditions of the university community, it must also reflect the expectations and needs of the surrounding community and region,” Romo wrote in a statement in the master plan.

Although he announced his plans for retirement in August 2016, the manner in which Romo leaves the job he’s held for almost 18 years will be critical for the community. The former track star has said repeatedly that he wanted to go out “still pitching fastballs.”

Romo was scheduled to host a table at the UTSA Honors College fundraiser “Great Conversation!” on Feb. 28. Always a popular table host, this year Romo’s chosen topic was to be the musical Hamilton!, which he and his wife Harriett saw last year. After news of Romo’s leave broke, the table was canceled. However, the fundraiser at the Institute of Texan Cultures will go on as scheduled, university representatives said.

In many ways, the absence of information handed down by the UT System has left a gaping hole in the close ties Romo had helped form between the university and the community it serves.

“We have to trust the UT System to be aware and sensitive to these issues,” Nirenberg said. “But from the start, the communication that has come out has – unfortunately for all of us – raised more questions than answers.”

The media and the public have been left to fill in the gaps as best they can. The San Antonio Express-News has reported that unnamed sources said Romo was placed on leave following a formal sexual harassment complaint and two firings, which could be viewed as retaliatory. It is unclear who the complaint was filed against.

While the UT System has not responded to that report, Romo released the following statement via his attorney Ricardo Cedillo: “I look forward to a speedy resolution and the clearing of my name. In accordance with university policy, I was requested to and I wholeheartedly agreed to be placed on administrative leave with pay pending this investigation,” an Express-News article on Thursday reported.

Pedro Reyes, former executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System and currently special assistant to the chancellor and professor of education policy at UT Austin, will assume the role of president while the investigation is conducted.

For a community waiting to learn the fate of a well-regarded leader, the UT System’s silence has been deafening. 

“When it comes to UTSA, it is part of one of the most prestigious systems in the world,” Nirenberg said. “But that campus, those students, those faculty are San Antonio family, and we want to make sure the System understands that.”

The UTSA main campus on the city's Northside.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The UTSA main campus on the city’s Northside.

In many ways, San Antonio is deeply linked to Romo’s legacy. Born on San Antonio’s Westside, he graduated from Fox Tech High School, and went on to UT Austin where he majored in education. From there, Romo made a steady ascent. In addition to his work as a historian and many appointments to national boards, Romo used his position as UTSA’s fifth president to move the university toward Tier One status with the ambitious Gold Star Initiative and the birth of the school’s NCAA Division I football program.

Even his marriage has deflected light onto the cultural contributions of Mexican-Americans. Romo’s wife is a professor of sociology and director of UTSA’s Mexico Center and Bank of America Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute. Through their avid art collecting and leadership, the couple has contributed to expanding appreciation for Mexican-American culture and history.

Under Romo’s tenure, UTSA has become a leading institution in the service of first-generation, non-traditional, and minority college students. Under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, he served White House Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. 

It is this deep identification with the diverse community of San Antonio that makes Romo’s legacy so critical. 

“I hope the University of Texas System understands the role that UTSA and its leadership play in the vibrancy of the seventh largest city in the United States,” Nirenberg said. “It sounds trite, but it is abundantly true and has been true, that as UTSA goes, so goes San Antonio.”

While the search for UTSA’s sixth president continues, transparency will be vital. While it would be unfair to ask for a clone of Romo, Nirenberg said, the UT System should be aware of his civic presence as well as his reputation in the business community and with students. As the city grows, those are the relationships and values that will matter when it comes to maintaining momentum in pace with the city’s growing population and diversifying economy.

“UTSA needs a leader who can take the next step forward, and not just transition,” Nirenberg said.

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