NASA power player will become new UNT boss

This time, it really is rocket science: Thursday, University of North Texas regents are expected to select a longtime NASA leader to help launch the system into a new era of research and exploration.

Lesa Roe will be announced as the sole finalist for the position of chancellor. Roe, who is currently acting as NASA’s second in command, will replace longtime leader Lee Jackson, who is retiring after 15 years.

Roe, 54, will be the first woman to hold the post for the UNT schools. After a 32-year career in NASA, she says she didn’t expect to end up at a higher education institution but the new job is not far from what her mission has long been: pushing boundaries to inspire the next generation.

“I want to move barriers out of the way so that all levels can achieve their full potential,” Roe said. “UNT is ripe for research innovation and philanthropic growth. The next generation really has a huge passion for changing the world. … We’ll really be moving forward with key research and discovery while working as this incredible team.”

Regents say her background at NASA — where she helped manage key projects across 10 institutions — made her stand out among the handful of finalists for the position.

Roe has been key in working on public-private partnerships for NASA, such as Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin commercial space company. She’s also coordinated with various universities and countries for space-related research projects as well work with various programs that encourage women to explore careers in science and engineering.

Such a distinguished background and experience will benefit UNT’s flagship campus in Denton toward the coveted Carnegie Tier One designation, which includes the nation’s top colleges. The status — which only a handful of Texas schools have — is given to colleges that have selective admissions, prominent faculty and raise more than $100 millions in research grants.

Last year, UNT was included in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education’s list of 115 top-tier research universities.

“I don’t think we could have found anyone better suited to build research at UNT,” system board chairman Brint Ryan said. “She built up research at NASA to a level that we can’t even imagine — working on the international space station, on Mars exploration. Bringing that level of excitement to connect students to explorations and discoveries through research is critical to the success of this intuition as we work toward that Tier One goal.”

Other challenges Roe will face include growing the system’s new medical school in at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, building up its new law school in Dallas — which only recently received provisional accreditation from the American Bar Association — and finding creative ways to boost funding as finessing dollars from the state gets harder each legislative session.

The system also recently launched a satellite campus in Frisco and opened its first residence hall for the UNT-Dallas campus.

Outgoing chancellor Jackson noted that Roe’s background with Congressional budgets will serve her — and the university — well.

“Goodness knows if she can navigate the politics of the NASA budget in Washington, she will do just fine in Texas,” Jackson said. He added that her experience working with scientists and engineers will translate well into higher education where so much of the focus is on designing innovative programs and initiatives.

Roe has crisscrossed the country in several roles for NASA, from radio frequency communications engineer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to managing the research operations for the International Space Station program out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Then, as director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, Roe was critical in overseeing the Mars expedition “Curiosity.” Being in the control room when the rover landed on the red planet was among the highlights of her career, she said.

“That whole room just exploded,” she recalled. “Watching my team and how excited they were because they made these amazing things happen.”

Roe grew up in Florida. She got the space “bug” as an undergraduate when picked for the selective NASA cooperative education program that allows students to alternate semesters at school with semesters at NASA centers.

That’s one of the reasons she said she’s drawn to higher education. Roe said she’d like to develop more programs at UNT similar to the co-op that will directly address growing workforce needs of local industry while giving students the experiences they need to be successful.

“I was the first in my family to go to college and just learning that you can do things — that you can be an engineer at NASA? Wow,” she said. “That’s just something you don’t always have that confidence in when you’re growing up.”

Roe’s husband, who is the chief engineer for NASA, will remain in Virginia. The two have often had to cross the country throughout their marriage as the two have had rotating assignments.

The couple has three sons: one a recent graduate of Virginia Tech and twins who will be freshmen at the rival University of Virginia. Roe notes the soon-to-be empty nesters will also be trekking their two Soft-coated Wheaten terriers — Peach and Daisy — between Texas and Virginia as they make the Dallas-Fort Worth area their new home.

Local UNT leaders started meeting Roe this week, including Neal Smatresk, president of the Denton campus. He said he is excited about her background in managing large scale science and engineering projects.

“With a little bit of luck, I’m going to have one of the best partners I’ve ever had in this enterprise,” he said.

Denton-Record Chronicle reporter Jenna Duncan contributed to this story.

Lesa Roe, 54

Mug shot of new UNT System Chancellor Lesa Roe at The Adolphus in Dallas, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017.

Background: Roe earned her undergraduate electrical engineering degree from the University of Florida and her master’s from the University of Central Florida. She spent 32 years in NASA where she served as a manager and systems engineer on 38 space shuttle flights. She also managed the International Space Station Research Program. She and husband Ralph, NASA’s chief engineer, have three sons and two dogs.

The UNT System

The University of North Texas System includes the University of North Texas in Denton, the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and the University of North Texas at Dallas. UNT Dallas College of Law in downtown Dallas and a satellite campus in Frisco are also part of the system which has more than 42,000 students.

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