On Friday, Dec. 3, a cool rain failed to dampen the warm spirit at the historic investiture of Dr. Blandina Cárdenas as the seventh president of The University of Texas-Pan American.
"It feels good," said Cárdenas as the gold-plated presidential medallion, a symbol of the power of the office, was placed around her neck by The University of Texas System Board of Regents member Robert A. Estrada.
"I accept the responsibility and gift of leading this wonderful University. I will not let you down," Cárdenas told the audience at the beginning of her inaugural address.
To the trumpeting sounds of the UTPA Brass Quintet, a procession of more than 450 persons - including faculty from the six colleges, staff members and students along with presidents and representatives from other higher education institutions such as Arizona State University, Texas State University and The University of Texas at Austin - filed into the auditorium, many colorfully clad in the robes, hoods, caps and other academic regalia distinctive of their discipline, degree or position.
The procession was led by Dr. Ala Qubbaj, associate professor of mechanical engineering and chair of the Faculty Senate, who carried the mace, a symbol of academic authority at the University. Additional UTPA employees and students joined friends, family and former colleagues of the new president to fill the 1,000 seat auditorium. The ceremony was simultaneously broadcast in the Student Union and webcast on computers for those unable to be seated in the auditorium.
Emceed by Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Dr. John A. Edwards, the ceremony included greetings from UTPA representatives of the students, staff, faculty and the UTPA Foundation; the UT System Chancellor Mark G. Yudof; Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia; and the Valley Legislative Delegation represented by Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. Cárdenas was also joined on stage by former UTPA President Miguel A. Nevárez and her 24-year- old son Rudy Ramirez, who is studying for his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley.
Guest speakers during the ceremony included Dr. Juliet V. García, president of The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College and Dr. Ricardo Romo, president of The University of Texas at San Antonio, where Cárdenas served last as the dean of UTSA's College of Education and Human Development.
Many of the greeters and speakers praised the progress of the University in the past 77 years and pledged their support to Cárdenas in achieving her and the University's vision and goals for the future.
"We believe President Cárdenas is the leader who can help UTPA meet those expectations. We think, Bambi, that you have the right stuff. Your experience in public service and in education gives you the background and the strength to take this University to the next level. You bring to this University a vision of excellence in academics, research and community service," he said.
Romo echoed Yudof's confidence in Cárdenas' demonstrated leadership abilities and qualities. He said she had accomplished great things at UTSA and would do the same at UTPA.
"It is often said that great leaders have a fire in their bellies for what they do. President Cárdenas has that fire, that passion. She is also a dreamer, a fighter, a risk taker and a mentor. And more than anything she has great values," he said, noting Cárdenas had perfected the "human side of leadership" by demonstrating a great sense of humor and not taking herself too seriously.
"She has that Texas 'can do attitude.' She will inspire. She will motivate. And she will lift you all to new heights," Romo said.
In her address, UTB/Texas Southmost College President García praised Cárdenas' willingness to "stick her neck out" over the years for the promotion of more access to quality education for all children. García offered her University's support in establishing collaboration and cooperation between the two institutions.
"We stand ready to cooperate, collaborate and dream together with our colleagues and friends here at UT Pan American, to join forces to create strength and open new opportunities," she said.
Cárdenas said she was overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude in many respects including having a family, who she said "valued contributions more than acquisitions." The president said she was also grateful to be part of the American democratic system of higher education and part of The University of Texas System.
"The UT System is a spectacular configuration of academic and health institutions. The vision, the resources and the power of the UT System needs to come home to the Rio Grande Valley," she said.
Cárdenas expressed gratitude to her mentors who included Dr. José Cárdenas, who first hired her in 1969 at the Southwest Educational Development Center, Texas Migrant Education Center and Romo.
"Dr. José Cárdenas taught me how to take on a cause and forge forward. I served with Dr. Romo at UTSA during a period of extraordinary transformation. Dr. Romo, I am going to steal every one of your moves. While I can't run as fast as you can, I can dance," she said jokingly.
Cárdenas' gratitude also extended for her three new "comadres" or comrades in arms - Juliet García; Dr. Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College; and Dr. Teresa Sullivan, executive vice chancellor of the UT System.
In addition, she noted the kindness of the public, business, K-12 education and workforce development sectors of the community as well as the support of the UTPA Foundation, the International Women's Board and the alumni.
"In a university there are 1,000 choices made by people every day - choices to meet with a student, to go for that grant, the choice to trim that bush ever so carefully. We are the cumulative effect of all those kinds of choices. I know you care deeply about this institution so I know that is why you choose to go the extra mile. The choices you have made have made UTPA strong," she said.
She likened the goals she set for her son at the time of his birth to the goals she has for the University "I will not settle for anything less than a long, hard, urgent stretch to the very best," Cárdenas said.
Her goals include increasing the retention and graduation rates by 20 percent; providing strong and effective K-12 partnerships to improve college preparation of students; doubling the University's number of master's degree students; increasing resources for research; increasing the number of doctoral programs to eight; and graduating 150 doctoral students.
To achieve these goals, Cárdenas said, will require enhanced learning and ensuring that the learning that is imparted is geared to the 21st century. She said that UTPA will accelerate plans in the area of technology and 35 rooms per semester will be "smart" rooms. She proposed that in three years every classroom will be technology-ready.
"We must prepare students for a life in which technology can be a tool and not a control. Our students must have the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, manage and create information. We must also nurture inquiry by our students, the invention of that which will solve problems, and encourage entrepreneurship within the University, among the students, and within the community," she said.
Cárdenas said there will be a new emphasis on establishing partnerships that will bring additional resources to the University.
"It is no accident that Dr. Garcia and Dr. Romo are here. We are going to partner like the UT System has never seen before to help shape South Texas," she said.
Guests at the ceremony were also treated to a performance by an operatic trio of UTPA music students as well as a moving rendition of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" also performed by students.
Faculty member Dr. Marian Monta, professor of communication, said she enjoyed the ceremony and believed the warmth and spirit that Cárdenas usually generates showed up in the program and speeches. She also said the increase in cooperative arrangements will have a positive effect on the University.
"Those women are going to knock this place on its ear. They understand the power of cooperation and I think what we can accomplish together is going to bowl over the world," she said.
Student Government Association President Nathan Schwarz said the involvement of the students, faculty, staff and community in the investiture brought everyone together. "I think that's really important, the theme of togetherness," he said.
Members of her family expressed joy with the ceremony, great pride in Cárdenas and confidence in her ability to lead the University.
Andy Ramirez Jr., Cárdenas' stepson, said he has known her since he was 16-years-old.
"Dr. Cárdenas is going to bring to the University tremendous growth, vision and opportunity. Everything that the speakers had to say about her is true," he said.
Her son Rudy said his mother has excelled at many roles in his life but her role as a warrior stands out.
"When I look at my mother now, I see the warrior blood pumping through her veins. As long as she has you as a cause to champion, she will be strong, agile and steadfast," he said.