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NEWS: ‘Dean of deans’ retires in May

NEWS: ‘Dean of deans’ retires in May 

By David Gomez Jr.
Editor-in-chief

Published Tuesday, March 28, 2023

TAMIU Regents Professor, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Thomas Reagan Mitchell expects to retire at the end of May. Approaching 73, he says many people begin thinking about retirement at that age.

The 50-year veteran of academia nearly didn’t make it after a bout with the novel coronavirus.

Portrait of Provost Thomas Mitchell
Rolando Santos | TAMIU Public Relations
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Thomas Mitchell poses for a photo on campus in summer of 2020.

“It causes you to reassess your life,” Mitchell said about his life-threatening case when contracting SARS-CoV-2 in the summer of 2021.

“I ended up in the emergency room,” Mitchell recalled. “Before you know it, I was on a ventilator and had up to a 20% chance, but I survived it after 47 days in the hospital.”

He elaborates that 10 of those days were physical therapy as he suffered muscle atrophy and had to relearn how to become mobile again.

In Fall 2021, he returned to the helm as Texas A&M International University’s provost as early as October. Due to his love for education, he decided to stay one more year. In Fall 2022, he made up his mind and decided to retire this May.

He began the provost position on an interim basis but was officially kept soon after. At seven years now, that’s a long time for a provost, which traditionally has a high turnover rate around every three to four years.

“So, I think it’s finally time for the school to have a new provost too,” Mitchell said. “A fresh approach to new issues.”

TAMIU President Pablo Arenaz expressed praise for Mitchell’s achievements during his tenure.

“Since joining TAMIU in 1998, he has helped guide our faculty and program growth with a steady hand, a big heart and a shared vision for excellence,” Arenaz wrote in an email to The Bridge. “His faculty-centric approach has enabled us to welcome scholars of national and international reputation to our campus, providing our students with remarkable learning experiences.”

As a regents professor with tenure, he not only has something on the table but a seat at it, with the option of continuing to teach.

Provost Thomas Mitchell and President Pablo Arenaz introduce a speaker during commencement
David Gomez Jr. | Bridge File
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Thomas Mitchell, center, and President Pablo Arenaz welcome Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, not pictured, to the stage during Thursday afternoon’s College of Arts and Sciences commencement at the Sames Auto Arena in Laredo in this photograph taken on May 12, 2022.

“But, you know, I want a clean break,” Mitchell said while sitting back in his desk chair with both hands clasped.

As part of the search for a new provost, Mitchell wants no part in it, but he hopes to see some familiar faces apply for the job.

Something a lot of people don’t understand, mainly the students—nor is there a reason they should—is what a provost does.

“Basically, [I’m] the dean of the deans,” Mitchell explains. “All the deans report to the provost.”

He further explains that it’s not just deans but assistant provosts, the director of the library and the associate vice president for research and sponsored projects who all report to the provost. Anything academic goes through Mitchell’s office.

Mitchell is an avid reader, which is no surprise, and he only has free time during the weekends, but he would like to learn to play his guitar a little better and start tickling the ivories when he has the downtime.

“Music is a big love of mine,” Mitchell said with a light grin as he recounted being in a band in high school. “Always has been, and music is a great way to express yourself.”

A significant factor he looks forward to with time off is being able to travel and see a certain family member he has only met through FaceTime.

“My wife’s been retired for a little over four years now, and she’s interested in traveling,” Mitchell said. “And now I have a grandson in Thailand.”

A handful of the people who will miss the provost are some of his colleagues whom he mentored and supervised.

“He’s one of the reasons I came to TAMIU because I learned a lot from him,” Dean of TAMIU University College Barbara Hong said. “And having a position as dean, and having to report directly to him, means I could make mistakes and [he could] help teach me because that is the kind of person he is.”

Hong met Mitchell in 2005. She worked in the faculty senate; Mitchell asked her to be his executive secretary for a while. She then left for three years, but still sought his advice because, she said, Mitchell was the type of person who not only crossed bridges but helped keep them intact for more to follow.

Hong also said people want to see a different side to a faculty-member-turned administrator, but not with Mitchell.

“He does not change, and with him, he is an educator at heart,” Hong said. “He’ll take every moment as a teachable moment.”

University College Executive Assistant I Martha “Marty” E. Perez previously worked under Mitchell’s supervision at the provost’s office for five years and recalls her time with him as a boss.

“He listens to you, he’s patient and he’ll be greatly missed, but I’m very happy for him on his retirement,” Perez said.

She added an inside joke to stray away from the topic of retirement.

“I will miss making his coffee,” Perez said, followed by a snicker.

The provost shared an interesting view on retirement.

“I have to tell ya, retirement can be a scary thing for someone who has spent a lifetime working,” Mitchell said. “We’ll see.

“I’ll sleep a little bit later, that’s for sure.”

Mitchell began calling Laredo home in 1973 and took a job at Laredo Junior College, where he taught remedial English courses.

He calls it an engrossing intersection of Hispanic and Anglo-American culture, ranging from taqueria restaurants to fast-food burger joints.

“It’s always fascinating and very colorful, but mainly the people are just incredibly friendly,” Mitchell said.

When he first arrived, Laredo’s population was in decline due to the closing of the Laredo Air Force Base in the early ‘70s as the Vietnam War closed, along with its funding.

“They were phasing it out, and [Laredo] only had 70,000 people,” Mitchell said. “Now it’s around 270,000, and I’ve seen it grow tremendously.”

Laredo’s current population stands at nearly 260,000, but Webb County nears the 270,000 mark. Back then, Mitchell recalls the topic of discussion was to pave the dirty streets of the city.

“Now, [I] love the city, love the people but the anchor that kept me here was my wife,” Mitchell said, smiling. “I met my wife, Linda Garcia, and we married in 1976.”

Something Mitchell expects to miss most after retirement is the students.

“When I talk to potential faculty, I tell them, ‘If you have a student that has an aunt in Monterrey, [Mexico,] that died, and their family is going over for a week and will miss class, you need to understand you can’t expect them to tell their family no,’” Mitchell said.

“Don’t make them choose between the class and their family because they’ll choose family every time. As they should, given the value system here.”

He also said faculty must be able to adapt to cultural values in order to succeed in teaching in a border town.

Mitchell went on to say that first- and second-year faculty members sometimes come up to him and let him know how right he was about the University’s students. This not only refers to strong family values, but also to how much respect translates into the classroom.

Arenaz not only praised Mitchell for his achievements but wished him well with his next endeavors.

“I have been most fortunate to depend on Tom’s partnership here, and I wish him, his wife, Linda, his children, and now grandchildren, the very best in this next chapter,” Arenaz wrote in an email to The Bridge. “While we will miss him, we know his enduring legacy here will continue to inspire.”

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