Sara Martinez Tucker on Becoming New Chairman of the Board of Regents

After a long career in the corporate, not-for-profit, and political worlds, Sara Martinez Tucker, BJ ’76, MBA ’79, Life Member, and Distinguished Alumna, is back where it all started: The University of Texas at Austin. In 2015, Tucker was appointed to a six-year term on the UT System Board of Regents by Gov. Abbott and confirmed by the Texas Senate. And on Sept. 19, she was unanimously elected chairman of the board by her fellow regents. As chairman, Tucker is tasked with steering the governing body of the UT System and overseeing each of its 14 institutions.   

In her past life, Tucker rose through the ranks at AT&T to eventually become vice president for consumer operations and earn a Malcolm Baldridge award, before stepping out of the corporate world to helm the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), a nonprofit dedicated to providing higher education opportunities to Latino families. At the HSF, Tucker grew annual scholarships from $3 million to $25 million. In 2006, President George W. Bush nominated Tucker for the position of Under Secretary of Education, where she was the nation’s top official for higher education for two years. Tucker currently serves on the boards of directors of American Electric Power, Xerox, and Sprint. The Alcalde spoke with Tucker about her career, her upbringing, and her priorities as chairman.

How do you feel about being elected chairman by your fellow regents?

I’m very humbled.  I was not expecting it. This is a chance to give back to an institution and a system that have given me so much. This is a call to service that I’m humbled to accept.

What are some concerns you have as you start this new job?

I worry sometimes that we don’t always have the voices of the student, parent, and patient in our policy discussions. Since corporate retirement, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to parents and students, whether they’re in middle school, high school, or college. They have important perspectives, and we must understand their needs as we create policy that governs our higher education institutions.

What are your priorities?

I believe that we meet the needs of Texas, the country, and the world better as we advance our academic and health institutions. For me, that means taking the time to do deep dives with each university leader to learn more. What is the current state of the campus? What does each president see as possible? What are they willing to step up to, and what are some of the obstacles and challenges they face? We will work on strategies to alleviate their concerns, help them prepare, and get them the resources they need to achieve their visions. I want to make sure that we have good governance and that we’re demonstrating accountability to Texans for the investments they’re making in UT institutions. Finally, we need to make sure we are delivering high quality education and health care at affordable costs and that our students and patients have successful experiences with us.

How did your years growing up in Laredo shape your career path?

I often tell people that I’m the luckiest person in the world. Laredo was not known for good education or having a college-educated population. Yet I happened to be born to two parents who believed education was a key to a better life. They couldn’t afford it, but they invested in a Catholic education to make sure their kids could get a great education. Even though neither of my parents had a college degree, they never said “if” you go to college; it was “when” you go to college. I have great parents who taught all of their children incredible life lessons.

What were some of the challenges you faced in the corporate world?

Just as there were high points, there were low points, too. You run into discrimination. It was often by omission—sometimes people didn’t realize they were being offensive. It’s difficult when you’re at the receiving end, but even more difficult when you see it happen to others. The other thing, and I’ve never really said this before, but when I was young and I had my MBA, all I wanted to do was have a successful career. The older I got, the more comfortable I became in understanding that I was also a female, that I was Hispanic, and that there were issues beyond my corporate life and interests I needed to develop.

Over the course of your career, has the workplace has become more inclusive, tolerant, and diverse?

I am proud of the way diversity has been embraced in corporate America. I think culture has come a long way. Does it still have a long way to go? Yes. We can always get better. That’s the initiative my mom taught me. But we have made a lot of progress. We’ve got further to go, but we must acknowledge we’ve come a long way.

What was the transition from the corporate to the nonprofit and policy worlds like?

When you’re in a corporate career, you get used to the support infrastructure. At AT&T, I had an assistant, chief of staff, scheduler, and a travel aid. When I went to a nonprofit, I became the chef, cook, and dishwasher. All of a sudden, I was booking my own travel, writing my own speeches, and putting together my proposals.

Then, I transitioned from the nonprofit world to the policy world, from helping get education for members of one community to doing it for the entire country. The biggest shock for me was how progress on one side in D.C. often stopped the other side from getting things done. In this world, you’ve got the White House with its own policy goals, an elected body that must put it into law and appropriate funds for it, and then you have many competing interests. It took me a while to figure out that you get things done in D.C. very differently than in the corporate or nonprofit world. It was out of my wheelhouse, and that transition took me a lot longer than any other one.

But with my transition to education, I can say, “Mom, Dad, I’m doing something to advance education. I get to do for others what you did for me.” It was energizing for me to know that I was helping more kids get that better life that education allows, as my parents had done for me.

As chairman, how will you draw from all the different roles you’ve had?

I learned consensus building everywhere I was—in the corporate world, in the not-for-profit world, in D.C., and now, in the boardroom. It’s about remembering why you’re there. I am here to represent Texans and their investment in our system. It’s the taxpayers who are investing in our institutions, so hopefully it’s the early lessons of my life of focusing on why you’re there, the importance of showing up prepared, the importance of taking initiative, and the importance of consensus building. That’s what I hope to bring to the position I have now. I really am humbled and honored to serve, and I am focusing on advancing UT institutions. I’m accountable to the people of Texas, and I have the responsibility of ensuring them that we have good governance. I want Texans to know that they have a voice in our boardroom.

 
 
 

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