The University of North Texas joined 19 other Tier One universities to attract more Hispanic students into graduate programs.
But the newly formed Alliance for Hispanic Serving Research Universities has another goal of equal importance: to have graduates of those universities hired onto member schools’ faculties.
UNT and the alliance mean to hit these marks by 2030 — just eight years from now.
UNT President Neal Smatresk and UNT Vice President for Research and Innovation Pam Padilla said the alliance shows the member schools’ commitment to diversity where the rubber meets the road — in competitive doctoral programs and among faculty seats. They represent UNT in the initiative to double the enrollment of Hispanic students in graduate programs and increase the number of Hispanic faculty by 20%.
Smatresk said it was another university president at a college with a large Hispanic-serving Tier One university who motivated the presidents at the schools who had been talking to set an agenda.
“Michael Amiridis, who’s now the president at University of South Carolina, said, ‘Well, why don’t we do this thing?’” Smatresk said. “And so we gather all 16 of the institutions at that time, put it together, got a little grant from Carnegie Mellon to begin moving people into Ph.D.s. Things started to take off from there.”
Smatresk said the member schools are dedicated to meeting 21st-century students, even though many of the students they would like to recruit might not consider college a possibility, much less graduate school or a vocation in academia.
“We know that our professors, their demographics don’t match our students’ demographic models,” Smatresk said. “We want to make sure that students have a level of comfort in a Hispanic-serving institution. We think it’s important that we have faculty who can kind of relate the culture, as well as to the students, and serve as role models.”
The new coalition is as much about upward mobility in the workplace as it is the upward mobility in higher education.
“Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States and are now 17% of the workforce, yet they continue to be underrepresented in higher education. No group is better positioned than we are to expand the pathway to opportunity,” said Heather Wilson, president of the University of Texas at El Paso and chair of the new alliance. “We believe we are stronger together than as individual institutions acting alone.”
The alliance could bring funding to the member schools, given the appreciation funders have for coalitions.
“We feel that, as the 20 Tier One institutions that are all Hispanic-serving institutions, that we serve a huge slice of the population,” Smatresk said. “By banding together, we may be able to gain the attention of funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education, or even federal legislators who are attempting to support diversification of university professors. So we will work in all those angles, as well as right now kind of self-funding our efforts.”
Padilla, who has worked for the university as a professor and an administrator, said UNT leadership has included herself and other Hispanic faculty members in conversations about recruiting more Hispanic graduate students and faculty over the last decade. Padilla, who has worked as a liaison between the alliance and UNT, said UNT takes its role as a research school with a vision for the future seriously.
Time and again, Padilla said, universities find that representation matters — especially for students who are from underserved populations.
“One of the things we know is important for student access is for students to be able to see faculty members that are professors that they can relate to, that look like them — and that maybe have shared experiences at some point,” Padilla said. “And so that helps with retention and recruitment, also, within the university.”
Padilla is also the president of the Society for the Advancement for Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, a nationwide group that promotes STEM studies in Hispanic and Indigenous communities and mentors Hispanic and Indigenous students pursuing science degrees at colleges and universities. Padilla launched the UNT chapter herself.
“There are studies that show that that if you see a role model and if you have someone who sort of looks like you, or has shared experiences with you, especially in those young formative ages, then it’s likely that they can see themselves within that field,” Padilla said. “So if you see someone who’s a chemist, a Black woman who’s a chemist, then it’s more likely that a young girl who has the same sort of demographics says, ‘I can be a chemist,’ and it doesn’t look like something that’s so daunting.”
Padilla said leaders can have unconscious blinders on when they consider their own institutions. They can focus on administration and faculty to the detriment of students, who look much more like the rest of the country than those with the keys to the academy.
“Our students show what the demographics of the nation are and what the students are thinking and what’s important to them,” Padilla said. “Even if we’re not of the same generation, I think we have a responsibility to understand that. When I say ‘we,’ I mean me as a faculty member, as an administrator or vice president. I want to be able to make sure I’m thinking about the students and be very student-centric.”