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Friday, January 15, 2021

University of North Texas System names new chancellor

In its search for the next chancellor, the University of North Texas System Board of Regents “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and turned to a top official at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The board announced Aug. 17 that Lesa B. Roe, acting deputy administrator for NASA has been selected as the sole finalist to replace the retiring Lee F. Jackson. By law, the board must wait 21 days before it can take final action on the hiring. She will be only the third chancellor in its history and the first woman in the role.

“The UNT System is very proud to present Lesa Roe as the sole finalist for our chancellor position – she is a results-oriented, decisive leader with proven success in operating in a high-risk, high-visibility environment,” G. Brint Ryan, chairman of the board of regents, said in a news release.

Roe currently partners with NASA’s chief operating officer to lead strategy, execution and operations nationally across all NASA field centers for a $19.6 billion annual federal agency with $31 billion in assets.

“Lesa has more than 30 years of experience in corporate-level strategic positioning and execution for a multi-billion-dollar federal agency and her track record of driving efficient productivity, combined with a wealth of experience working with federal and state-level legislators, makes her an ideal fit to lead the UNT System into a new era,” Ryan said.

In the news release, Roe thanked the board of regents and said serving the UNT System, the North Texas region and the state of Texas is “a tremendous honor and opportunity.”

“As a leader, I strive to be strong, but approachable, and I believe teamwork is fundamental to the success of any organization,” Roe said. “I am extremely proud of our NASA teams’ mission accomplishments over the years, but I’m just as proud of the fact that NASA has been an employee-rated best place to work in the federal government for five consecutive years.”

Jackson is the state’s longest-serving chancellor and will remain in his position until Roe takes office and will continue to serve the UNT System until the end of 2017, the regents said during their meeting at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

The chancellor is responsible for all aspects of the System’s operations, including management of 10,000-plus employees and oversight of the UNT’s three campuses – UNT in Denton, UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth and UNT Dallas – as well as the UNT System administration. The three independent universities of the UNT System have combined enrollment of just over 43,000 students. The UNT System has a $1.2 billion annual consolidated budget.

Roe’s boss, Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator and chief operating officer, said in the news release that the UNT System can expect an experienced and energetic leader.

“Lesa brings a unique ability to develop a strategic vision backed by an action-oriented implementation plan to achieve the results necessary to accomplish a mission and as a person, she is one of the most genuine and engaging people you will ever meet,” Lightfoot said.

NASA has 10 geographically dispersed field centers and 17,000 employees. That experience is “directly applicable to leading a university system,” he said.

Roe holds a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida and a master of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Central Florida.

The regents said that Roe has a passion for engaging students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and has initiated and engaged in numerous student programs both internal and external to NASA.

The search and selection process for the UNT System chancellor position was conducted by Mike JR Wheless and Scott Watson of Wheless Partners Executive Search.

The Fort Worth Business Press caught up with Roe after the announcement.

FWBP: What made you want to take this job? Why here, why now?

Roe: Well, it’s an exciting time in this area. Dallas-Fort Worth has the No. 1 job region in the country. I see such a huge opportunity to really achieve the potential the UNT System Institutions and the system as a whole has, and we can really develop the talented workforce needed for that No. 1 job market and change the lives of all the students in the process. That’s just an incredible opportunity, so I’m excited about that. I want to be a part of that.

FWBP: What issues in education are most important to you?

Roe: I’m learning some of the key issues in education as I come on board and want to make sure that we are focused on the high-priorities there. Our presidents are all over that, they’re doing great. I got to meet with some of the presidents yesterday as they talked about some of the exciting things ahead. It’s really trying to make sure you have the right programs in education to match what’s needed in the job market out there and that’s really fundamental in what we’re doing. What I’m seeing is a system that really is working to change when it makes sense to add a new program and be ready for the next generation. There’s lot of things in science and engineering that make sense there, lots of things and emerging things in medical science – lots of opportunities there. Also, opportunities to serve underserved populations and really develop students that maybe never knew they had a chance to go to college. You know, I was one of those students in my past, as a kind of first in my family to go to college. So, I think that’s fabulous that our downtown Dallas campus is focused on just that, creating those opportunities, so they can also feed back into this Dallas-Fort Worth market.

FWBP: What will your role as chancellor entail, what kind of work will you be doing?

Roe: As chancellor, I’ll be working across all of the three campuses – three universities – to work as an integrated system, making sure we’re efficient and effective, we have a common vision and that we want to reach for that vision, making sure we’re taking us there as a whole, building on the incredible talents of each of those unique campuses and creating something greater than any single one. I’ll be working hands-on with the presidents, I’m so excited about that. They are just a great team of folks.

FWBP: What are some of your hopes and goals for your work at UNT?

Roe: I want to make a difference. Every job I’ve ever had I’ve made a difference, so I want to come in and really make a difference, add value, build a team, work as a team, partner with these incredible folks – the faculty, staff, presidents – to make sure the UNT system achieves its full potential. It’s got incredible potential … It’s a goal to keep [UNT’s tier one research] classification and also to go beyond and be the best. We want to be the best and among the best in the nation. That’s our goal and that’s always going to be our goal. We are pressing that way.

FWBP: What are you most looking forward to in your new position?

Roe: I’m looking forward to getting to know all the people. I can tell you that when I think back to my career at NASA – which leaving is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I think about the incredible team. What I remember is the team, you know, jumping up and down when Curiosity landed on Mars, doing breakthrough discoveries in hypersonics, doing new inflatable decelerator technologies, doing breakthrough discoveries in aviation with new kinds of vehicles that are going to create incredible markets in the future. All of those things just excite me, but it’s the people that are doing those things that excite me more.

FWBP: How do you feel being the first woman to hold this position?

Roe: I’m excited about that! This is going to sound weird, but I never think of myself as a woman, I think of myself as a member of the team and everybody has got a role to play. But, I think it becomes really important for some people that need to see someone like themselves break through. Because of that I will embrace this position as a role model and I hope that it will inspire other women and young women to do the same.

FWBP: What is the most notable similarity and difference between your previous position and this position?

Roe: I think they’re both the same in that essential they are CEO positions and it’s really leading a complex organization across multiple locations to achieve something great. I think that’s very common in both places. How are they different? There’s so many similarities, we do public-private partnerships in both places, entering and building a team, leadership is fundamental to both things – so what is different? We both work with state legislators – I’m trying to find some differences. I think I’ve found more commonality than I find in differences.

FWBP: The lack of literal space is pretty different though!

Roe: Missions are different, there you go. We have different missions, but the focus is the same. That’s the common goal, but obviously different missions in where we go. We’re not launching anything here, but we can very well launch research, instruments, those kinds of things we can do as part of the UNT system. I look forward to doing that and bringing that to bear too, the work that NASA does, and how universities can play in that work.

FWBP: Do you have anything else you want to say about your new position?

Roe: I’m just excited to get started!

– Paul K. Harral contributed to this report.

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