His Cause, Great Effects
UTSA achieves record-breaking growth, academic success under school’s fifth president
It’s Fiesta in San Antonio and thousands line the river for the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, part of the city’s annual weeklong celebration honoring the heroes of the Alamo and San Jacinto. A beautifully decorated barge floats by carrying a lively country-western band. The singer leads the crowd in a ballad. But the singing soon turns into cheering as the crowd recognizes the man with the microphone. It’s Ricardo Romo, fifth president of The University of Texas at San Antonio.
It’s not uncommon to see Romo singing at various events, discussing his artistic photographs or stopping to chat with students between classes. His down-to-earth, friend-next-door character is the reason he is well known and well liked at UTSA, in San Antonio and everywhere he travels.
“It’s not something that he stages for publicity, he just really enjoys people,” says his wife and UTSA sociology professor Harriett Romo. “When we go places and he stops and gets gas somewhere, he’ll start talking to the person across the way getting gas, and they’ll talk for 10 minutes. I think he breaks the mold for everything. He’s a unique person and a very special person.”
Along with charisma, Romo’s foresight and love of education have propelled UTSA to new levels of academic excellence, growth and maturity. Under his leadership, the university has shed its commuter-campus image and is now poised to become a national research university.
Romo’s story begins on the West Side of San Antonio, where few graduated from college and many lived through economic hardship. But on the streets of Romo’s beloved Prospect Hill neighborhood, he learned perseverance, discipline, a strong work ethic and loyalty. Beginning when he was 6 years old, hours outside the classroom were often spent working in his family’s grocery store.
His work ethic and focus are evident in his leadership style, says A.J. Rodriguez, deputy city manager for the City of San Antonio and a 1999 M.B.A. graduate of UTSA.
“It’s in terms of being humble and being thankful for what you have. Yet, trying to achieve more, not necessarily for yourself, but for that same part of town that he grew up in and the rest of the overall community,” he says.
When Romo graduated from Fox Tech High School in 1962, like many other San Antonio students, he had to make a choice when it came to college—either leave his hometown to pursue a four-year degree from an affordable public institution or stay at home and attend community college. The only four-year institutions in the city were private, and with two other siblings attending college at the same time, private school was just too expensive an option.
Always a strong athlete as well as student, he earned a track scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin.
“I was very fortunate because I had a track scholarship, it was all done for me,” Romo says. “And frankly, I don’t know how I could have done it otherwise.”
Even as a high school student who was advised by one of his high school counselors to forgo attending college, it was obvious to Romo that there was a need for an affordable public university in his hometown. But his path would take a few enlightened turns before he could return home to do something about it.
Romo graduated from UT Austin with a bachelor’s in education. While there, he became the first Texan to run the mile in less than four minutes, a record that lasted 41 years. He continued his education at Loyola Marymount University, where he received a master’s in history. He earned his Ph.D. in history from UCLA.
He returned to Texas in 1980 to teach history at UT Austin before becoming a vice provost for undergraduate education. When he took UTSA’s helm in 1999, he promised access to excellence in education for all students, regardless of background.
He has delivered on that promise over the last decade, says Cathy Obriotti Green, vice president of Zachry Group, Inc., and member of the university’s Development Board. She worked closely with Romo during her six-year tenure on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“I think that one of the great things about Dr. Romo is that his agenda was for UTSA and not for himself,” she says.
When Romo began advocating for UTSA to become the state’s next top-tier university, she says, he did that because he thought the school was ready and that it was the right thing to do.
“He wasn’t looking at it to say ‘are people going to look favorably on this or unfavorably and how might it impact my professional career,’ ” she says. “When you can be liberated by the fact that you’re not actively job seeking with every ‘admin’ decision you make, and you couple that with leadership qualities, it’s amazing what can happen.”
Romo’s ties to the city and his academic vision have made a difference in the university’s success, supporters say.
“He has transformed the institution,” says Raymund Paredes, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education. Paredes first met Romo while they were both students at UT Austin. “UTSA was an obscure, regional public university. I don’t think the people in San Antonio thought very much about it. But Romo created a whole new identity for UTSA.”
In the decade since Romo became president, he has seen the university morph from deserted hallways in the afternoons to an almost around-the-clock bustling campus recognized for innovative research and community programs. When he accepted his post, there were three doctoral programs. Now there are 21. Under his leadership, four colleges grew to eight plus a graduate school, and sponsored programs and research increased from $7.7 million to more than $51 million. And in 2008 alone, UTSA contributed more than $1.2 billion to the economy.
“We do have a culture change here,” Romo says. “We have a new attitude about who we are, and there is an increasing new perception from the outside about who we are.”
What the university has become is a reflection of the man who leads it, say Romo’s supporters. And how he did it, Paredes says, is by creating excitement for education that is palpable campuswide and statewide.
“UTSA has flourished under the astute leadership of Ricardo Romo,” says longtime friend Mark Yudof, president of the University of California system. “His broad vision and steadfast adherence to excellence and access has seamlessly guided the San Antonio campus to new heights of prominence.”
Repeatedly, Romo has successfully secured funding from the University of Texas System and the Texas Legislature for needed improvements, and students have voted for higher student fees to pay for more. Each time they do, they’re putting their trust in him that he will make the best decisions for the university.
“I don’t know how many university presidents you see who actually appear giddy about their work,” says Green. “He is just a happy university president. You can tell instantly that he loves the job, he loves his faculty, he loves the students, and he loves the campus.”
Just another Roadrunner
Visit a local taqueria during the week and you’re likely to see Romo there, chatting with other customers over breakfast tacos. During Fiesta, he hands everyone he encounters a UTSA Fiesta medal.
And walk down university corridors with him and he’s likely to enthusiastically greet students by name or send an occasional compliment about a shirt color—always the school colors of vivid orange and blue—to those passing by.
Romo’s touch is personal, and that’s what makes the difference, Paredes says. “He’s an extremely gregarious, positive individual. He doesn’t get discouraged. Most of the time, when he runs into a problem like everybody does, he figures out a way to fix it. And I think that sense of optimism and promise has been contagious, both on campus and in San Antonio.”
In his pocket, Romo carries around sets of cards. On them, he writes comments he collects from students about needs on campus. One student thinks there needs to be more parking. Another student wants more staff. Yet another wants more accessible on-campus living. Everything is jotted down for consideration.
“He is a very focused individual, and he’s extremely intelligent and wise, but his demeanor is so disarming that it really takes all kinds of barriers down and you’re able to really talk to him one-on-one,” says Rodriguez.
At all times, Romo seems to listen and care, say his students.
“When I first came to college, I thought the president of the university was this kind of almighty person who didn’t associate with students, just this stereotypical CEO who has so much business that he doesn’t come out and actually talk to students,” says Christina Gomez, Student Government Association president in 2008–2009.
“So when I did meet him it was a shock that you could just talk to him about everything, and he wants to listen and tell these funny stories. He’s able to talk to you and make you feel that you’re not talking to the most important person at this university, you’re just talking to another Roadrunner,” she says.
“There’s a genuine warmth about him that attracts people,” says Jan Steger, Romo’s chief of staff. “He’s a grand leader and a legend in his own time. People follow him around—he’s like the Pied Piper. People like being inside his circle.”
Two celebrations, two milestones
As Romo celebrates his 10th year at UTSA, the university celebrates a milestone of its own. This year marks the 40th year of the university’s existence. When construction began on 600 acres just south and west of Interstate 10 and Loop 1604, the land that would become the UTSA campus was surrounded by meandering ranchland and grazing cattle. Today, it is surrounded by homes, a thriving mall, eateries, stores and a theme park.
Just as the city around it grew, UTSA itself has blossomed. The first official class held only 670 graduate students taught by 52 faculty. Today, enrollment is more than 28,400. There are 132 degree programs, including 64 bachelor’s, 47 master’s and 21 doctoral degrees.
A decade ago, Romo sat poised in his new office on the fourth floor of the John Peace Library. Asked what he hoped to achieve in his tenure at UTSA, he said his mission was to make UTSA a flagship institution for South Texas and provide access to higher education for everyone.
Today, sitting behind his desk on the top floor of the university’s five-year-old Main Building, Romo says he couldn’t have dreamed then that so much could be achieved so quickly. “A university … is a knowledge industry, and we learn from each other and we push each other and it only happens if we are prepared to engage each other,” Romo says.
“Student engagement is a key to our success. I like walking across campus at different hours of the day and seeing students engaged, sitting at tables talking to each other, sitting with a laptop in front of them trying to figure out an engineering problem. That’s what a campus should be.
“And when I see that, I then say ‘holy moly, we all have been successful.’ We are achieving something wonderful. It is happening,” he says.
Edith McAllister, a prominent San Antonio resident and university supporter, says, “Ricardo Romo has been a role model for all of us in what dedication, determination and hard work can do. He has accomplished so much. He deserves to be congratulated on the 10 wonderful years he has given to the university and the community.”
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