A vision from the barrio (Part II): Building A&M-San Antonio
By Jacob Beltran
Editor’s Note: This is the second of three articles chronicling administrative and leadership transitions at A&M-San Antonio.
A little more than a month after inaugural president Maria Hernandez Ferrier announced to the campus community a new president would begin in January 2015, the university reached another expected milestone — independent accreditation.
Other administrative milestones and shakeups occurred over the course of 2014, including the completion of two new buildings. Amid the building and settling dust, several key administrators in finance and administration resigned, including chief financial officer Ken Mitts in August, and his interim replacement and chief information officer, Rick Trefzer, in December.
In January, interim president Cynthia Teniente-Matson will step into a culture well established by, who led the university with her own vision on how to provide an affordable higher education to underserved students.
That new leadership will bring about change is a given. To what degree, and in what direction, is not yet known.
Marilu Reyna, associate vice president for university communications and special projects, said Ferrier’s vision began with a legislative priority to increase full time student enrollment. Early objectives were to reach 2,500 full-time enrolled students.
Knowing the campus’ first rental buildings and facilities on the South Side of San Antonio could not hold that many students, Ferrier convinced the state to require 1,500 full-time enrolled students.
In her nearly seven years overseeing the growth of the South Side university, she set out to promote open communication. She created the President’s Leadership Committee and hosted a weekly university meeting called War Room, which Ferrier said came from her time serving under former presidentGeorge Bush in Washington.
“Each meeting we had there was a board with a thermometer that we filled in as we enrolled students,” Reyna recalled. “She would look at each person and say ‘What is admissions doing? What is enrollment doing?’”
As the university grew and met its goals, War Room became a monthly meeting. Growing enrollment and receiving funds for what is now the Senator Frank L. Madla Building, Reyna said Ferrier focused her vision on meeting the needs of her students and the university’s public relations department.
“She knows students are the best representation of a university,” Reyna said, adding that they offered scholarships through Verano LLC and other incentives to encourage enrollment.
A tradition that continued throughout her presidency, Ferrier made a point of telling students she has an open door policy, adding they can stop by to say hello, and schedule appointments for a one-on-one meeting with her through her administrative assistant Dorothy “Jan” Mundine.
Mundine is a friendly but protective gatekeeper, sitting just across the president’s office. She is tightly connected to Ferrier’s daily routine.
Starting at 8 a.m., Mundine helps Ferrier prepare for her day, often filled with back to back meetings. She offers the president coffee, along with a review of the schedule of events for the day.
For six years, Ferrier has kept the same administrative assistant and public relations personnel. She builds tight and trusting relationships, those close to her say.
A divorced mother of two children, Mundine’s story parallels Ferrier’s. The two met in the early 90s through a personal connection.
“I got to know Dr. Ferrier through my friend, and just kept in touch with her through all those years,” Mundine said, getting to know her on a personal level.
Mundine returned to school at San Antonio College when she was 28 years old. As president of a club, she volunteered to help with an education summit, led by Ferrier.
When Ferrier became executive director of the Texas A&M Kingsville System Center at San Antonio, she needed an administrative assistant. Mundine applied.
“I was in a pool of several applicants,” she recalled. “When I was chosen, it was the most exciting time of my life.”
Since then, Mundine has been at Ferrier’s side on many decisions big and small made for the university.
Ferrier will have to seek a new administrative assistant once she begins her new position given that Mundine will remain with A&M-San Antonio.
Yet even with a welcoming policy, my attempts getting through both the door and her busy schedule took time.
Calls to Mundine began what was often a week-long endeavor, easily interrupted by more pressing matters, including meetings with community leaders and A&M-System regents.
Reyna said many of her meetings set the foundation for programs to come, many after she’s gone. Her efforts at expanding the university have ranged from meeting with members of the San Antonio Film Institute to acquiring the former Museo Alameda for a future fine arts program.
Leading the university has meant the president’s attention and priorities range between the university’s strategic mission, to politics, fundraising and meeting with stakeholders.
It also meant handling the media’s gaze, and finding diplomatic ways to handle the pressure of starting a university from the ground up, in an economically challenged part of San Antonio.
When I asked Ferrier about the controversy with former University Police Chief John Coleman, who resigned before filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against President Ferrier and other members of the university, Ferrier said above all everything is handled with honesty and integrity.
She had a similar response to my questions about the removal of four small crosses on the university’s symbolic entrance tower at the intersection of highway Loop 410 and University Way back in 2011, and most recently KABB Fox 29’s investigation into purported overspending on the presidential suite.
“We look at all the facts,” she said. “When media asks these questions you might think where did that come from, but you just answer truthfully. Integrity is a core value … being transparent and honest.”
Ferrier wants to keep her message on track, sometimes deflecting tough questions and answering others diplomatically. It’s a longtime habit, accompanied by a warm smile, which may have originated from her time spent in the White House overseeing politics for the education system starting in 2002.
There she served in several national appointments under both Presidents George Bush.
Even in her local projects, Pastor Ruben Duarte, who has known Ferrier for 10 years, said she excels as a visionary because she knows how to put ideas into action.
The two met when Ferrier served as a board member on a prayer initiative called Pray Texas.
“In every community there are people who love to pray, but need help and mentorship in how to pray effectively,” he said. “That was the emphasis of this group.”
The two stay in touch as Ferrier is a member of the Life Center Christian Fellowship church, located off highway 90.
In keeping with the theme of faith, Ferrier’s daughter, Cynthia Marshall, who owns her own company called Scriptureflow, offers reinforcement via positive words recorded in an mp3 file.
Visitors to Ferrier’s office in need of such support can find a copy of Marshall’s first CD, which the president keeps in her desk.
“She’s been an example of a powerful, strong, faithful accomplished woman. We have a lot of strong leaders that are men, and some strong women that are not nice, my mom is not one of those people. She’s strong, accomplished and nice,” Marshall said of Ferrier.
Looking over the ceremonies such as the ring ceremony, the university’s mascot, university voices and, most recently, the lighting ceremony, Ferrier’s input controlled much of how they were produced.
“A lot of the things that we’re starting are new traditions and I have a lot of input in those things,” Ferrier said, adding that she wants them to be events students will remember and take pride in.
Seen at last month’s Nov. 19 lighting ceremony, Ferrier moved from person to person with a welcoming hug, something many students say they will remember her for.
With four buildings, three academic schools — now officially colleges — and several of them conducting research, Ferrier said she feels confident the university is growing in the right direction.
The university now offer 62 bachelor’s degrees, 16 master’s degrees, and three certificate programs.
When she leaves at the end of the month, she’ll be leaving with many of A&M-San Antonio’s streets paved.
Editor’s Note: Check back Thursday, Dec. 11 for the conclusion to our series on administrative changes at A&M-San Antonio.