ORIGINALLY POSTED 10/01/2017 |
FROM THE FALL 2017 ISSUE
It’s been just days since Taylor Eighmy received the official vote to be UTSA’s sixth president when he and wife Peggy Eighmy make their first visit to campus. He’s made the trip ahead of his official start date to meet with his office’s staff and to make himself accessible to faculty and the student leadership. When the couple make time midweek for his first official university photo shoot, it becomes clear that Taylor Eighmy’s focus was greater than becoming merely a university president as a career move; he was ready to be this university’s president.
Despite the task at hand of producing a set of presidential photos, this is still an opportunity for Eighmy to exchange ideas. He checks in on plans for the university’s role in the upcoming SA300—months of celebrations that will launch in January to mark the tercentenary of San Antonio’s founding. And that inquiry leads naturally to one about the preparations for observance of UTSA’s 50th anniversary in 2019. The cursory details that he receives elicit clear approval, which he gives via a nod and a high five.
But Eighmy (which is pronounced like “Amy” if you’re still unsure) isn’t just checking in on the status of celebrations and parties. He knows these forthcoming observations will bring opportunities to highlight—and cement even more significantly—one of the driving forces behind UTSA’s success: its close ties with the people, businesses, and leaders of San Antonio. “Great cities are synonymous with great universities, and the future of public research universities is really centered around the urban-serving learning and discovery model,” Eighmy says, explaining how, in order to thrive, a public university will have to be able to tackle the grand challenges of its partner city and greater metropolitan region. The evidence for this can be seen, he says, in many of our country’s largest cities. “This can be realized here in San Antonio too,” he adds. “The foundations are in place: a strong civic leadership, a strong civic pride, a Texas can-do attitude, and shared aspirations.”
"Great cities are synonymous with great universities, and the future of public research universities is centered around urban-serving learning and discovery."
On his belief in this path for UTSA’s future, President Eighmy is authentic. Take it from the person in his life who probably knows him better than anyone else: his wife. “He is a builder and a change agent. He believes in the importance of public universities creating a healthy and prosperous future for all,” says Peggy Eighmy. “He loves the challenge and opportunity here, the growth trajectory of the university, and he knows all the ingredients are in place. He didn’t want to be just a president of a university but a president of an institution just like UTSA within a great city just like San Antonio.”
The Man for This Job
Even just a glance over the highlights of Taylor Eighmy’s résumé reveals why it wouldn’t have been difficult for the UT System Board of Regents to narrow its decision that this was the leader that UTSA needed for its future.
First, Eighmy has previously been on the faculty and administration at three public institutions within state university systems, just like UTSA. Second, he was the chief research officer at each of those three institutions, and all of them are classified as national research universities. In fact, he was the vice president for research at Texas Tech while it was pursuing its goal of Tier One status, just as UTSA is doing now. Is Eighmy ready to face that mountainous climb—all over again—considering that he knows what it entails? “The task ahead here feels exactly the same magnitude to the one I had at Texas Tech,” he says with confidence. “It seems daunting, but when you develop strategies and schedules and assemble the talent to tackle each one, it can come together.”
Behind the Scenes
To gain some insight into Taylor Eighmy the man, Sombrilla Magazine decides to give him a pop quiz
In yet another example of his past work resonating with UTSA, Eighmy’s vice chancellor role at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, included oversight of that institution’s community engagement. He is a champion of maximizing outreach efforts among an institution’s student body, which syncs perfectly with community service already being intrinsic to UTSA’s mission. He believes, though, that efforts here need to be taken even further. “I think we can reinvent our mission and vision to embrace ideas about learning for life—preparing our future students now by adopting a ‘cradle to career’ community engagement concept,” he says. “I really am intrigued about a strategic focus on this new field of research called urban science or urban dynamics and having San Antonio become our real-time civics laboratory. We have a great downtown campus for this sort of focus. It’s about turning the talent we have loose on the grand challenges we face here at home—college readiness, affordability, success, health care disparity, income disparity, sustainable society, smart communities. How does a great public, Hispanic-serving research university help catalyze the dreams and aspirations for all-around prosperity and opportunity?”
Back on Main Campus at his photo shoot, Eighmy shows he’s at ease mixing the talk of university business with lighter issues. His joviality educes smiles and laughter from the team working under the pressure of Eighmy and his wife’s tight schedule—and despite his proclamation that he’s really uncomfortable having his photo taken. Just before Peggy Eighmy has to leave for another business appointment, her husband speaks up so the room can hear him boast about how skillful she is at keeping their busy lives on track as well as managing to help them find balance for a more relaxed side of life. They share a smile and a kiss before she’s off.
Taylor Eighmy’s deft skill at balancing important business with insightful perspective—and maybe the occasional lighthearted anecdote—will come in handy in his new job. Higher education was under a microscope in Texas in this year’s state legislative session and even took a bit of a beating, particularly with operational funding shortfalls seen for some public universities. But Eighmy stresses that he’s not overly daunted about taking on his first role as a university president in this foreseeable era of belt tightening. “My prior experiences at three really fine institutions has best prepared me for this moment,” he says. “I feel I have seen and experienced the entire spectrum of resource availability. Look, all institutions face challenges. To me, it’s more about how you collectively understand the challenge, figure out solutions to overcome the challenge, and then hold yourself accountable and roll up your sleeves to tackle it.”
"The greatest strength about the opportunity here is the fact that UTSA is in this great multicultural city of San Antonio…and an emerging research university on a journey to Tier One. That is why I so much wanted to come here."
Indeed, early on, one of the challenges that Eighmy’s nomination sparked revolved around what was categorized by one state legislator as a lack of transparency in the Board of Regents’ candidate-review process. Critics stressed that as a majority-Hispanic institution in South Texas, with its historic and modern cultural roots in the Latino community, UTSA should be assured a steward who would look out for its proud stance on diversity.
Soakin' Up Culture
We ask Peggy Eighmy how she’ll be making memories, San Antonio–style, with her president husband
Eighmy points out, though, that this was one of the primary reasons he was drawn to UTSA. “The greatest strength about the opportunity here,” he explains, “is the fact that UTSA is here in this great multicultural city of San Antonio. And it is a Hispanic-serving institution and an emerging research university on a journey to Tier One. That is why I wanted so much to come here. Everyone here, regardless of background, has pride in and wants UTSA to succeed. I return to this notion that great public universities have a foundational—perhaps even moral—obligation to work with their partner community to ensure educational advancement and attainment of prosperity for all the people of our community. The elegance here is that the university and the community are so intertwined. There are certainly significant challenges around access, student success, affordability, and figuring out how our institution can help with this ‘cradle to career’ concept I mentioned earlier. I personally want to own this focus because it is intrinsic to the journey we will be on.”
Additionally, as Eighmy highlighted earlier, San Antonio is a city known for its tech-related industry. It’s simply a fact that some of the companies that dominate the U.S. economy today are in the tech and cyber fields, so it’s easy to understand why a university that garners much of its glory in the STEM-related fields, like UTSA, would want to keep the focus on that fact. But at UTSA the College of Liberal and Fine Arts is the academic unit that’s home to the largest proportion of students.
"I think we can reinvent our mission and vision to embrace ideas about learning for life—preparing our future students now."
Eighmy stresses, though, that there’s no disjunction for the university at all on this front. Rather, he highlights how it’s actually an asset. “The best universities focus on excellence across disciplines,” he explains. “The greatest strengths of a university are when you bring many disciplines together to tackle grand challenges from new perspectives. The ability to foster how to think, how to have your own ‘I get it!’ personal lightbulb go off in your head, how to communicate your ideas, and how to work in teams—these are all independent of discipline. If every student at UTSA has these skills—and the opportunities they’ll make for themselves by having them—then we are doing our jobs!”
Vision, Discovery, the Future
Eighmy has been quite prolific in his endeavors throughout his career as a civil engineer at major research universities, or “discovery enterprises,” as he regularly describes them. So it’s not really a surprise that he is successful in garnering research funding for projects he’s been attached to, to the extent of tens of millions of dollars. But rather humbly, he says, “I have had the pleasure in all the places I have worked to develop strategic partnerships around the discovery enterprise that anchors knowledge ecosystems.”
He’s not taking his past success for granted, though, when contemplating how he might help boost the success of UTSA in gaining research dollars. “I think the question might be better framed this way: How can UTSA,” he elaborates, “work with the U.S. Department of Defense presence here? Or with UT Health San Antonio, the Southwest Research Institute, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, the corporate and foundation communities, our city and county government, and our friends in the legislature and elsewhere to create our own unique knowledge economies?”
"The city—and Texas—is a partner-rich environment, and strategic partnerships will be essential for UTSA’s progress forward."
By creating these types of research alliances, Eighmy explains, it’s like creating a big magnet that attracts the best talent, resources, and investment that in return go back into the ecosystem. “The best examples I have seen,” he says, “are these knowledge economies that are big enough to be the magnet I describe. I’ve seen these in action around biomedicine, wind energy, data science, and advanced manufacturing. San Antonio has many potential sweet spots. The city—and Texas—is a partner-rich environment, and strategic partnerships will be essential for UTSA’s progress forward.”
As Eighmy’s photo session wraps up, not just progress but success is easily the theme of the day. It almost feels like a feat of wizardry for the photography, videography, and editorial teams who worked around each other in the small studio and the summer heat to successfully capture this moment of ushering in a new president. And the mention of wizardry hits home for Eighmy, who begins to talk of his beloved trio of dogs, some of whom are named after Harry Potter characters [see “Behind the Scenes”], and his fondness for the tales of the fictional child wizard. Harry Potter and dogs? Once again, Eighmy has the full attention of everyone in the room. And it brings about a sense of confidence that, for UTSA’s benefit, the new president will be accomplishing that feat over and over.