For 23 years, Dr. Miguel Nevárez led the Rio Grande Valley's largest higher education institution and guided it through its merger with The University of Texas System. Under his watch, 30,000 students earned college degrees. After he stepped down as president nine years ago he returned to his first love, teaching, where he trained numerous educators to take on leadership roles.
But after Aug. 31, Nevárez will officially retire from The University of Texas-Pan American and become UT Pan American's first official President Emeritus, pending approval from the system's Board of Regents.
To celebrate Nevárez's contributions to higher education, current UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen, hosted a reception in the former president's honor June 19.
Nevárez served as president of then-Pan American University from 1981 to 2004. Soon after, he began teaching in the College of Education's Educational Leadership Program and heading the Coastal Studies Lab at South Padre Island.
Nelsen, former UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, deans and former staff all praised Nevárez and said they called upon him for advice numerous times as the university continued on its momentum of growth.
The president said Nevárez was the first person he called when the UT System made the announcement about creating the new university with a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.
"I knew I had to talk to him, then I called Dr. Cárdenas because we needed their buy in, but I also needed their wisdom about what to do and how to proceed," he said.
Nelsen added that he sees Nevárez's influence everywhere, from his chief of staff, Lisa Prieto, who is a doctoral student in the educational leadership program, to the children who visit the Coastal Studies Lab.
"You are a transformational leader," Nelsen told Nevárez. "Even when you retire, you'll still get the phone calls."
Cárdenas, who served as UTPA president from 2004-2009, said the highly skilled workforce Nevárez established during his tenure made her transition into the presidency that much easier.
"As I looked across this room,... I saw the incredible talent that is represented here, the incredible commitment that is represented," Cárdenas said. "All of the faces that I see in this room that, I think, I have to thank you for, above everything else, Miguel, is that you created an environment that allowed this incredible talent and this incredible commitment to grow, to learn, and to contribute to this institution."
Carol Rausch, who served as the assistant to the president for Nevárez, Cárdenas and Nelsen, as well as interim president Dr. Charles A. Sorber, called Nevárez "one of a kind."
"He has been called cheap, he has been called frugal, but he's also been called very wise and a tremendous steward of not only financial resources, but of the community's human resources," Rausch said. "From this area he has garnished, nurtured and loved this area, its people and, especially, its students. He was a builder, a caregiver and a champion, an advocate, a soldier and ...he's taught me so many wonderful lessons about life, about leadership, and I think he left a legacy of love, of caring, of leadership... and all of you out there are part of his legacy."
Nevárez also received an honorary Doctor of Humanities in Medicine from the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in May in recognition of his central role in creating The University of Texas-Pan American and Baylor College of Medicine Premedical Honors College Program in 1994.
Nevárez said everyone's speeches forced him to reflect upon the past three decades or so of working for the University as an administrator and its president. But he refused to take all the credit for the institution's success, especially how a Wall Street Journal article reported that the University was responsible for creating the Hispanic middle class in South Texas.
"That wasn't one person, that was all of you," he said.
The former president said he also recalled that not all of the changes and decisions made were unanimous, but everyone worked together for the betterment of the University. He recalled how not everyone was supportive of then-Pan American's merger with the UT System in 1989.
"It was not easy then and there were a lot of questions," he said. "For the last 24 years I haven't heard a single one say it wasn't a good idea."
To determine what was best for the University, those discussions and debates needed to happen, Nevárez said, and he offered advice about the new university.
"Don't call it a merger, don't call it a unification. Call it an opportunity to create a new institution," Nevárez said. "I envy each one of you who is going to be here the next two to three years, because you all are going to start defining the vision of that new institution. That doesn't come along but once in a lifetime, and nobody can do it better than every one of you... but you need to take that opportunity."
At the end of the celebration at UTPA, Nelsen bestowed upon Nevárez a memory stole with the names of faculty and staff written on it.