When Diana Natalicio graduated from a blue-collar St. Louis high school, in 1957, life expectations were clear for her and her classmates. “They prepared the boys to be apprentices in the various trade unions—electricians, carpenters, and so on—and they assumed that the girls would marry them. And so they prepared the girls for short-term careers, until their nuptials came along, in secretarial studies,” she recalled.
She took a job as a switchboard operator but quickly grew frustrated with the work and the life possibilities that lay ahead. So she enrolled at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit school near her home, even though she recognized she wasn’t prepared. “They said, ‘Well, where’d you go to high school?’ I told them, and they said, ‘Hmmm, well, that’s not going to be so easy,’ but they said, ‘If you work hard, maybe we can make it happen.’ ”
Natalicio earned her bachelor’s degree from SLU, in 1961, then earned a master’s and a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. She arrived at the University of Texas at El Paso as a visiting professor of linguistics in 1971 and won a faculty appointment the following year. She went into administration in 1977, then was appointed UTEP’s president in 1988. Natalicio, 78, announced Tuesday that she would retire when the UT Board of Regents appoints her successor, a process that is likely to take six to nine months.
Paul Foster, an El Paso businessman and philanthropist who is the vice chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, said Natalicio leaves an impressive legacy. “Dr. Natalicio has served UTEP and the UT System with distinction for more than 45 years. Her 30 years at the helm as president are marked with one recognition or commendation after another, not only for our fine university but for Dr. Natalicio personally. She will be very difficult to replace, but with the legacy she has created, I have no doubt that her position will be highly sought after. And since she is staying on until her successor is in place, it is not time to say goodbye, but rather it is our opportunity to express our gratitude and admiration for her commitment to higher education and to our community.”
Natalicio made it her life’s work to help those like herself, who came from modest means and often were assumed to be unlikely college material. To Natalicio, the public conversation about higher education was often off-base. “Everybody focuses a lot on excellence, everybody wants to be prestigious, everybody wants to be ranked high and all the rest of that. But there’s not a lot of focus on access, which is creating opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise have them,” she said at a news conference Tuesday announcing her retirement plans.
During her thirty years as president—the longest current presidential tenure at any public university in the United States—UTEP remade itself to better reflect the El Paso community and to serve its predominately Hispanic population. When Natalicio became president, Hispanics made up more than two-thirds of El Paso’s population but less than half of UTEP’s student body. As Natalicio prepares to step aside, both the university student body and El Paso are more than 80 percent Hispanic.
The changes at UTEP were painful and controversial. Critics said Natalicio and UTEP improved access by allowing unprepared students to enroll at UTEP, where many struggled without graduating. “If there’s going to be criticism in the postmortem of her presidency, it would be that she sacrificed too much excellence for too much access,” said Woody Hunt, an El Paso businessman and former University of Texas regent who supported Natalicio even though they disagreed at times on the balance between excellence and access. He called her “transformational,” a description he said he uses sparingly.
Data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board show that less than half of the students who enrolled at UTEP in fall 2011 graduated within six years, below the state average of 61 percent. But Natalicio despises measures like six-year graduation rates, saying they ignore the realities faced by first-generation, low-income, and immigrant students.
Natalicio’s career has been built on a belief that excellence and access aren’t mutually exclusive. UTEP had one doctoral program when she assumed the presidency; it now offers 24. The student body grew from 15,000 to more than 25,000; the number of graduates went from fewer than 1,500 annually to more than 5,500.
“So it’s not to say that we aren’t focused on quality, because we are, and we’ve demonstrated that through a lot of examples—doctoral programs, research dollars, all that. But we’re trying to do something very different, which is to create that balance between access and excellence,” she said.
Natalicio’s efforts have resulted in numerous honors. Hunt said she is probably better known in higher education circles nationwide than within her home state. Last year Fortune magazine included her in its list of top 50 world leaders. In 2016 Time named her to its annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. San Antonio’s Julián Castro, then the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, wrote the profile of Natalicio: “Over 80 percent of UTEP’s more than 23,000 students are Mexican American, and an additional 5 percent come from nearby Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Most of her students work, and many of them have families. Yet UTEP has become a major research institution during her tenure, growing research dollars from $6 million to more than $90 million annually, because Natalicio was ahead of her time, seeing the future of America in the faces of her students.”
In her news conference Tuesday, Natalicio discussed declining state funding for higher education, in Texas and in most other states. She worries that shrinking state funding forces public universities to increase tuition, further trapping people in poverty by shutting them off from education. “So you’re going to have an underclass of people without much hope or opportunity. And I don’t think any society does well that way. So I think we’re going to have to have a conversation about what is important and what we spend resources on. It seems to me that there are two fundamental things that any society ought to do for its people. One is education, the other is health. I don’t see how you can have a society that doesn’t pay attention to that, and those two areas don’t seem to be the priority that they used to be.”
Natalicio has never been comfortable with public introspection, and she refused to answer questions about her legacy. “I’m not ready to do that. I’m not going anywhere today,” she said with a smile. There was no such reluctance from those who have been influenced by Natalicio over the years.
“Her legacy of access, service, excellence, and humility have been a constant in her trajectory as a transformative leader, role model, and educator,” said Eva Moya, a UTEP professor of social work who first met Natalicio as a UTEP undergraduate student in the late seventies. “Dr. Natalicio’s vision, tenacity, determination, humility, and love for service and education for all has been inspirational and transformative for hundreds of thousands of lives on this border and beyond.”
Sally Hurt-Deitch, the chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services for Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corporation, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from UTEP. She calls Natalicio the “Iron Lady” of education. “Her commitment to the community has been felt by all of those who have taken classes, walked the campus, attended an event, or have simply heard her speak. Diana Natalicio has lived and breathed El Paso—rejoicing in the culture of the area, capitalizing on the diversity of the region, and promoting the distinctiveness of UTEP graduates,” Hurt-Deitch said.
UTEP’s current student body president, Kristen Ahumada, said Natalicio is the university’s beacon. “Dr. Natalicio has instilled in me the core values of this institution and has stayed true to our university’s mission of access and excellence. She has integrated these ideals into all UTEP initiatives and continued to reach out to our unserved El Paso Del Norte Region, and has generated many robust programs.”
Natalicio said she is most proud of the tens of thousands of graduates with whom she shook hands at commencement ceremonies. When asked if she wished she could have done anything differently in her three decades leading UTEP, Natalicio reached for the lament of many a university president. “Win football games,” she said.
Robert Moore is an El Paso–based journalist and former editor of the El Paso Times.