EDINBURG — A small briefcase containing paperwork, a laptop, cellphone, and more than likely a Diet Coke are some of Guy Bailey’s essentials for his daily commutes across the Rio Grande Valley. This includes an extra suit and tie in the case of an impromptu meeting or event.
“If you like order and always knowing what’s going to happen, this is the wrong job for you,” Bailey said of his role as founding president of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Ever since Bailey, 67, assumed leadership of the university in May 2014, he has become accustomed to constantly traveling the many miles dividing UTRGV’s campuses. The Brownsville and Edinburg campuses house his main offices, but they are 60 miles apart and only hold the essentials — a desk, a video conferencing system and, if he’s lucky, cookies from someone privy to his sweet tooth.
Everything else fits in a suitcase and travels with him.
On one particular Tuesday morning, Bailey’s day began with meetings in Brownsville and Harlingen. Because his vehicle was undergoing repairs, however, Jose Gonzalez — a UTRGV police officer assigned to drive the president when needed — gave Bailey a ride to and from.
Work started during the hour-long drive between Edinburg and Brownsville with phone meetings.
“Our retention rates should be better than at UTSA and UTEP,” he said in discussion with UTRGV Vice President Janna Arney.
“Sorry, we are going through Donna/Mercedes where it always drops the call,” he adds while swiping through his phone, navigating an already-full agenda. “Four o’clock would work, or noon if it doesn’t take more than 30 minutes.”
His cellphone is always charged and at hand to help make sense of the fluid nature of his ever-changing schedule, which is mostly managed by his Edinburg-based secretary, Maria Conde.
UTRGV’s scope is widespread with two main campuses — formerly known as UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American — as well as the newly created School of Medicine. Then there are the several teaching centers and labs spread throughout Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties.
Travel is the only constant in Bailey’s schedule as he aims to be on each campus at least once a week, and there are many out-of-town meetings. The 2016 Chevrolet Suburban driven by Gonzalez has already accumulated more than 18,000 miles, and Bailey’s personal truck, a 2016 Nissan Titan bought in April of that year, has more than 31,000 miles.
“I would say that probably 60 percent of my time is spent on issues outside of the university proper,” he explains. “Maybe it’s at a Board of Regents, or a meeting with a donor, or with a senator … so much of what you do is off-campus.”
In between meetings he tries to sneak in a quick lunch, which despite efforts to maintain a healthy diet, he sometimes relies on fast food or protein shakes he keeps in his office fridge. His go to, if needed: Chick-fil-A.
Bailey’s job, as he describes it, is not only to be the face of the university, but to oversee every aspect of it — from the academics, to athletics and overall growth. Any given day he might hold meetings with enrollment and leadership staff from every department, and tuition committees. But another significant part of his time is spent advocating for the interests of the university, which include meetings with area legislators and potential donors.
The Valley, as it turns out, doesn’t have a strong philanthropic culture, so one of the biggest challenges has been to rally supporters to afford programs not fully funded by federal dollars, such as residencies or community outreach programs.
During the first few years of the university’s existence, UTRGV raised $28,417,340 its first year and $33,652,234 in its second — this compared to its legacy institutions raising $2,959,381 and $6,125,978 in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
“So much of what you do is off-campus, then when you add to that that we have different locations, I’m almost always in at least one of those cities … but you may not see me,” Bailey said. “I might be on-campus or off-campus.”
Getting to UTRGV
At the time, the decision to take over the monumental task of helping create a new university didn’t come easy for Bailey, who at the age of 63 and after the 2013 death of his wife, Jan Tillery-Bailey, was thinking of retirement from administrative roles to instead focus on teaching or research.
After being approached by UT officials, however, he admits to being tempted to take on what he considered one of the biggest challenges of his career.
“ I told the board of regents when I interviewed for the job that if this was my first presidency I’d run the other way,” he recalled. “There were so many ways that this could’ve gone wrong. On the other hand, being at the end of a career, you look at it and think, ‘This is going to be really hard, and really interesting, and it looks like a fun challenge.’”
He’s previously served as president for the University of Alabama and Texas Tech University, as well as other leadership roles that included serving as chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and as provost of UT-San Antonio.
Still, he knew that leading UTRGV would be more demanding. The truth is that he was waiting for a challenge of this magnitude before formally retiring from administration.
“I talked to my daughter and what she helped me understand is that I was really too young to retire, and that if I was looking for a unique opportunity, this was it,” Bailey said. “Also, my late wife and I always planned to retire in San Antonio, so this is my favorite part of the world.”
The notion of hiring a founding president that is nearing retirement has, like anything, pros and cons. For instance, there was a chance he might have only remained in the position for the establishing period. And this may still be the case considering the enormity of Bailey’s duties, but he never put a time-frame on his tenure at UTRGV.
But when it comes to navigating challenges, experience carries weight, and Bailey is unlike others who may have seen UTRGV’s presidency as a stepping stone.
“We were certainly delighted that he applied, because, as you know, bringing two universities together on top of adding a medical school … that’s not a minor undertaking by any standard,” said former UT-System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. “The board of regents and the chancellor at the time wanted a highly experienced administrator.”
Dr. Cigarroa, a transplant surgeon from Laredo, was leading the system during UTRGV’s genesis. On top of looking for experience, he said UT was looking for a person that saw this as a unique opportunity to impact higher education.
Bailey’s background and a positive interview with the regents placed him right at the top of the list of candidates, he said. Cigarroa believes Bailey was and continues to be the perfect choice as UTRGV’s founding president.
“To be able to establish a university of great distinction in one of the most underserved regions of the state, plus providing a medical school — how often does that come by?” Cigarroa said. “So if you are going to have a capstone in your career … that could be one of the great accomplishments in American higher education.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Bailey stood in front of about 25 students at the Liberal Arts building in Edinburg, where he has been teaching the History of the English Language to students who may pursue a career in his field of linguistics. The class was transmitted live to students in Brownsville on this particular day, but he alternates campuses each week.
“The good thing about (History of the) English Language is that there’s always something new,” Bailey told his Edinburg class as they talked about the Norman Conquest and changes to Old English. “You will never come to class and not learn something new.”
Despite his chaotic schedule, Bailey said he took up teaching again during the spring of 2017 as a way to remain connected to the students. This means his Tuesdays can begin before 8 a.m. and end at around 7 p.m. But what’s important, he stressed, is getting a sense of how this unique university is helping students progress.
“If you want to know how things work, you really have to have some mechanism for seeing what students are dealing with and what faculty are dealing with,” Bailey said. “I can listen to people tell me stuff all day, but until you do it yourself you never really know.”
As he walked out of the classroom Tuesday evening, Bailey recalled the first time he taught this class in 1979 at Emory University. He was only 29 years old at the time, and he had just decided to grow a beard to appear older. Bailey hasn’t parted with it since.
His teaching style has had to adjust over time to accommodate several generations of students, which he said is the same idea for university leadership. While UTRGV’s nuances are unique compared to other universities he’s led, the goals must remain consistent. In this case, such goals include reaching the Emerging Research University status to bring more resources to the area, not to mention increasing student enrollment and decreasing graduation time.
Now that the university is achieving a more solid standing, nurturing continued growth and development will be necessary to ensure UTRGV’s place among the top educational institutions in the state.
“Sometimes we think about the disadvantages — we have a population that is much poorer than all of the state, we are not as accessible as Houston or San Antonio — I want us to put all of that aside,” Bailey said. “There is no reason why we have to take a back seat to anybody. And I want us to think that way. We are an excellent university. We can compete with every other university in the state, not on our terms, but on their terms … that’s one of my long-range goals.”
On the subject of a looming retirement, Bailey said he plans to let his mind and body tell him when it’s time to step back and focus his attention solely on teaching and research, both of which he continues to practice.
“A lot of it is physical because you are on the go all the time, and if you like an eight-hour sleep, this is not the job,” he said. “When the challenge of being president is more than I want to deal with … I’ll know when that happens.”