Dr. Diana Natalicio has been called “the voice, the face, the strength and the sheer rock” of the University of Texas at El Paso. Now, after 45 years at the university and 30 years as its president, she has announced plans to retire.
Under her leadership, the university has undergone “a pretty radical change from what higher education usually does,” growing to 25,000 students, with a focus on equal access to higher education.
“The best thing about all of that is our student demographics ethnically now reflect the demographics of the surrounding region, from which we draw about 80 percent of our students,” she says, noting that the biggest growth has been among the “Hispanic population in El Paso, which historically was underserved.”
In 2016, Natalicio was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. Last year, she was one of Fortune magazine’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders. Natalicio grew up in Missouri and was the first in her family to attend college – something she’s spent much of her life helping others to do.
She says El Paso’s isolation has helped the school incubate new ideas.
“You have an opportunity to come up with some ideas that you won’t have to try on the public stage quite yet, and so experimentation is possible. Being in another time zone, so people don’t realize until too late what we’ve done,” she jokes. “That sort of thing.”
Her advice to her replacement is to continue the school’s “mission of access” by narrowing the disparity between those who can and cannot afford higher education.
“For me, that was the springboard to my whole life,” she says, “because I was a blue collar kid myself. So fighting for that would be my advice. Fight.”
Written by Rachel Taube.