College President Moves to New Institute to Foster Dialogue on the Americas

U. of Texas at Brownsville

Juliet V. García
July 28, 2014

After nearly 22 years as president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, Juliet V. García, who is 65, will step down at the end of August to take on a new challenge. This fall she will become executive director of the University of Texas Institute of the Americas, which is being created to improve the lives of people living along the Mexican border. She talked with The Chronicle’s Katherine Mangan about Brownsville’s student-success strategies and what she hopes to achieve next.

Q. For 20 years, the University of Texas at Brownsville had a partnership with Texas Southmost College. What role did the partnership between the university and the community college serve before it ended in 2011?

A. In the early 1990s we decided to invent a place that took the strengths of a community college, including open admissions, nurturing, and small classes, eliminate all of the transfer barriers, and add, on top, a university with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It raised expectations exponentially. We could see right away students who had started out in automotive technology with plans to set up their own shop deciding to stay and become civil engineers.

Q. What lessons did you draw from presiding over a university where most students are the first in their families to attend college?

A. You can’t pretend they’re the same kids who go to a more elite school. You have to treat them differently. They need more rigor and more discipline and more time on task.

Starting last year, we required all freshmen in the four highest-dropout courses—English, math, history, and science—to come in for an hour with a peer tutor for every hour in class. Every freshman has to do it—no opt-out. Retention rates in those courses grew by double digits.

Our students face different kinds of pressures. Families are their most important priorities, then work, then school, so if your mom needs you at home or someone’s sick, you don’t come to class.

We converted all of our part-time staff positions into student employment so students who have to work are engaged on campus, talking with faculty, and not just off somewhere flipping burgers.

Q. What will your priorities be in the new institute?

A. We see ourselves as the epicenter of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Americas, where they convene and where their edges blur. As we are inventing a new university that takes advantage of that position [the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley], I’ll be looking at ways to facilitate important discussions across borders, those that don’t just talk about problems but try to solve them. It will also be a place to develop the next generation of leadership that will nurture and sustain our democracy.