State Sen. José Menéndez on Thursday criticized the selection process that yielded a sole finalist for University of Texas at San Antonio’s president, saying the search committee failed to adequately consider Latino candidates.

Taylor Eighmy was named as the sole finalist in UTSA’s president search.

On June 30, the University of Texas System Board of Regents named Taylor Eighmy, vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Tennessee, as the sole finalist for the post. Eighmy, who is white, must still receive official approval from regents, which could occur as early as July 20, 21 days after his selection as finalist.

“While I congratulate Dr. Eighmy on his selection to lead UTSA, I am dismayed at the lack of transparency or consideration for a Latino(a) candidates,” Menéndez said in a statement released by his office. “If Dr. Eighmy remains in this post past a required 21-day period after his selection, none of the nine UT System campuses will be led by a Latino(a). In a county that is 60% Latino(a), and a University that had an enrollment of 51% Latino(a) in 2016, that is unacceptable.”

Menéndez said he will submit an inquiry to the UT System about the selection process and how much consideration was given to a pool of candidates that “that better reflects the community served by its campus.” He pointed out that only two Latinos served on the 16-member selection committee and no open forums were held to evaluate candidates.

“We will not let that stand,” he said. “The students and taxpayers of San Antonio deserve some answers.”

Menéndez’s criticism of the search process was echoed by Lilliana Saldaña, co-chair of La Raza Faculty and Administrators Association, a group working to increase Latino representation in academia. 

“I’m really disappointed with this entire process,” said Saldaña, who estimates that La Raza represents around 50 of UTSA’s 1,412 faculty members.

There has been no formal survey of UTSA faculty on the presidential candidate search, so measuring the degree of opposition to Eighmy’s selection is difficult. Some faculty members have told the Rivard Report that they do not share La Raza’s assessment of the selection process.

A number of UTSA’s Latino faculty members and others in the community had pushed for a Latino finalist to be named to replace President Ricardo Romo, who led the university for 18 years and has been the only Latino to hold the position. Some had expressed hope that interim President Pedro Reyes Jr., a Rio Grande Valley native who received high marks on and off campus during his months-long tenure, would be tapped to lead the 29,000-student university.

Fifty percent of UTSA’s student body is Hispanic, earning the university the designation of a Hispanic Serving Institution, and 58% are from historically underrepresented backgrounds. To qualify as a Hispanic Serving Institution, the student population needs to be 25% Hispanic. There are 274 registered Hispanic Serving Institutions in the United States, but far fewer are, like UTSA, four-year public universities.

Hispanics are underrepresented in academia. A significant majority of UTSA’s 52-member faculty senate are white. The American Council on Education reported that in 2016 3.9% of all college and university presidents were Hispanic.

Only 16.8% of college presidents nationwide are minorities. Of those, only 20.7% lead a public institution with bachelors, masters, and doctoral degree programs.

The UT System began a nationwide search for a new president following Romo’s September 2016 announcement that he would retire. The university’s longest-serving president, Romo had planned to stay on until August but resigned in March over allegations of misconduct. 

Reyes, a former UT System administrator and special assistant to UT System Chancellor William McRaven, has a scholastic background in student success initiatives and has researched factors affecting the success of Hispanic students, in particular.

Following the announcement that Eighmy would be the sole finalist, Reyes said it would not be appropriate for him to comment on the choice. However, he expressed confidence that the regents considered UTSA’s demographics during the selection process.

“If I can help [the new president] in any way, I would be more than happy to do so,” Reyes said. “It’s a great community. That needs to be part of the vision for that institution to move forward, and I’m sure it will be.”

The UT Board of Regents said that the caliber of candidates, including Eighmy, signifies the growing reputation of UTSA in the academic community.

“The selection of Taylor Eighmy proves that UT San Antonio is a destination for our nation’s top leaders in higher education,” Regent Ernest Aliseda said when Eighmy’s selection was announced. “Eighmy will be unrelenting in his efforts to increase student success, faculty engagement, and the national stature of UTSA. And his leadership style will be an ideal fit for a national leading city like San Antonio.”

Eighmy’s background is deeply steeped in the sciences and research. He received a Bachelor of Science in biology from Tufts University and a Master of Science in civil engineering and doctorate in civil (environmental) engineering from the University of New Hampshire. 

Eighmy served on the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 10 years. He holds the patent for reactive barrier technology for contaminated sediments.

During his time as vice president for research at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, the school met criteria for becoming eligible for the National Research University Fund, meaning an $8 million-$10 million infusion from the fund. While that process usually takes five years, Texas Tech completed it in two years.

“The UT Regents seems to be very clear about its vision,” Saldaña said.

That vision appears to her to be to expanding the research fields at UTSA, many of which are seeing great success. UTSA’s cybersecurity program is considered to be one of the best in the country.

“UTSA is our flagship college and has played an integral role in ensuring that we have a skilled workforce ready to meet the demands of the future economy,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “I look forward to meeting Taylor Eighmy and helping him understand the priorities of the city.”

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.