UNT Chancellor Lesa Roe: From a Florida Cornfield to Outer Space

By Dave Moore, Staff Writer

A crowd of about 300 gathered at the DRC’s State of Higher Education Luncheon, where they heard University of North Texas System Chancellor Lesa Roe describe her experience growing up as a first-generation college graduate, and the parallels between her former career as an electrical engineer at NASA and higher education.

“My mom was a switchboard operator,” said Roe, who took the helm at the UNT System last fall, overseeing the system’s operations, including its 10,000 employees. “My dad was in the military, and when he got out, he worked on airplanes and was a groundskeeper at a Veterans’ Administration hospital. I worked for as long as I can remember, pulling corn in my grandfather’s field in hot Florida – lord if that’s not a motivator – and PawPaw didn’t pay.”

In speaking to a sellout ballroom at the Westin Galleria, Roe said her father encouraged her to pursue a degree. Her mother, however, discouraged her from pursing higher education because she didn’t want her to be disappointed.

“I take that lesson with me today, because sometimes, your culture is so thick, so pervasive, that you don’t believe that you can get out of it,” Roe said. “You think that people who succeed are special, and you’re not. And you’re afraid to step out of the box, until you step out of it. The big part of me talking to all of you today, is to let our kids know that here in Dallas-Fort Worth, that they can step out of [the box]; they can create a new story for themselves.”

Roe said her story strongly applies to the lower economic population in Dallas County, to whom higher education might seem a distant dream.

“I also know what it’s like to have people tell you that you can’t, and what it’s like to decide for yourself,” she said. “If you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right. So for me, never define yourself as a victim, prove them wrong and keep moving. My college education equipped me for this.”

Roe, who worked for 30 years at NASA and helped create the International Space Station, said there are many commonalities between higher education and space exploration.

“The bulk of my professional experience has been in aeronautics and space, but I’m now applying that knowledge to higher education,” she said. “While my new colleagues might feel I’ve landed in this industry from another planet, there really are commonalities.”

Among them:

  • “We are both facing changes and disruptive forces, and are embracing them. We face opportunities with automation, with jobs for the future, and are factoring them into our missions.”
  • “We’re strong in collaborations. NASA’s lifeblood is collaborations with companies, and communities, and other government agencies and international partners, and universities and K-12, and our partners are pretty much the same in higher education.”
  • “If you’re not solving problems, you’re not leading.”
  • “We’re both about learning and asking questions. Both take your breath away when they’re successful. NASA’s missions are mind-blowing. And our students’ success-stories are heart-warming.”
  • “NASA is asking civilization-changing questions – ‘are we alone?’; and higher education is preparing current and future figures.”
  • “We’re also changing student lives and changing lives through innovation. All to make the world a better place.”

Following Roe’s address, The Dallas Morning News business columnist Cheryl Hall moderated a roundtable discussion with UT-Dallas President Dr. Richard Benson, Dallas County Community College District Chancellor Dr. Joe May and Texas Rep. John Zerwas. The discussion primarily addressed the origins of those institutions of higher education, and the challenges and successes they’ve experienced.

“One of the biggest challenges is, how are we going to achieve our goal of 60 by 30 – getting 60 percent of the population some sort of post-secondary credential by 2030?” asked May, referring to the state’s higher education plan that aims to educate more than half a million individuals – ages 25-34 – with a certificate or degree by 2030.

“We’ve got to grow the degrees by 40,000,” he said. “How do we get people in the door, and how do we get people out, not just with any degree, but aligned with the job market, in the North Texas area? That means reaching deeper into the (population) pool.”

In discussing DCCCD’s origins and track record, May said his district is comprised of 14 instructional locations that serve 165,000 students per year, through credit and non-credit. He added that non-credit student enrollment has increased by 16,000. In 53 years, the district has educated more than 3 million students, May said.

Benson said one of the biggest challenges facing UTD is managing growth to keep up with the Dallas Region’s growing economy.

“This area is booming,” he said. “Seems like there’s always another company moving to the metroplex. Growth is difficult. We’ve probably doubled the student body in the last 14 or 15 years. That comes with substantial infrastructure needs.”

Along those lines, Benson said, one state initiative that’s helped his university, as well as the University of Texas-Arlington and the University of North Texas, is the Texas Research Incentive Program (TRIP).

“TRIP… has been a wonderful program,” he said. “If our universities can attract philanthropic investment and research, the state was willing to put in a match, up to one-to-one.”

The initiative, launched by former State Rep. Dan Branch, has led to roughly $80 million in additional state funding, matching the $100 million UTD has attracted, Benson said. That program, however, has taken a hit, due to budget constraints.

“Right now, our university has about $32 million in the queue, and we’d like to have $32 million, in the next session,” said Benson, directing his comment to Rep. Zerwas, who chairs the Texas House Appropriations Committee.

In reply, Zerwas said, “Higher education is oftentimes that pot of money we go to when we don’t have enough money. The research fund that Dr. Benson mentioned is just that. I said, ‘mea culpa’ on that. I and my counterpart, Sen. Nelson, though, didn’t want to do that. But we were faced with a flat budget. No new money.”

Zerwas said the state’s budget faces growing expenses from Medicaid, and Health and Human Services, which are approaching expenditure levels of public education.

“We put together a budget that’s balanced,” he said. “We can’t print the money like they do in Washington.”

Zerwas acknowledged that the state’s future rests in educating its population.

“We’re a state that has been described as a ‘Texas Miracle,’” he said. “We have a lot of oil and gas. And we have a strong dependency on it, and we’ve done well. But we’ve got to recognize that what the future holds for the state is the resource of its educated workforce. That’s what’s going to attract people to build their businesses and to raise their families.”

The 2018 State of Higher Education was presented by UNT System. Silver sponsors were Microsoft Corporation, The University of Texas at Arlington and The University of Texas at Dallas.