NASA Superstar Takes Reins as the First Woman UNT Chancellor

Lesa Benton Roe’s mother discouraged her from going to college.No one in the Benton family — not even Lesa’s older brother and sister — had made it past high school. And her mother, a switchboard operator in Gainesville, Fla., feared that her youngest couldn’t cut it, even though Lesa was a straight-A student.“She was trying to brace me for failure,” Roe says. “But I had an internal drive to be something more.”Fortunately, Roe listened to her father, a groundskeeper for the Veterans Administration who had always regretted not having a college degree and expected her get one.She got two — an undergraduate degree and a master’s of science in electrical engineering.She didn’t really know what engineers did until she got a co-op job at NASA while studying at the University of Florida.During Roe’s 33-year meteoric career at NASA, she broke gender barriers and reshaped the way things got done at the $19.6 billion agency — making operations run smoother and more efficiently. She rose to second in command as acting deputy administrator when she retired in October and headed to Dallas.Now the 54-year-old is making her presence known as the first woman chancellor of the University of North Texas System, the administrative hub for the University of North Texas in Denton, UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth and the UNT-Dallas, which also includes UNT Dallas College of Law.As such, presidents Neal Smatresk of UNT Denton, Michael Williams of UNT’s medical school and Bob Mong of UNT-Dallas are her direct reports. Under her purview are a combined $1 billion budget, 10,000-plus employees and nearly 44,000 students.Roe is taking over at a pivotal time as the UNT System fights to maintain its growth in an environment of increasing competition and reduced state funding.Her former boss at NASA has no doubts that Roe has the skills, vision and drive to pull off this hefty mandate.“I’ve watched her do that so many times here at NASA,” says Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator and the equivalent of the space agency’s CEO in Washington, D.C. “People will walk through fires for her.”  Continue reading...

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