Steve Taylor | Rio Grande Guardian
9 June 2009
LAREDO, June 9 - South Texas and the border region must exert its political and economic muscle to “force” the state of Texas into increasing higher educational opportunities, says Dr. Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas.
In a hard-hitting speech before an audience of economic development, business and academic leaders, the former president of the University of Texas-Pan American said it was “unsatisfactory and unacceptable” that the region has just a handful of doctoral programs.
“If you draw a line from, let’s say, Marfa, around San Antonio and south to Corpus Christi, we have less than a handful of doctoral programs in that region. Less than a handful,” Cárdenas said.
“I would suggest that we have less than ten doctoral programs in all of those institutions put together. We cannot support and create a 21st Century economic development effort if we are lacking those doctoral programs.”
Cárdenas gave her remarks at a reception at La Posada hosted by the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative (NAAMREI).
Cárdenas said it would take the South Texas region’s combined “political, strategic and economic acumen to force - and I will say force - the Coordinating Board and force the Texas Legislature to put the resources behind the institutional capacity that it will take to build those doctoral programs.”
Cárdenas said higher education is the “R&D and human development operation” of a successful economy. She went on to list what the region currently has and what it lacks. It has one engineering program, no medical school, no law school and a handful of doctoral programs in education, she said. “That is unsatisfactory and unacceptable. We cannot continue to grow this economy with that kind of vision,” she said.
The way to address these deficiencies, Cárdenas said, is to develop a strategic plan based on the region’s educational needs for the next 25 years. “We can do it because we have got the brain power. If we come together we’ve got enough votes. But the agenda has to be set,” she said.
After four and a half years as president of UTPA, Cárdenas retired in January, citing health issues. “As you can see, old educators, like old soldiers, don’t just fade away,” Cárdenas said, to cheers from the audience.
NAAMREI’s leadership team had gathered for their quarter meeting. The group honored Cárdenas with its first ever Leadership Award.
Cárdenas said she was not going to let the opportunity pass without doing “just a little bit of preaching.” She spoke a little about the difficulties she had faced growing up in Del Rio. “There were a whole lot of people standing in the way who thought Mexicanos from the barrios of San Felipe shouldn’t be showing that kind of leadership,” she said.
Having been all over the world and having mixed with lots of so-called important people, Cárdenas said she was in no doubt about the richness of character and intelligence found in border communities.
“I have long been convinced that the people of our region, even those that were not born here, are particularly gifted,” she said. The talents of those living in other parts of the country and the world in no way surpass the “human capital, the intelligence, the brain power, the values power, the soul power, and the gut power of our people of South Texas,” Cárdenas said, to a cheering audience.
The only thing standing in the way of that power being realized is the articulation of an educational system, Cárdenas said. “We are far from the educational system that we need.”
In her remarks about NAAMREI, Cárdenas said her vision for the group came about after she attended a meeting of university presidents with state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Zaffirini had said, “Don’t forget about Laredo,” Cárdenas explained. That thought resonated and it dawned on Cárdenas that South Texas educational institutions do not have to wait for the blessing of UT-Austin or UT-San Antonio in order to start collaborating and building intellectual capacity.
Cárdenas implored NAAMREI’s members not to let the group die, even if the funding dries up. The group got off the ground with a $5 million grant under the WIRED project developed by the Department of Labor.
“Don’t let it die. If the funding goes away, it doesn’t matter; keep it going because it is important and because it adds value. Find more funding to keep it together,” Cárdenas said.
Federal funding was not everything, Cárdenas said, citing the formation of the League of United Latin American Citizens in El Paso in 1929. She pointed out LULAC did not have an expense account, a telephone or a fax machine when it started. They simply “fought for what was right,” she said.
Regardless of whether there is a formal organization or not, economic development groups across South Texas have to come together and design and define what their strategic educational needs are in order to make economic progress, Cárdenas said.
“I’ll be right there prodding you and if you don’t do it I’ll come back and haunt you from wherever I am,” Cárdenas said, to great cheers.
She concluded her remarks by saying: “Let’s raise our expectations continuously, let’s raise our vision of what is possible for our region. And, let’s not accept that we have to do without because there is nowhere, and I have read it all, there is nowhere in the Bible that says that South Texas isn’t entitled to a high quality educational program and until I read it in the Bible I am not going to believe it.”
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