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Reporting on the selection of UTEP President Diana Natalicio

Tuesday, March 13, 2018 5:02
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The newsroom circuit

In 1988, I was reporting for the features section of the El Paso Times. Josie Weber was the section editor. Tom Fenton, a former Associated Press newsman, was the new publisher and editor of the El Paso daily. The features section was different from the paper’s successive lifestyle sections, because back then, in addition to softer lifestyle articles, features reporters also worked on hard-hitting, investigative stories.

 Anyhow, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) was in the middle of the process to select a new president, and it was believed that Diana Natalicio, a linguistics professor who had worked her way up the ranks, was an applicant.

Fenton told the newsroom’s senior editors that the El Paso Times should be reporting on the process and identifying the candidates who were seeking the position. Ramon Renteria was the education reporter. I was yanked out of the features section temporarily to work with Renteria on the story that Fenton wanted, and Burt Wittrup, another former Associated Press newsroom and a talented editor, was assigned to work with me. Burt was kind in that he did not place an expectation on me that I would be able to find out the identities of the presidential contenders. He said we simply would do our best to advance the story. The university was relying on a search committee that included community leaders to help hire the new president.

The initial story that I helped with was more or less a process story, and we were given the list of all the applicants, not the finalists. I felt that it was my job to work to get those names. This involved old-fashioned reporting, such as hounding members of the search committee and others associated with the process to come up with the information. Since I was not the education reporter, I did not have ready sources for this in my Rolodex. At some point after the initial story, I stopped seeing Renteria in the newsroom. I asked what had happened to him, and was told by an editor that Renteria was on vacation. I exclaimed, “What!” And the editor just laughed. The pressure was really on me now to produce. That’s how I saw it.

As with most such “search committees,” there are members who are insiders and those who are appointed to serve as tokens. The insiders will have the inside track while the rest will follow the procedures to the letter trusting that the process will work itself out somehow.

The first breakthrough occurred when I came up with the names of the six finalists. It’s not like someone had handed me a list. Different sources provided the names of different finalists. We did not have Internet in those days, and I consulted the original list of all the applicants to glean something about their possible current employers and or hometowns, and then I consulted other sources by telephone to gather further background. I bugged search committee members, knocked on their doors at their homes late at night, parked myself outside the board room were the committee members held their closed-door sessions. They were all sworn to secrecy.

The search committee took its job seriously and worked nonstop at the selection process, which was national in scope. Burt and I worked on the story about the finalists, which was published and beat the competition. Our competitors in those days included the feisty El Paso Herald-Post and the television and radio stations; it was a great time.

Barbara Funkhouser, the editorial page editor, a post she was named to after Fenton replaced her as the top editor, called me into her office after the story ran. She told me that one of her sources contacted her about our story on the six finalists to confirm that we had the right information. She said her source told her that it was uncanny how my story had named the finalists in the same order that the search committee had interviewed them. I recalled that two of the community leaders who were involved in the process somehow, were former El Paso Mayor Judson Williams and Patricia Roybal Caballero, a social justice advocate who later became a state legislator in New Mexico. I recalled overhearing Williams state that he would not support any candidate except Natalicio. 

Soon after the story naming the finalists, insider sources told me that Natalicio, the vice president for academic affairs, was going to be UTEP’s next president period. The search committee chairman was not one of those sources. I tried interviewing Natalicio about this at the campus, but she would not comment. I reported this development to Burt Wittrup and he advised the senior editors, among them Paula Moore, the managing editor. When I was in high school, Wittrup’s wife, Carolyn, had been my freshman year English teacher.

Paula Moore appeared willing to go with such a story using unnamed sources until the search committee chairman called her and pleaded with her for the paper not to run the story. The chairman conveyed that it was his view that Natalicio’s selection was not a done deal. Paula Moore honored the request to hold the story, especially since we would have to rely on unnamed though credible sources for the information. Later, university officials announced to the world that Natalicio was the search committee’s recommended applicant for the position.

Ramon Renteria returned from vacation, and the paper flew him to cover the UT meeting that confirmed Natalicio as the new president of the university. I was sent back to my corner of the newsroom. Under Natalicio, an enormously successful academic, the campus grew exponentially. She was named to important national boards, and her leadership helped put UTEP on the map. She also thrived in a world that until recent years was dominated by men, and when many university or college presidents did not last long in their positions due to an array of academic and community politics. Over the years, she has served as a model for success to other women. After leaving the El Paso Times, Fenton started his own newspaper, the weekly El Paso Inc.

One of my next anecdotes will be about my coverage of the Texas beauty pageant that yielded a threatened court injunction against me.


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