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Saving Lives in the Academy and Operating Room

To listen to Diverse’s interview with Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, click here.


Last fall, after eight years as president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Dr. Francisco Cigarroa announced plans to resign and devote himself more to pediatric transplant surgery.

The UT System Board of Regents had other plans.

“Little did I know that the search committee for the chancellorship role really wanted to interview me,” Cigarroa said, soon after taking helm of the UT system Feb. 2 — and its 15 institutions and $11.5 billion budget.

“What inspired me to postpone going back into surgery is that this is certainly a higher calling for public service,” Cigarroa said. “In your role as chancellor, if you can enhance education across this great state of Texas, then you are still in the position of saving lives, because education — in my opinion — saves lives. Through improved literacy. Through prevention. Through inspiring students to pursue science that leads to new discoveries.”

Education in the Cigarroa clan was paramount.

Reared in a family of 10 children along the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas, he was often reminded of its importance. Education enabled his paternal grandparents to come to Texas from Mexico in the 1940s: his grandfather to begin a medical practice, his grandmother to be a pharmacist. The Cigarroa children graduated from public high schools, but their parents sent them to summer boarding school to prepare them for college.

Even as tots, they knew. Their grandmother hosted them for Sunday dinners that ended with a teaser.

“She would give us a dollar. Then, she’d ask us to give it back and would say, ‘This dollar is being deposited for your college education,’” said Cigarroa.

He earned a bachelor’s in biology from Yale University and a medical degree from the UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

During postgraduate work at Massachusetts General and Johns Hopkins hospitals, Cigarroa found his calling: pediatric surgery. He recalled the pre-dawn decision:

“I asked a question: ‘If I were still practicing surgery at the age of 75, would I jump out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning to save a baby’s life?’” said Cigarroa, 51. “The answer became very clear.’”

The UT Health Science Center in San Antonio recruited Cigarroa to rebuild its children’s surgery and transplant programs. He became its president in 2000.

He was the first Hispanic to hold the job. He is also the first Hispanic to preside over the sprawling UT system.

Texas State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chair of the Higher Education Committee and a longtime Cigarroa family friend who nominated him for the chancellorship, said she did so because of his success as president of the UT Health Science Center.

“He’s been a faculty member, an administrator, a researcher — which makes him well rounded for the job,” Zaffirini, who is the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Texas State Senate, told Diverse. “Couple that with his civic leadership. He was also chairman of the board of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. When have you ever heard of an academic president serving as the chamber of commerce chairman? … He excels in so many arenas. He personifies the terms ‘well rounded’ and ‘multifaceted.’”

Dr. Manuel T. Pacheco, president of the University of Missouri system from 1997 to 2002, was the only other Hispanic to preside over a statewide system, according to Dr. Alfredo G. de los Santos Jr., a research professor at Arizona State University’s Hispanic Research Center who authored a study of Hispanic university presidents.

Pacheco told Diverse: “I’m thrilled that Cigarroa has gotten that position in Texas. Missouri is a four-university system, and all the universities are research universities. But that’s a mega-system.”

Cigarroa faces mega challenges.

Tuition and fees have risen 57 percent at the UT system since lawmakers gave the regents control of tuition hikes six years ago, The Associated Press reported. Now, lawmakers want to limit that power.

“My views are that it remains important for our board of regents to still be involved in setting tuition,” Cigarroa said. “However, this is a shared responsibility. … We need to be sure our institutions not only provide affordable and accessible education, but we have the resources to have the best institutions of higher education in our nation, because our students deserve that.”

Cigarroa has challenged university presidents to cut costs — starting with a freeze of their own salaries. He also proposed freezing his $750,000 salary.

He would also like to alter the UT admission policy, which allows automatic entry to Texas students graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class. At the University of Texas at Austin, 80 percent of students are accepted now through that rule. By 2012, if the rule stays, all students would be accepted on that basis alone, he said.

“I personally don’t believe that enriches diversity to the fullest extent,” Cigarroa said, noting that his acceptance to medical school was based on many factors. “It took into consideration challenges I overcame. It took into consideration my geographic city of origin, as well as race, ethnicity and other factors.”

He said he also likes a legislative plan that allows half of students to be accepted through the Top 10 rule, and half on broader factors. This month, the Texas Legislature is expected to debate bills that would consider such limits.

“I believe that modification would go a long way,” he said. “I also believe our presidents and our university admissions committees will step up to the plate and not only maintain but enhance diversity from all aspects.”

Zaffirini said Cigarroa’s humility and willingness to listen to multiple points of view will help him navigate the difficult legislative process ahead. “He’s not going to sit there with a prepared script that he can’t deviate from,” said Zaffirini.

His new job is a handful. But Cigarroa has also made time — a weekend a month — for surgery to keep his medical license active.

He returned to San Antonio for surgery the first weekend after becoming chancellor.

“I’m proud to say that, one weekend a month, I can still interact with students and still assist with surgery,” he said, “and, at the same time, continue marching forward with my responsibilities as chancellor.”



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