Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report
News of University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) President Ricardo Romo’s impending retirement in August 2017 came as a bittersweet surprise to many who watched the school’s steady rise under his leadership. The university’s longest serving president leaves an institution well on its way to Tier One status, with a Carnegie classification, and a spot among the top 100 universities in the country. As with any changing of the guard, the community wants to see the upward trajectory continue.
On Sept. 27, Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) hosted a panel of university leadership to discuss the future of San Antonio’s largest four-year university. The event was part of Nirenberg’s District 8 civic engagement series.
“UTSA not too long ago was a small commuter university in the middle of a cow pasture,” he said.
Nirenberg kicked off the discussion by asking Romo, “Why now?” regarding his retirement.
Romo said he opted for the Tim Duncan route.
“I wanted to go out while I was still at the top of my game,” Romo said.
After the system evolution in May, UTSA received confirmation that this was, in fact, its best year ever. Romo praised the capital campaign efforts, faculty engagement, as well as the quality of the student body.
“A degree from UTSA is far more valuable than ever,” said Romo, referring to the Times University World Rankings. UTSA performed particularly well in the area of scholarly citations. Where the university still lags is in areas like endowments.
“We don’t have a billion dollar endowment,” Romo said.
The universities ahead of UTSA, the ones with the billion dollar endowments, represent the next goals Romo has identified.
Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Mauli Agrawal has been integral to the university’s pursuit of Tier One status.
“Tier One is what others think of you. When they think of you as an excellent school, that’s when you are Tier One,” said Agrawal.
Currently the university is Tier One in cybersecurity, big data analytics, anthropology, and a handful of other fields.
“One way to identify Tier One is when you have multiple centers of excellence,” Romo said. “Having various centers that are top ten is my definition of Tier One.”
One of those centers of excellence, Romo jokingly added, should be football.
UTSA opted out of building a stadium when it ventured into the football market, but was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of the program. Romo called for patience as the program built its path to winning consistency and depth.
“It’s gonna take two or three years,” he said. “Our eleven are as good as any eleven in any conference. But we don’t have twenty-two.”
Athletics were a high priority for the former varsity runner. His first hire was associate vice president and athletic director Lynn Hickey, who sat on Tuesday's panel.
When asked what advice he would give his successor, Romo kept the mood light and repeated advice given to him when he took the position.
“Watch what you eat, and go easy,” said Romo. “Everything in moderation.”
The panel then turned its attention to the future of UTSA.
When Nirenberg asked Agrawal what the future of UTSA looked like from his position, he answered, "It has never looked brighter."
Agrawal pointed to the role that the University of Texas's strategic investment in research connected to prominent industries has played in the city of Austin's prosperity. UTSA’s decision to invest in research priorities like cybersecurity and biomedical engineering was largely driven by market opportunities. In addition to the academic opportunities, graduates would have access to competitive jobs, and industry would be attracted to San Antonio.
This carried over to the international community as well, as UTSA’s international exchanges continue to expand. Research opportunities at UTSA attract students from around the world, and opportunities around the world are now open to UTSA students, explained UTSA Director of International Programs Lisa Marie Gomez.
Currently there are approximately 1,200 international students at UTSA, primarily from China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and India. Their primary attraction, according to Gomez, is the biomedical engineering program and the testimony of other international students.
Romo made student culture a priority as the commuter campus transformed into the university it is today. Carrying on the president’s legacy falls to the students who have idolized him for years, according to UTSA Student Government Association President Andrew Hubbard.
“Our vision looks like having bigger events that are more inclusive to the student community. It means having a greater breadth of civic engagement," Hubbard said.
“Whoever comes in behind him is going to be a superstar just because of what Dr. Romo has laid the foundation for,” Associate Vide President and Athletic Director Lynn Hickey said.
Her goal is to see the university become a first choice destination. As a majority minority campus, she feels that UTSA uniquely equips students for the real world.
Hickey also foresaw UTSA’s billion dollar economic impact on San Antonio growing. Beyond economics, she wants to see the university contributing to the community culture. Her department, athletics, serves as the “front porch” of this engagement.
“We have the opportunity to bring visibility to our university and our entire city,” Hickey said.
While Hickey and Romo agreed that athletics should never outshine academics, they recognized the power of the bond created by a successful athletic program. From job interview chit chat, to community role models for K-12 students, the athletic department’s visibility can enhance the community. To that end, the university will pursue funding in the city’s 2017 Bond to begin Phase II of the Park West complex, which primarily houses athletics.
Nirenberg further asked if the university rises in reputation and reach would affect enrollment.
Agrawal confirmed that the university’s acceptance rate had dropped to 60%, down from essentially open enrollment less than 20 years ago. While the university has remained accessible to local students, it is becoming more and more attractive to competitive student populations.
While the panel made it clear that Romo leaves a big pair of shoes that will not easily be filled, each member took responsibility for its department's continued excellence. They praised the outgoing president for the empowering stance he took in the UTSA community, and turned an auspicious face to the future.
Top image: UTSA President Ricardo Romo speaks on leaving UTSA on a high note. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.