Welcome to the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso. This university has achieved something truly important. Over the past decades, we have built a new model of a public university, based on the principles of access and excellence. Access means that we invite people of all ages and backgrounds to become students at UTEP, but especially first-generation students from lower-income family backgrounds. If successful, the profile of our student body should reflect the social, economic, and ethnic profile of the population we serve. Excellence means that we provide a meaningful education, with new kinds of experiences that go beyond the classroom and into the world, so that our graduates are not only well-rounded but also well-grounded.
Many people have said that a university cannot achieve both of these objectives. The “great” universities of the world, for example, strive for a form of “excellence” that is actually elitist. They cherry pick the most famous scholars to join their faculties and seek students with the highest grade point averages and high test scores, which often means they come from the “right family backgrounds.”
At UTEP, we take a different approach. We see first-generation students, or students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds as assets. They have grounded experiences that young people from advantaged backgrounds do not often have. You can teach writing or math but you cannot teach grounded experience in the real world.
By encouraging students to engage in the various activities associated with the UTEP EDGE, especially study abroad or community outreach, we can bring together groups of diverse students who can learn from each other. In El Paso/Juarez, we are especially advantaged since we live in a diverse community that has a fascinating history and culture, and interesting social problems. By bringing faculty and students together, and getting them out of the classroom, we can help our students and our faculty learn how to make a real difference in the world.
So can we do both of these things: access and excellence?
We have shown that we can.
According to a study by the Brookings Institution (https://www.brookings.edu/research/ladders-labs-or-laggards-which-public-universities-contribute-most/), UTEP leads the country by far in the share of students who come from families with incomes in the lowest 20 percent. 28% of our students come from that category and the university with the next best ranking has merely 18% from that quintile. This means that we do far better than any public research university in the country in providing students with a chance to move upward in terms of income and employment opportunities.
So much for access. But we have also proven our excellence in every aspect of our work as a university. We are second among our peer institutions in Texas in terms of the federal research grants that we earn. Most impressively, UTEP has received the prestigious R1 designation (top tier doctoral university with very high research activity) in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/lookup/srp.php?clq=%7B%22basic2005_ids%22%3A%2215%22%7D&start_page=standard.php). UTEP is one of only 130 (4.5%) top tier universities among the 2,883 four-year higher education institutions across the U.S. to earn this prestigious R1 distinction, joining the ranks of such universities as Stanford, M.I.T., Michigan, Arizona and California-Berkeley.
Within this context, Liberal Arts is the heart of the university. With some 7,000 students, we are the largest College on campus. But we are also one of the greatest engines of upward mobility for our students. Study after study has shown that employers, more than anything, seek graduates with strong cognitive skills like logic and reasoning. And the places where these skills are produced most are in the liberal arts: psychology, sociology, history, English, music, and theater (for a complete list of our offerings in Liberal Arts go here). Of course, those of us who have spent our lives in liberal arts have done so mainly because we find our work and our studies to be meaningful and to have an impact in the world. Yet it is an added bonus that a Liberal Arts education is among the best routes to finding good and interesting employment.
I believe UTEP is unique in the world in its achievements to promoting social equality and excellence in education at the university level. And we get to live in one of the most beautiful, mildest (climate-wise), and interesting places in the country: El Paso/Juarez. Yet we do not intend to stop here. We will strive to continue our programs in the College of Liberal Arts and, especially to increase our opportunities to reach out into the communities on both sides of the border, to make access and excellence a two-way street between the university and the community.
Denis O’Hearn, Dean of Liberal Arts