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Surgeon Ready for Challenge as Head of UT System


Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, a pediatric transplant surgeon, is preparing for his toughest challenge ever.

On Monday, he takes over as chancellor of the sprawling University of Texas System, where officials are grappling with complaints about soaring tuition costs, a growing battle over admissions policies and a hurricane-ravaged medical school and health center in Galveston.

For Cigarroa, 51, it’s just another chance to exceed expectations.

“Challenges really don’t dissuade me from pursuing important opportunities,” Cigarroa told The Associated Press. “If you’re an optimist, you see opportunities, and that’s the way I’ve been brought up.”

He will be the first Hispanic to preside over a major university system in the U.S., which Cigarroa calls a high privilege and heady responsibility. Dr. Cigarroa is a nationally renowned pediatric and transplant surgeon and was most recently president of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio,

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1979 and received his medical degree from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas in 1983. Dr. Cigarroa was chief resident at Harvard’s teaching hospital, Massachusetts General in Boston, and completed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

The Laredo native is the son of a doctor who still practices medicine and a disciplinarian mother who insisted on straight A’s at school and good behavior at home. With nine siblings, everything was a competition growing up, but Cigarroa recalls lighter moments with his grandparents across the border in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He visits his mother-in-law there frequently.

As chief executive officer of the UT System, one of the largest employers in Texas, Cigarroa will help administer an operating budget of $11.5 billion and preside over 15 campuses with more than 194,000 students.

Cigarroa’s prowess on the operating table is legendary, but  his new job will take him away from his beloved profession and into what is perhaps an even dicier arena: politics. Putting the brakes on tuition increases has emerged as one of the top issues in the Texas Legislature, but UT officials are hesitant to give up their autonomy to raise rates, a power lawmakers gave them during a state budget pinch in 2003.

Cigarroa has steadfastly refused to go into detail about his views on tuition restraints, saying only that UT officials and legislators will have to work together to resolve the thorny issue. He’s much more expansive and passionate, about the prospect of changing admissions policies.

Under current law, students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class are guaranteed automatic entry to state universities. That law was passed in 1997 after the federal courts prompted state universities to abandon affirmative action policies.

At UT-Austin, more than 80 percent of the Texas freshmen gained admission though the top 10 percent provision. UT wants more say about who gets in the door.

Cigarroa said UT could keep a diverse student body even if the top 10 percent law is modified or eliminated.

“I think we can find an appropriate balance where universities not only look at the top 10 percent, but they also look at those wonderfully competitive students who may have not made the top 10 percent but have done something incredibly special,” Cigarroa said. “I believe that we can probably not only maintain the diversity that has occurred as the result of top 10 percent, but I believe we can improve diversity at all levels.”

Cigarroa also said revitalizing the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston would be a top priority. . Hurricane Ike walloped the facility, which was already losing money on care for indigent patients, with more than $1 billion in damages, forcing 2,500 layoffs. 

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