WHEN DIANA NATALICIO WAS named president of the University of Texas at El Paso in 1988, the first issue she wanted to address was the racial makeup of the student body. “You draw eighty-four percent of your students from El Paso County, you should look like the county,” she declares. Back then, about half of the 14,000 students were Hispanic; today, after energetic recruiting, about 66 percent of the 15,176 students are Hispanic, and that does not include the 1,300 Mexican nationals, most of whom cross the border to attend class each day. Now UT—El Paso is the largest Hispanic-majority university in the nation.
But that wasn’t all that 59-year-old Natalicio set out to accomplish; she also vowed to increase the number of doctoral programs and to compete harder for research funds. “We didn’t have much self-confidence,” she says. “Our isolation was a big factor in our sense of futility at trying to play at the national or even statewide level. But we had untapped potential: Our student body, and our place on the border, made us unlike any other institution.”
So Natalicio kicked into high gear, hopping planes and lobbying for funds in Austin, Washington, D.C., and other power centers. In the 84-year-history of UT—El Paso, no one had ever mounted such a concentrated effort, but the new president succeeded like an old pro. The university’s budget, which was $64 million a decade ago, is now $146 million. UT—El Paso used to offer one doctoral program; now it has eight. And its profile is increasing both within the UT System and nationally. Last year Natalicio won the prestigious Harold W. McGraw, Jr., Prize in Education for her efforts to build the Hispanic student body (she set up a scholarship fund with the $25,000 she received). Meanwhile, she has used the school’s traditional strengths in the sciences and engineering—UT—El Paso began as the Texas School of Mining and Metallurgy—to establish ties with the National Science Foundation. “I think we’ve overcome that fear of failure,” says Natalicio, who was appointed to the foundation’s board by Bill Clinton and serves as its vice chair. “Now we’re a much more robust institution because we’ve proven to ourselves that we can compete.”
Born Diana Siedhoff into a blue-collar family in St. Louis—“Natalicio” is the surname of her ex-husband—she was a pretty fair pitcher as a child (she still throws in her back yard to relax and gets decent movement on the ball). She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish at St. Louis University, studied Portuguese in Brazil on a Fulbright Scholarship, and got her master’s in Portuguese and her doctorate in linguistics at UT-Austin. Warned by friends that she would find El Paso a wasteland, she instead took an instant liking to it; she enjoyed speaking Spanish and identified with a working-class student body that struggled to balance school with work and family. Over the years, she taught linguistics, chaired the Modern Languages Department, and served as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and as the vice president for academic affairs.
Since ascending to the top job at UT—El Paso, she has faced her share of controversy. Her aggressive, hands-on managerial style rubs some of her colleagues the wrong way. (“She’s a tyrant, not a president,” says associate professor of communication Barthy Byrd.) For the past three years Natalicio was the focal point, though not the defendant, in a lawsuit that began when she rejected geology professor Kathleen Marsaglia’s bid for tenure even after the tenure committee had approved Marsaglia unanimously; Marsaglia said she was turned down because she had charged geology professor Nick Pingitore, Natalicio’s close friend, with sexual harassment. (In July a judge ruled in favor of UT—El Paso and the UT System; Marsaglia plans an appeal.) Worst of all, the university, which is known for its outstanding basketball program, was placed under five-year sanctions by the National Collegiate Athletic Association earlier this year, mainly for using ineligible players in several sports. Natalicio blames poor record keeping that led to ineligible players suiting up; she has since replaced much of the staff in the athletic department.
If any of this fazes Natalicio, she doesn’t let it show. She talks animatedly about UT—El Paso’s research collaborations with Mexican colleges in Saltillo and Chihuahua, and she brags on its massive, one-year-old Undergraduate Learning Center, which not only brings the former mining school into the cyberage but also enables students to pursue degrees at their own pace; the university, she insists, must adapt to these students as much as they do to it.
She has no doubt she’ll be there while they are. “I’ve always said the only job I’d leave this for is commissioner of baseball,” she says with a slightly rueful smile, “and it looks like that’s been taken.”