While the University of Texas Regents conduct their nationwide search for a new president at the University of Texas-Pan American, Dr. Charles Sorber holds the reigns in the school's top seat, ensuring that everything runs smoothly.
Sorber joined the UT system in 1975 and has served in numerous capacities, including Vice Chancellor for Special Engineering Programs, Interim Director of Student Financial Services (UT-Austin), Director of the UTSA Center for Applied Research and Technology, and Associate Dean (UT-Austin College of Engineering). It is not his first time sitting in the president's seat, either. Sorber held the top position at UT-Permian Basin and answered the Regents' call for an Interim President once before at UT-Arlington.
"I've been in public service all my life," he said, "in the military and in public higher education. When the Regents call, I'm going to serve however I can. That's public service, and it's an honor."
This time when the Regents called, they asked Sorber to step out of retirement and into the top spot at UTPA while they search for the person who will replace former president, Dr. Blandina Cárdenas. She retired Jan. 30.
Sorber and his wife wasted no time packing their things and coming to South Texas. His first day at work was Feb. 16 and his wife signed up to volunteer two days a week at McAllen Medical Center.
"I am no stranger to the Rio Grande Valley," he said. "I came to UTPA and UTB (University of Texas-Brownsville) many times with the Regents." Sorber enjoys one of the fringe benefits of his interim presidency every morning, the Valley's Ruby Red grapefruit.
"The first time I came here," Sorber said, "Mike (Dr. Miguel Nevarez, former president of UTPA) gave all of the presidents a box, and I have loved it ever since. We used to have it sent to us and we sent it as gifts to others. I enjoy half a grapefruit every morning when they're in season."
Sorber's road to the UT System and eventually to UTPA began with his own education, a bachelor's and a master's in sanitary engineering from Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in civil engineering from UT-Austin. Sorber served in the U.S. Army, and during his final tour of duty, he ran the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command.
Sorber held the position of professor emeritus in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at UT-Austin Cockrell School of Engineering. He feels certain that his engineering background has provided an excellent foundation for his work in administration.
"Much of what we do in administration involves problem solving," Sorber said, "and that's what engineers do. Administrators must be analytical. We need data. Occasionally, the final decision is contrary to that data because we must look at what is in the best interest of the people and the institution, but our decision is always informed. A background in engineering is actually great for many fields, and I have found it often leads to positions in management."
The highly structured process for finding the next person to lead the university is well underway, and while the search advisory committee and the Regents carry out this task, Sorber is taking care of business.
"We are moving forward in every way," he said. "There is nothing on the back burner."
Sorber is impressed by what he has seen at UTPA. "There is an excellent mix of high-quality academic programs," he said. "Of course I am impressed that the engineering program here has grown so quickly. Last year they saw their 1,000th graduate."
The beauty of the campus also impresses Sorber, the attractive brick complemented by the abundance of trees. The fact that some UTPA employees use golf carts to get around the campus only adds to the feeling that this is no cold brick and mortar structure with a bit of landscaping. This place is warmer, friendlier.
According to Sorber, UTPA is a great institution because it has three key components. "We have an outstanding faculty, well-prepared and serious students and adequate or better facilities," he said.
Sorber recognizes the role the community plays in making UTPA stand out as an institution of excellence. His father worked in public education for 42 years, first as a teacher, then a principal and finally as superintendent. His mother also taught in the public school system. He compares the education he received to what is often found in today's public schools.
"We had the three R's, college prep, secretarial courses and Latin," Sorber said. "The schools provided rigor, high expectations and choices. Today, in our effort to make education relevant to the masses and to provide a myriad of choices, we have lost some of the rigor and expectations. The mentality that everyone has to get a bachelor's degree is not true. But this is not unique to this community. I have seen it everywhere. We need to do a better job in public schools of increasing the rigor."
Part of that rigor involves raising children to understand they must earn their way in school and in life. "Maybe we need to learn there are failures in the world," he said. "We need to teach kids that when you fail, you must do better next time. You can't have excellence without that. People don't want to hear there are winners and losers, but in life, that's the reality. In life, there are winners and losers." Parents are the first teachers of this concept, and parental involvement is critical for educational success, Sorber says.
Talk of freezing tuition is a real concern. While Sorber understands the financial constraints of many students, he also recognizes what it takes to provide top-notch faculty, facilities and programs. "It takes dollars," he said, "and if the state decides to freeze tuition, they will need to provide the institutions with additional funding to offset that. Otherwise, we will regress."
Current plans indicate that the Regents hope to decide on a new president by November, one who will start in January 2010, but that could change. Regardless, Sorber will stay for as long as he is needed.
"I am committed to be here until that person is onboard," Sorber said. "But when the time comes, we will pack up our two cars and our two cats and return to the retirement home we built in 1999 (in Austin)."
Until then, Sorber will take care of business at UTPA. "We enjoy being here," he said. "We enjoy working with the faculty, staff, students and community. My wife and I will be active in the community for as long as we're here."
Bring on the Ruby Reds.
NOTE: Dr. Sorber indicated he has never tasted Grapefruit Pie. Below is a delicious recipe by Clemmie Rodriguez of San Antonio, formerly of Raymondville for Sorber:
1 cup water
2 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. butter
of a 3-oz. package strawberry gelatin
1 8-oz. package of cream cheese
1 cup powdered sugar
1 graham cracker crust
3 grapefruits peeled and sectioned with membrane removed
Sprigs of mint for garnish (optional)
Heat water, sugar and flour over medium heat until thickened. Remove from heat, then add butter and strawberry gelatin. Set aside to cool. Meanwhile, combine cream cheese and powdered sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Spread cream cheese mixture over the crust. Arrange sectioned grapefruit in a circular pattern on top of the cream cheese filling. Top grapefruit with cooled gelatin mixture. Refrigerate overnight. Garnish with sprigs of mint.