He's known as the "ideas man" at The University of Texas-Pan American, a "statesman" among university enrollment management professionals in Texas, and, above all, a 41-year advocate for students in promoting access to and success in higher education.
Set to retire Dec. 31, Dr. John A. Edwards will forever be known as UTPA's first and only Vice President of the Division of Enrollment and Student Services, which will transition to the title of the Division of Student Affairs on Jan. 1, 2011. Although his division's name will change, his legacy here and across the state will endure.
"His legacy at this University will remain as he brought a wealth of knowledge and changes to this institution regarding enrollment management. During his tenure he has focused on access and success issues for students," Nelsen said.
Students deserve the best
Edwards, who started his education career in 1969 as a history faculty member at Murray State College in Tishomingo, Okla., said his goal has always been to make a positive difference in the lives of students.
"My viewpoint is that our students deserve the best that we can provide, whether it is in terms of services, or facilities, or professors or help in getting a job. They deserve the best," he said.
He came to UTPA after successful careers at Texas Tech University (1974-1985) in Lubbock, where he was founding director of the New Student Relations Office, and Texas A&M University-Commerce (1985-2000), where he was the founding director and dean of Enrollment Management.
Bill Morris, UTPA director of Office of Student Data Analysis and Projects, who has known Edwards for years through his participation in professional organizations, recommended Edwards for the job here and was concerned when a couple of selection committee members thought by looking at Edwards' striking head of white hair that he'd retire soon after being hired.
"He told the committee that wasn't his plan," said Morris, who now views Edwards as the "father" of enrollment management in Texas.
After 10 years at UTPA, Edwards' list of accomplishments at UTPA is long. Under his leadership, the University experienced an unprecedented enrollment increase of 67 percent and achieved a freshman to sophomore retention rate of 74.3 percent compared to 61.8 percent when he began.
A record of service to students
Among many new programs and facilities, Edwards spearheaded the initiation of the Valley Outreach Center, which, in partnership with leading corporations, provides admissions, financial aid and other information to South Texas students interested in a post secondary education. In 2001, he collaborated with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services to establish the UTPA PAL (Preparation for Adult Living) program which provides scholarships for foster children who want to pursue a college degree. He also helped institute the Student Leadership Program, a collaboration with the Division of Academic Affairs that resulted in a Leadership Minor Program, and the Distinguished Speakers Series, which provides students the opportunity to hear and interact with national and international leaders. Edwards also started the practice of using the University's Visitors Center, which he helped plan, as a venue for exhibitions. Its most popular exhibit to date, "A T. Rex Named Sue," drew more than 50,000 visitors, many of whom were Rio Grande Valley school children.
"The key to this University being successful is getting kids excited about going to college in third grade or even younger, and then working with them and their families from that point on. The secret is to get them out on a college campus and feel comfortable," Edwards said.
A brainstorming mind
Edwards' associate vice president Dennis McMillan, who has known and worked with Edwards since the 1970s at Texas Tech, said you never knew what to expect when you heard Dr. Edwards say "I've got an idea."
"It could be something as innocuous as changing a form or as pervasive as creating a new department. His creative thinking style has few boundaries," McMillan said.
Dr. Magdalena Hinojosa, associate vice president and dean of Admissions and Enrollment Services called Edwards' mind a "storm of ideas."
"I guess you could say, he is a 'brainstorm,'" she said. "He doesn't just think outside of the box, he thinks outside of the hemisphere."
Edwards said he is quite a reader and the ideas just come to him, often in the night causing him to arise from bed to write them down. He described himself as opportunistic, in that he can see the connections needed within the University and with other agencies and outside entities to provide opportunities to the University and its students.
"The way my mind works, I never leave my job," he said. "However, the credit does not belong to me, the credit goes to the person who takes the idea, runs with it, implements it and makes it successful. Where we have been successful, the credit goes to the directors and their staffs who implement and do the work to help the students."
The facilities he helped launch include the UTPA Transfer Center, which facilitates the transfer of students from South Texas College and other schools to UTPA; the Veterans Service Center, which provides services to ease the transition of veterans to college life; the Scholarship Office that provides a one-stop place for scholarship assistance; and the Migrant Student Services Office to provide support to promote migrant student success. Edwards said he is most proud of his role to start the Child Development Center and Wellness and Recreational Sports Complex, both of which have impacted students greatly, he said.
"The Child Development Center has enabled probably several hundred students with children to graduate more readily than they would have been able to without that service. The recreational center provides a much needed venue to gather and network ... approximately 1,500 students use it daily Monday through Friday," he said. "I would like to see more. I always like to see improvement - increased numbers, better ways to do things, better processes to make things easier for students."
Impact of a life lesson
Edwards, who grew up in East Texas, said he learned valuable life lessons about compassion and inclusion of the less fortunate and underserved from his parents, particularly his father who was a teacher in a rural one-room school house and later became a social worker for the Department of Public Welfare. Edwards said that on one trip as an 8 or 9-year-old he went with his father to visit a client and his children who were living in dire poverty conditions. Edwards vividly recalled his father's reaction when he made a disparaging remark regarding one of the children.
"He got red in the face, pulled the car over and I thought I was going to lose my life right there. He told me these were underprivileged kids and that I never needed to be disparaging in my remarks; in fact, I needed to be trying to help them. That absolutely made an impression on me," Edwards said.
That impression has carried with him his entire professional career and resulted in actions recognized statewide to better serve students.
A mentor and leader in Texas
His first adviser role as a faculty member was to sponsor the African-American Student Union at Murray State. Some of his Anglo colleagues called him a "rabble rouser" when he brought in role models to interact with the students. When Edwards went to Texas Tech, he became concerned about the prejudice he saw toward junior and community college transfers in getting their credits accepted.
As a member of the Texas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (TACRAO), he led the development of the Texas Common Course Numbering System (TCCNS) to better facilitate the transfer of freshman- and sophomore-level general academic coursework. Nearly 120 higher education institutions now participate in TCCNS, which has its database and director based at UTPA.
Through TACRAO, which he headed as president in 1992, Edwards has given countless hours to advance his profession. His TACRAO colleague, Mike Allen, associate registrar at The University of Texas at Austin, likens Edwards' professional handiwork to that of a master weaver.
"The common course numbering system, enrollment management as a profession and individual professionals you mentored are but a few of the threads you weaved into the fabric of students and institutions of higher education across the state of Texas and beyond," Allen said in a recent note directed at Edwards and sent to all TACRAO members. "You've seen your handiwork manifested in students' lives. My friend, it's a fine garment you've weaved."
Ken Zornes, executive director of the Texas Business and Education Coalition, which seeks to work with educators in efforts to improve public education in Texas, said Edwards' positive impact on that organization cannot be over emphasized.
"His knowledge of the issues relating to public education in Texas and his commitment to finding ways to help all students reach their potential, distinguishes John not only as a scholar, but also as a leader among peers," Zornes said.
In 2008, Edwards was awarded TBEC's Distinguished Achievement Award in Education for his involvement and support for the TBEC Texas Scholars and Honor Roll Schools initiatives in South Texas that served as models for the entire state.
Hinojosa, who has worked under him for five years, said Edwards' mantra is "if it helps the student, then we must find a way to make it possible."
"He has taught many of us, here at UTPA and across the state, to have this mindset," she said.
A life after retirement
From the Victrola in his office to the pictures on his office walls, it is obvious he is a lifetime collector of antiques and lover of history. Edwards, who plans to stay in the Valley, hopes to be able to teach U.S. history at the University. He and his wife Jeanell, a retired social worker, will also spend some time in their travel trailer going to see some places in America they haven't yet visited. They also hope to spend more time with their two-year-old granddaughter Caroline, who lives in Austin with her parents.
Edwards' outlook on being remembered is a humble one.
"The University was doing well before I came here and it will be going great after I'm gone. I hope I leave UT Pan Am in better shape and in a better way than when I came here and provided some opportunities for success for students that weren't here. I know whatever I've done will be enhanced and built upon by those who are yet to come," he said.
In the announcement of Edwards' retirement in late September, UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen indicated an executive search firm will be hired to find a replacement. A search committee has also been formed with a goal of having a new vice president for the newly-named Division of Student Affairs hired and on board at UTPA by early Spring 2011. The search committee co-chairs are Janice Odom, vice president for the Division of University Advancement, and Alex Rodriguez, president of the UTPA Student Government Association. Campus visits by the top three candidates are scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 4, 2011. At that time information on the candidates and their respective visits to campus will be available via a link on the UTPA website.