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Saving Lives in the Academy and Operating Room

First Hispanic University of Texas System chancellor tackles financial problems and challenges Top 10 admission rule, while still performing surgeries.

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. 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 which leads to new discoveries.”

Cigarroa 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, he found his calling: pediatric surgery.

The UT Health Science Center in San Antonio recruited him 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, says 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, tells 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.’”

Cigarroa faces mega challenges.

As a result of the tough economy, 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’d 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 says.

“I personally don’t believe that enriches diversity to the fullest extent,” Cigarroa says, noting 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 likes a legislative plan that allows half of students to be accepted through the Top 10 rule, 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 says. “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.”

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

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