UTEP Hosts Texas Tribune Symposium

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

“El Paso always turns out,” said Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith during his opening remarks for the digital news organization’s daylong symposium on demographic change at The University of Texas at El Paso’s campus on Feb. 27.

On the Road: A Symposium on Demographic Change was put together to examine the effect of rapid demographic change in Texas; specifically, how population shifts, both current and future, will impact public policy decisions and the political landscape of the fast-growing state.

Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, left, moderates a panel discussion with University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Harold Hahn, chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service
Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith, left, moderates a panel discussion with University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and Harold Hahn, chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

UTEP hosted the symposium in its Tomás Rivera Conference Center, which was filled nearly to capacity with more than 400 attendees.

University President Diana Natalicio welcomed the crowd of academics, legislators, students and other local community members before introducing Smith.

Smith, who was the editor of Texas Monthly before taking the reins of the news startup in 2009, highlighted the committed partnership between UTEP and the Texas Tribune, which goes back to when the organization chose UTEP to present its first campus forum for constituents to interact with elected officials from their districts.

Clarifying why the particular subject of demographics had been selected for the symposium, Smith said, “There is no more important thing that we as a state need to be focusing on. It impacts every area of life in Texas.”

The day’s first presenter, Steve Murdock, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Rice University, was introduced by Smith as “the Fonzie of demographics … the only person I know who can make charts and graphs and statistics and trends cool.” Murdock’s presentation was officially titled “Will Boom Go Bust? Demographics is Destiny.”

Murdock displayed a broad range of statistics covering the spectrum of socioeconomics. The former state demographer and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau provided not just an overview of how ethnic, particularly Hispanic, populations have fared over the past decade, but also projections of where Texas is going as a state and a country. He stressed that ethnic and racial change matters due to its direct tie to socioeconomics.

When it comes to the future of the United States, Murdock listed numbers proving that “if it had not been for the growth and the number of Hispanic children we would have had one of the largest declines in the child population of the United States in its history.” In 2060, the only majority group of non-Hispanic whites will be over 60 years of age.

Murdock’s statistics about education spotlighted an alarming number of Texans who do not finish high school nor enter or finish college, which has a negative impact on social infrastructure.

“We’ve got to get more of these kids into the pipeline and into school,” Murdock said.

The day’s first panel discussion, “Changing Populations, Changing Politics,” featured State Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso), State Representative Mary González (D-Clint), former State Rep. Dee Margo (R-El Paso), and George Atuna, co-founder of Hispanic Republicans of Texas.

The impassioned participants argued their parties’ advocacy for populations like El Paso’s, then took questions from eager audience members who lined up to ask about political transparency, education and economics.

The panel before lunch, titled  “Health Care and the New Texas,” featured panelists Kyle Janek, commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services; State Rep. Marisa Márquez (D-El Paso); El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar; and Eric Evans, CEO of the Sierra Providence Health Network. Even a discussion focusing on health care issues came back to education, with each panelist touching in turn on the fact that when people receive a better, more complete education, they will secure good jobs that provide them access to insurance and preventive care, thus reducing costs all around.

Associate Professor of Communication Stacey Sowards, Ph.D., was excited the event was being held at UTEP.

“It’s really important for [the Texas Tribune] to be in El Paso to understand the demographics that we’re faced with, to actually meet people on our campus, and meet people in our community because they cover the state of Texas and don’t get out here as easily as they might to Dallas or Austin or San Antonio,” Sowards said.

President Natalicio took the stage for a one-on-one lunchtime conversation with Smith. Their talk began with the President remembering her goal of initiating a change of attitude when she took up leadership of the University in 1988, which Smith referred to as a “vastly different institution” from what it is now.

“We were far too self-deprecating for us to be able to succeed in a way that I envisioned would be possible,” President Natalicio said. The two went on to discuss how UTEP and El Paso as a whole have since broken many negative trends as compared to the rest of the state, with Natalicio crediting the formation of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence – which galvanized area educators and advocates toward using local resources to tap its youth’s potential versus looking outside of the city for help – for much of the upswing.

President Natalicio reiterated a message important to UTEP’s identity, which is that the University accurately mirrors the region in which is stands – versus the very non-Hispanic student population of decades ago, which also reflected a skewed economic class – and that UTEP has “done more with less,” regardless of what financial support comes from the legislature.

The President also reminded attendees that cultivating the next generations of college graduates also means institutional efforts like etiquette dinners or workshops to build interview skills. The majority of bachelor’s degree recipients from UTEP are the first in their families to complete college, President Natalicio said.

“These are small things, but they make a big difference in building self-confidence,” she said – confidence that leads students to better jobs and better lives.

The final panel was “Education and the New Texas” with Michael Williams, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency; Chancellor of the UT System Francisco Cigarroa, M.D.; Harold Hahn, chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; and Sylvia Hopp, superintendent of the San Elizario ISD, moderated by Smith.

The Texas Tribune CEO and editor-in-chief was pleased at the day’s turnout and interactivity, expressing after the event why he felt it was so important to present it here.

“El Paso is has already been facing the issues that the rest of the country is going to face soon,” he said.

“On the Road: A Symposium on Demographic Change” was planned as part of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration and is just one of many events bringing influential leaders to campus this year.

Texas Tribune Multimedia Producer Todd Wiseman stated that this was the organization’s most successful live streaming event so far, with the number of simultaneous viewers topping at 600 and an additional 1,000-1,500 viewers watching throughout the streaming duration.

A recording of the event is available at TexasTribune.org.