University of Texas at San Antonio Interim President Pedro Reyes’ agenda for the university can be summed up in two words: student success.

The Rio Grande Valley native, son of agricultural workers with third-grade education, has risen through the echelons of academia to serve as the Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas System, and as special assistant to UT System Chancellor William H. McRaven.

If he has his way, many who share his background will follow in his footsteps and forge other ambitious pathways into the future.

Right now, only about 18% of UTSA students complete degrees in four years. In 2006, the UT System set a goal of 80% four-year graduation rate system-wide. If “the quest for Tier One” has defined UTSA’s recent goals, “from 18 to 80” is the mission under Reyes.

Throughout his career Reyes has returned to his roots in research and leadership. He played the primary role in founding the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, including its medical school. His research on student success, particularly children in poverty, has been published in scholarly journals, and he has written three books on the subject. His current research with Los Alamos National Lab focuses on key transition periods in a student’s career – from 5th to 6th grade, for instance – and the influences that may lead to success. He asks not “what went wrong?” but rather “what went right?” Those are the things we need to capture, Reyes said.

He looks back on what went right in his own life. His parents taught him integrity, hard work, and respecting people “for who they are, not what they have.” He started work in a grocery store at age 10, bringing home a dollar or two each day and a sack of french bread from the bakery.

When a high school counselor told him he wasn’t college material, Reyes looked to the leadership of President John F. Kennedy, whose ambition to put a man on the moon inspired Reyes to do what others thought was impossible.

He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in only two and a half years with a degree in Latin American History and Education, and went on to earn his doctorate in Education Policy and Administration there. Today, Reyes hopes that high school counselor has since heard of his success and reconsidered her assessment of students like him.

Reyes then joined the UT Austin faculty in 1991 and was named the Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Planning and Assessment for the UT System in 2003, and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs in 2012. He rejoined the faculty in 2016 as the Ashbel Smith Professor in Education Policy in the Department of Educational Administration. A fellow with the National Academy of Education, Reyes has also received the Distinguished Faculty Award from the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education.

Reyes is a self-proclaimed pragmatist when it comes to getting results. He’s not letting the “interim” in his title get in the way, either.

In the days following the sudden departure of Ricardo Romo, the university’s longest-serving president, Reyes refused to waste a day on politics or placating. He admires the progress the university has made in research, particularly in biosciences and technology. Now, Reyes said, it’s time to marry that progress to expanded student success.

The UTSA main campus on the city's Northside.
Students at UTSA’s Main Campus in the city’s Northwest side. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

This will require as much innovation and aspiration as any other endeavor, Reyes said.

“We’ve got to think about new approaches to make sure we do whatever we can to facilitate the success of our students in higher education.”

The path Reyes envisions is informed by his research. He wants to see a holistic process, by which student data is processed across all departments, including student aid, academics, athletics, and anywhere else information is gathered. Analysis of this data could allow the university to predict key factors that might stand between that student and graduation. For instance, students supporting families might be contacted more regularly by financial advisors who can help them access the sometimes relatively menial sums that can lead to missed classes, dropped courses, and delayed graduation. A professor could see which of her students might not have unlimited access to technology when assigning research projects, and make sure to offer extra time or other resources.

The goal, Reyes said, is to involve as many students as possible in the bright future of UTSA. As the university increases partnerships with private companies and institutions like UT Health, the key research areas of UTSA will only get stronger.

Now, he said, also is the time to expand attention to the humanities and performing arts.

“I’ve never seen a great university that does not have great performing arts and humanities,” Reyes said.

An active performing arts program is another way for the university to strengthen connections with the community that supports it. San Antonio has voiced strong support and concern for the future of UTSA, and Reyes sees that investment as one of UTSA’s great assets. “[The community concern] says a lot about the future of this place,” he said.

The search for a new president was extended in April, and many expect an announcement of finalists in the near future. While McRaven and the UT System drew the ire of many for the long periods of silence surrounding Romo’s being placed on leave and his eventual departure, Reyes wants to assure the community that everyone involved with the leadership search has San Antonio’s best in mind. Reyes himself has taken a special interest in San Antonio, as he sees it as a microcosm of the future of the United States.

As the demographics of the country shift, many warn of a perilous economic and social future if minority groups are not brought into higher education and the professional workforce. UTSA is the first and best place Reyes sees to raise the bar on student success.

“If we cannot do this right here, then the rest of the country will not be able to do so,” Reyes said. “This city deserves a great institution.”

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.