How University Leadership Matters

There is something to an educational leader with a vision for the institution along with engaged faculty, staff and students. Penley on Education and Energy made the case that Leadership Matters in K-12 education in an earlier blog. It matters as well in higher education where I have spent most of my career.

Diana Natalicio has transformed higher education in El Paso, Texas. Ms. Natalicio became president of the University of Texas at El Paso not quite 30 years ago. UTEP is a better place today as a result of her leadership. She has sought increased research support, based on UTEP’s historic science and engineering role; UTEP began as the School of Mining and Metallurgy. She has raised UTEP’s enrollment of Hispanics; it is more representative of the El Paso community now. She has increased graduation rates, including those of Hispanic students, in technical fields like healthcare, engineering and mathematics. UTEP has received national recognition as a Hispanic-serving institution.

Building hope, engendered by vision, is what Ms. Natalicio has done as UTEP’s leader. In 2013, the New York Times quoted her about what had transpired over the years of her presidency. “I think the biggest difference between then and now is our self-confidence as an institution.” Building hope began early in her tenure, she says in a video welcoming students on the UTEP website. “We saw liabilities where there were real assets. What I understood was that these were all opportunities just waiting to be capitalized on.”

Leadership matters, of course, in every organization.  One day in Denver an airline CEO and I awaited a panel discussion. We talked about what we really did – he as CEO of an airline and I as president of Colorado State University. It quickly became evident that the leader of an airline and the leader of a university had much in common. Both of us saw our prime responsibility as building hope through vision.

That combination of vision and hope builds employee engagement. Earlier in my career, a colleague and I developed a measure of employee engagement that was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. In that article, we labeled one type of engagement, moral commitment, a kind of engagement that mattered most for employees’ performance. Those individuals with moral commitment see their future aligned with that of the organization.  With personal hopes’ being achieved via the organization’s success, performance rises.

A good leader encourages engagement. That is exactly what Ms. Natalicio has done at UTEP as its leader. Upon becoming president, she saw what some considered the isolated, border location of UTEP as an opportunity. She viewed the often less-well-prepared, first generation college students as hard working with great potential. She took the substantially Hispanic community of El Paso as a bridge to more Hispanic graduates. She built hope from what many perceived as challenge. She did so by offering a glimpse of the possible in her vision that leapt beyond felt inferiority to hope and engagement.  Leadership matters, and Ms. Natalicio demonstrates it.