Message from Provost Espy: Renewal and Resolution for 2023

January 18, 2023
Academic Strategic Communications

Welcome to Spring 2023!

The start of a new calendar year brings opportunities to celebrate our accomplishments and give thoughtful reflection and hopeful resolution to make any adjustments needed to realize our aspirations. This note is a lengthy one, as there is much to celebrate and to think about in this new year – I thank you in advance for reading it when you have a bit of time for consideration.

First, to the celebration…

Kicking off our new year is the grand opening of San Pedro I (SPI), the new home of our School of Data Science (SDS) and National Security Collaboration Center. The first of its kind in Texas, the SDS answers the national call for a highly skilled, diverse workforce to fill growing needs in data science-related fields. SPI will serve hundreds of graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in Artificial Intelligence, Computer Science with Data Science Concentration, Data Analytics, Statistics and Data Science, and Applied Statistics. At least 16 UTSA research institutes, college-level centers and laboratories affiliated with SDS are in SPI, including the MATRIX AI Consortium for Human Well-Being and the Open Cloud Institute. What a tangible demonstration of how innovative, interdisciplinary efforts in education, research and engagement come together to support our students and faculty, and advance our city!

The start of this semester also marks one full year that UTSA has been recognized as a Carnegie R1 university. Woot! Reaching this milestone on our path as a great public research university was a direct result of the intentional efforts by our entire university community, and I am grateful for the essential contributions of our faculty to our mission every day. To that end, Academic Affairs continues to seek opportunities to cultivate and recognize our outstanding faculty, including the Next-Gen Faculty Fellows Programs, now in its fourth year, which is preparing diverse scholars for academic leadership. UTSA also was recognized last year for our work in supporting fixed-term-track faculty.  While there is more work ahead for us to fully instantiate the R1 designation into the fabric of our institution, particularly in doctoral training and faculty mentoring, this academic achievement is nothing short of a game changer.

I am particularly proud that UTSA is not content to merely be listed among our nation’s top public and private universities. As an urban-serving, Hispanic-thriving university of the future, we are redefining what it means to be R1. As a founding member of the new Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities, UTSA is leading the charge to ensure the academic workforce of college graduates, including future faculty, reflects the diversity and richness of Texas and our nation. Our Hispanic-Thriving Institution Leadership Council will guide our work in the upcoming renewal of our Seal by Excelencia in Education, certifying our continued intentionality in serving our Latino population and, by extension, all students.

Access to a high-quality, R1 education is fundamental to community prosperity. UTSA is answering this imperative through improved affordability, particularly for those with the least economic resources. Our Bold Promise program now covers tuition and fees for more than 2,000 UTSA students. Thanks to the new Bold Scholar program,  approximately half of new Bold Promise students are taking full advantage of the rich campus activities and opportunities by living in on-campus housing, roughly double that of Fall 2020. Our new partnership with Alamo Colleges District, Promise to Promise, also will better support eligible students transferring to UTSA. On top of all of this, UTSA has injected an additional $2 million per year into financial aid from an endowment created from a $40 million gift to the university by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott in support of our enrollment and student success goals.

At UTSA, the foundation of our excellence is a commitment to the equitable success of every student. Building on the many pivotal initiatives over the last decade, the recent instantiation of our hub-and-spoke model, which couples institution-wide services with major-specific programming in our college student success centers, ensures that teams across the campus are coordinated around, and working persistently toward, our singular goals for the success of our students. We are earning well-deserved national recognition for this work and, more importantly, creating tangible results for our students:

  • UTSA undergraduates are earning bachelor’s degrees in 4.3 years on average, down from 5.3 years a decade ago.
  • In this same period, we have experienced a 41-percent increase in degrees awarded annually and a 24-percentage point gain in 6-year degree completion.

In the world of higher education, reducing time-to-degree by a full year is nothing short of monumental. In our community, increasing the number of graduates by a couple thousand per year is cause for celebration.

The bottom line: more UTSA graduates are entering our work force in less time and with less cost, getting an earlier start to a lifetime of earnings.

Critical to this equation for success is that our graduates leave UTSA ready for their chosen careers. Through our Classroom to Career initiative,  UTSA provides students with meaningful learning opportunities, as early as their first year, that combine didactic knowledge with practical application to intentionally connect academics to our region’s workforce needs. Study away opportunities, for example, are on the rise again, post-pandemic, opening the opportunity for intercultural understanding. Students are making a direct impact in our San Antonio community — and gaining relevant experience and marketable skills — through programs such as the Najim Strategist Program and Citymester. And they are showcasing their innovations and ideas through a variety of on-campus competitions, symposia and exhibitions  that further promote the power of learning by doing, whether in the laboratory, in industry or in the community. Such opportunities, supported by Career Engaged Learning, augment and amplify the superior education UTSA students receive both in and out of the classroom from our world-class faculty.

Undergirding all these initiatives are our shared values of excellence, innovation and inclusiveness. UTSA is simultaneously building economic and social prosperity in San Antonio and Texas by preparing our students for their chosen careers through intentionally designed curricula and meaningful “learning-by-doing” experiences.

These efforts to boost return-on-investment for degree-seeking students are seeing results: UTSA ranks No. 2 out of 34 institutions in Texas for “Top Performers in Social Mobility” and No. 33 out of 439 schools nationally in U.S. News and World Report’s 2023 rankings.

Now to the reflection…

2023 marks the midpoint in our 10-year strategic plan, This year, much attention will be given to mapping our progress, celebrating our accomplishments, and applying course adjustments, as needed, to ensure our upward trajectory continues through the next five years. This strategic plan refresh is intended to ensure that our vision remains dynamic and responsive as we build on our legacy and further advance our momentum of success.

This semester, a series of stakeholder listening sessions will be held in your college or division — be on the lookout for communication from your leadership. The refresh committee, using the analyzed feedback from student, faculty and staff stakeholders, will develop proposed revisions to the plan and then will seek additional feedback on the evolving plan in late spring and summer.

Framing some of our conversation relative to the strategic plan refresh undoubtedly will be the ongoing national discourse about the value of a college degree. To me, the data are clear and unequivocal.

Over a lifetime, a college graduate earns on average roughly $1 million more than peers without a college degree. Even more compellingly, a study by the Brookings Institution (2008) showed the outsized impact of a college degree for those from the least economically resourced families. Among adults at around age 40 between 1995 and 2002 whose parents were in the lowest income quintile at the same age:

  • For those without a college degree, 43% were in the lowest earning group, like their parents at the same age. Only 5% had broken into the highest earning quintile.
  • For those who successfully earned a college degree, only 16% were in the lowest quintile, like their parents at the same age. In contrast, 19% — nearly one in five and roughly four times as many — were in the highest quintile in earnings at the same age.

Finally, earning a college degree is associated with a host of other positive outcomes and prosocial community benefits: those with college degrees are more likely to be in a stable, meaningful relationship, to have savings or retirement, or to show greater participation in civic life through voting; are less likely to be incarcerated or to require public assistance; and are more likely to enjoy better health, both physical and mental.

In my mind, there is no better personal or public investment that shows greater economic and social returns to benefit our community than a college degree.

The Gates Foundation Postsecondary Value Commission Framework — which specifically draws upon outcome data from students in UT System institutions — highlights the critical role that higher education plays in economic and social mobility to advance equitable value for all students, particularly those who are underrepresented. At UTSA, we are far ahead of other R1 universities in this regard. UTSA’s historical mission, as well as our focused, impactful work to date to improve access, affordability, retention, degree completion and career preparation are national exemplars of the needed intentionality by all universities to promote equitable success for every student.

…and our New Year's resolution!

One new year’s resolution by our Academic Affairs leaders in the colleges and support divisions is to reinvigorate our Workforce Initiative, which will come into sharp focus with the upcoming groundbreaking of the new Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Careers Building (also known as San Pedro II). Consistent with the recommendations from the recently released Boyer 2030 Commission Report: The Equity Excellence Imperative, A Blueprint for Undergraduate Education at U.S. Research Universities, we will continue efforts to align our academic programs to advance the workforce needs through groundbreaking programs like the School of Data Science and University of Texas School of Public Health San Antonio. Our focus will be on three interlinked areas:

  1. aligning and systematizing our efforts to embed workforce-ready credentials into our degree programs, such as our pilot Project Management Certificate program, Google partnership, and graduate digital badges;
  2. increasing Classroom-to-Career “learning-by-doing” experiences in the curricula and academic experience by accelerating engagement between the colleges/divisions and businesses, non-profits and government agencies; and
  3. leveraging faculty pedagogical innovation to increase educational programs, certificates and continuing education offerings tailored to the needs of adult learners and others seeking re- and up-skilling.

It is imperative that we, as knowledge creators, fully utilize our institutional expertise to design, package and tailor our offerings in new ways to engage the full range of degree- and non-degree-seeking students — particularly those from underserved communities — to gain the needed competencies at UTSA to confidently pursue their bold futures. As we move forward with the refresh of our strategic plan, I ask each of you to consider: What more can we do to better engage and prepare our students for what comes next? What are your creative and innovative ideas we might consider to enable all UTSA students to achieve life success to the benefit of our community?

As I stated at the beginning, faculty and staff are central to all our efforts, and not just in the day-to-day activities that keep the university running smoothly. Each of you is a subject matter expert in your respective area – your voice and know-how are critical for the university to grow and innovate.

To that end, I am pleased to introduce the Academic Affairs Idea Incubator as a mechanism to share directly with me and the academic leadership your ideas for improving the UTSA experience for our students and/or colleagues. This Idea Incubator is intended to reinforce our participatory shared governance processes at UTSA, and to facilitate all Roadrunners to play a role in advancing our university.

Please feel free to share your ideas with us now, and be ready to take advantage of opportunities to engage in the strategic plan refresh process as that effort progresses more fully over the course of the year.

I hope that you all enjoyed a relaxing and restorative holiday break. As always, I consider myself fortunate to count each and every one of you as my colleagues.

- Kimberly Andrews Espy