Ceremonial Address

19th President of Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Dr. Steven H. Tallant

February 20, 2009
Jones Auditorium

Representative Rios-Ybarra, Chancellor McKinney, members of the Board of Regents of The Texas A&M University System and distinguished guests.  

Good afternoon and welcome to Texas A&M University-Kingsville. As you know, this university has a rich legacy of teaching, research and service to South Texas and beyond, and I am extremely honored and excited to be the 19th president and to lead Texas A&M-Kingsville in its next chapter. While the chapter is not yet written, I do have a well developed outline that I will share with you today.

Karen and I joined the campus – and the community – in October, and we immediately felt welcomed and accepted. We’ve moved many times throughout our lives, and I can honestly say that we’ve never felt a part of a community so quickly. We came to Texas A&M-Kingsville and to South Texas because we felt this campus and community were a good match for us, and we have not been disappointed. Today, I can say without hesitation that we’ve come to the right place at the right time.

Texas A&M University-Kingsville is a very special place. Against all odds and against a great deal of competition, Kingsville fought for and won legislative approval for this university in the early 1900s. From there, the faculty, staff and community built this university into what it is today – a comprehensive, research intensive institution that has graduated about 62,000 students.

Our early faculty, staff and students built facilities and programs from the ground up – and some of these have grown into our most well-known and successful academic and research programs. Dr. Frank Dotterweich is remembered for creating our natural gas engineering program. Dr. Mario Benítez and Dr. Manuel Pacheco started our doctoral program in bilingual education – the first program of its kind in the nation. Dr. Richard Hensz developed two varieties of grapefruit at our Citrus Center in Weslaco, and Dr. Charles DeYoung was the first director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. Dr. John Perez began a research program more than 30 years ago that has grown into our internationally known Natural Toxins Research Center.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the people who helped shape this university and who made it successful, and there are many others -- including the four former presidents who join me on this stage today -- who have played pivotal roles in the growth and development of this university. I am very fortunate to follow in the footsteps of these Javelina pioneers. They saw needs in the community – needs in our nation and in our world – and they capitalized on them for the betterment of our students and South Texas. They saw opportunities and seized upon them – and today, we are better and stronger because they did.

However, we cannot be content to simply rest on our laurels. We must continue to grow and become better and stronger. We must move this university forward and ensure its relevance in an unsteady economy and a rapidly changing educational landscape.

My vision for Texas A&M University-Kingsville is to make it the premier university in South Texas. I took this job because I recognized the incredible legacy of this university, and I also the recognized the great potential that is here. Today, I stand ready to join our Javelina pioneers – and you – as we embark on what I truly believe is Texas A&M University-Kingsville’s next “Moment of Opportunity.”

Why is this “Our Moment of Opportunity?” First, the need for an educated workforce has never been greater.  For the past 200 years, labor and capital have been the two factors that have produced the wealth in this country.  However, all that is changing.  Today, we have entered into a knowledge-based economy where technology and knowledge are quickly becoming the primary wealth-creating assets.  Societies that know how to create knowledge, that know how to apply knowledge to solve problems and know how to transfer knowledge between individuals will accumulate wealth.  Fortunately, we do all three of these things right here at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.  We create knowledge through basic research.  We solve problems through applied research and we transfer knowledge by teaching on a daily basis.  Simply put, we are in the right business at the right time.  We are poised to prepare the next generation of great American leaders.  We are ready for that opportunity.

Second, we have a growing population base in South Texas. While statistics predict a decline in the number of high school graduates across the nation for the next seven years, the high school population in Texas is expected to grow. This is especially true for South Texas. This growing student population is right in our backyard. We capitalized on just this type of opportunity at the beginning of our history, and we can do it again – right now. This is “Our Moment of Opportunity” to recruit, retain and graduate a growing population of students.

Third, we have a university community that is bursting with energy and ideas and ready to move forward. Our Javelina pioneers laid a solid foundation for us, so we have a strong tradition of academic and research excellence that can grow even stronger. At our Citrus Center in Weslaco, researchers await a patent on yet another variety of grapefruit. This will be the third variety developed at the Citrus Center. Here in Kingsville, we offer a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences – and we’re one of only five universities to have this degree. We are one of two universities in Texas to offer architectural engineering, and we offer a unique master’s degree in ranch management. New opportunities exist, and we are capitalizing on them right now.

One definition of opportunity says that it is a juncture of favorable circumstances – and that definition certainly applies to Texas A&M University-Kingsville. I have never lived in a community that demonstrates more support for its local university. From King Ranch, to local businesses, to the Kingsville Economic Development Council, to the Naval Air Station, the City of Kingsville and Kleberg County officials – and to the folks I meet and talk to every day – everyone supports this university and wants to be a partner in our success.

That’s a unique situation and one this university has enjoyed from its inception. The first building constructed on this campus was the President’s Home, and we received $10,000 from the Texas Legislature to build it. The City of Kingsville was so eager to attract the very best president that it gave an additional $5,000 toward the home’s construction. The city also agreed to provide free utilities for the home – and that worked out very well. Mr. Mayor – I believe we may need to revisit that policy!

Finally, we also have support from The Texas A&M University System, our Chancellor and our Board of Regents. Look across the campus. We have more than $80 million in construction and renovation projects going on to improve our campus. That is a direct result of the support of Chancellor McKinney and the Board of Regents – and it has helped bring us to this “Moment of Opportunity.”

So, I’ve outlined the many opportunities that exist for Texas A&M University-Kingsville to become the premier institution in South Texas. While there are a variety of opportunities for us, we are not without challenges.

I see three main challenges ahead: recruiting students, retaining them and graduating them in a timely manner. We must do these three things in the face of increasing competition from other universities.

The competition is here, and they want our students. Therefore, we don’t have any other choice but to seize upon our opportunities and move forward. If we don’t, the competition will take over and swallow us. This will happen despite our legacy in South Texas – regardless of our 62,000 graduates, our groundbreaking academic programs, our research results, and our success on the athletic fields.

So, we need to focus on recruitment and retention. These are complex and interrelated processes, and we’ve already begun to address them. We know that several factors are important in attracting students to our campus, and academic programs are the main reason students choose a college. To be competitive, we must continuously develop cutting edge majors and programs – and that’s something we have a history of doing. Just as important as developing new programs, we must have the courage to cut programs that are no longer relevant and that don’t meet the needs of our students.

But it is more than just what we offer or do not offer.  It is about how we go about the business of teaching.  More than anything, we know that students want to learn and want to be engaged.  They want to be challenged.  In many ways, that is the mark of a quality education; student engagement is what makes a premier university.
To become a premier university, we must create a learning environment that challenges our students both inside and outside the classroom on a daily basis.  A quality educational experience teaches students how to apply the knowledge they are gaining and how to become critical thinkers. 

If I can leave just one legacy as 19th president of Texas A&M-Kingsville, it will be to create an environment in which our students leave this university as critical thinkers. Why?  Because critical thinkers learn how to solve problems.  In turn, good problem solvers learn how to make good decisions.  And finally, good decision makers learn how to make good choices.  And making good choices, both professionally and personally, is the key to success.  Life is about making the right choices.  We must challenge and teach our students how to become critical thinkers. 

The second most important factor in attracting students is the physical appearance of the campus. In fact, the Society for College and University Planning says that 62 percent of students decide whether or not to enroll based on a college’s physical appearance – and they decide that within the first fifteen minutes of their visit. That’s an astounding finding, and we are going to pay attention to it.

We have to look at the campus through new eyes – through the eyes of prospective students and parents – and respond to their impressions and needs.
This process has already begun. We are in the midst of a campus beautification project that will add and improve signage and lighting on campus. We are adding to our existing landscaping and taking steps to care for our facilities and grounds. 

Students also look at housing and the quality of life on campus, and we’ve begun to address that with the construction of a new residence hall and a new recreation center.

Later this spring, we will break ground on a new facility for our Citrus Center in Weslaco. We also completely renovated Rhode Hall, one of our academic buildings. Almost everywhere you look, there is action and movement on this campus. This is “Our Moment of Opportunity,” and we are not going to let it slip by quietly.
Our pride in past accomplishments is well-deserved and should never be forgotten, but we can’t afford to live in the past. The world has changed. Students have changed. Universities have changed in response to the world around them … and in response to the needs of their students. If Texas A&M University-Kingsville is going to be relevant in the future – if we are going to compete and survive -- we will have to change, too.

That doesn’t mean that we are throwing away our heritage or discounting all of our past achievements. In fact, it means that we are honoring those who came before us. We are capturing the same pioneering spirit that brought them here and inspired them to create unique and relevant programs in response to the needs of this region – and to the needs of the nation.

Now is the time to build upon their legacy. Now is the time to look at the world around us and work together to build programs that address the needs before us. Now is the time to look at our students … and our campus … and create an environment that stimulates and nurtures them. We need a campus community that inspires them to be the next generation of Javelina pioneers.

Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I think he was right. This is “Our Moment of Opportunity,” and it will take a lot of work to capitalize upon it. We will not be among those who miss out on an opportunity.

So, together, we will put on our overalls, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily or is handed to us. But in the end, I promise you that the results will benefit every citizen of South Texas. It will be my honor to work with you in this our great “Moment of Opportunity.”