Vanessa Beasley took the ceremonial mace and presidential medallion at Trinity University on Saturday, six months after starting at the university and almost a decade after she and her son toured the campus, curious and impressed at the time by the way the faculty engaged with students.

The attention to excellence in both student experience and research stood out to her, and called her back when a search firm approached her about the job later, she said. 

Beasley, Trinity’s 20th president following Danny Anderson, has high hopes for the university of about 2,500 undergraduates and 180 graduate students. Among her goals is ensuring education for everyone and enhancing the university’s model of learning.

Trinity was recently reclassified as a National Liberal Arts Institution, reflecting the mission of the 154-year-old institution. The move shifts its ranking category in the influential, yet controversial, U.S. News and World Report from a regional college, where it was ranked No. 1 in the West for 29 out of the last 30 years, to a national ranking, now positioned for the first time at 55. 

That, Beasley said, is a number of which to be proud.

“There are well over 200 of these other universities that are in our category,” she said. “So, that basically tells you we are in the top third quartile. The trajectory is important to us.”

Beyond the number, Beasley sees the ranking as an opportunity to learn from other leading institutions nationally. 

Defying the odds

Leading a top national university was once a distant thought for Beasley, who attended Vanderbilt University as a first-generation college student in the 1980s with little idea what she was doing. 

“I showed up at Vanderbilt as an undergraduate and had no idea that your parents were supposed to bring you to college,” she said. “That’s not how we did it. My mother found a way for me to get there and I got dropped off.” 

Following a difficult first semester, an interest in political communication sparked her passion and she excelled. After her undergraduate program, she was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin and began her career as a professor at Texas A&M.

That, too, defied the odds at the time, something Beasley continued to do on her way to becoming Trinity’s first female president.

“I am of a certain age that when I was an assistant professor trying to get tenure, it was still pretty unusual … on the tenure track for a woman to have children,” she said. “I had a deep awareness, particularly in those times in my life when I was starting and raising a family with my partner, and my husband, who was very committed to my success and very involved in our family, also on his own career trajectory, that nobody’s telling the men in my cohort and academia that they should not have kids until after they get tenure. They’re not getting that message, but I’m getting that message.”

Trinity University President Vanessa Beasley, right, tests zippers for jackets that are being donated through the Assistance League of San Antonio to Title 1 schools.
Trinity University President Vanessa Beasley, right, tests zippers for jackets donated to Title 1 schools through the Assistance League of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Despite being keenly aware of that advice, Beasley said she simply disregarded it, having two children, Adam and Charlie. The culture has started to shift, Beasley said, and she has hope for young women moving their way up through academia now.

After starting her career at Texas A&M, she went on to teach at the University of Georgia and Southern Methodist University before returning to Vanderbilt in 2007, where she served as a faculty member, administrator and vice provost. 

Those experiences shaped Beasley’s worldview. She said ensuring access to education for everyone, including first-generation students, is a key priority for her as she steps into the presidency. 

The university has already begun making inroads with local schools, including a partnership started in 2020 with the San Antonio Independent School District. 

Through the partnership, top graduating seniors within SAISD are provided financial resources and academic support to navigate the higher education process. The university committed in 2020 to develop programs and activities that will support SAISD graduates in their efforts to complete higher education goals and in turn address college persistence and completion challenges. 

“I’m interested in making sure that San Antonio and South Texas … knows that … this education is for them,” she said. “I know there are capacious students, particularly in the first-generation category, whose families may not have thought about them going to college, and I want them to know this is for them.” 

About 15% of Trinity students are from San Antonio, according to the university’s website, the highest amount in the last five years, and the college is receiving more applicants from Texas every year, Beasley said. 

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Jaime Aquino said in a statement that he is looking forward to working with the new leader to build on the partnership.

The Trinity model

Beasley said something she is committed to honing and expanding is the unique model of learning at Trinity, which puts equal emphasis on research and student experience.

“Many schools have faculty that are good at one or the other of those things,” she said. “But I’ve always personally held myself to a standard of being excellent at both. That’s the standard here, and it’s remarkable.”

Professors continue to innovate, discover and write in their fields, while teaching and allowing students to take part, Beasley said

“It’s a differentiator for us in the best possible way,” she said. “Because the STEM departments we have here can say to students, sometimes as soon as their first year, ‘Hey, do you want to come figure out what it’s like to work in a lab? Come on, work in my lab or work on research with me.’” 

Trinity University President Vanessa Beasley stands for a photo during inauguration week for incoming Trinity University President Vanessa Beasley.
Trinity University President Vanessa Beasley says she is committed to putting equal emphasis on research and student experience. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Many other schools limit research to graduate students, she added. 

At the same time, STEM students are learning so-called “soft skills,” such as how to effectively communicate, setting them up for higher rates of career success, Beasley said. 

That model is paying off. 

According to a survey of 2021 graduates shared by the university, 98% of the class was employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation. 

“We’re really proud of the fact that that’s what STEM education looks like here,” she said.

During the week of celebration leading to her investiture, Beasley joined 200 volunteers in a day of service, putting together supply kits for people experiencing homelessness.

“I know that … we sit on a hill and have a beautiful view, but it’s not the Trinity community and the San Antonio community, it’s one community,” she said. “So the service is meant to demonstrate that sentiment and demonstrate our belief that we have that this is one community and Trinity wants to be engaged with it.”