Lesa B. Roe is no stranger to being the first at something. It started when she became a first-generation college student.
It continued through a 33-year career at NASA, where she served as the first woman director of NASA Langley Research Center. Most recently she was the acting deputy administrator for NASA, a role similar to a chief operating officer for the $19.6 billion agency where she oversaw 17,000 employees and 10 field centers.
Roe admits she didn’t think much about the significance of breaking barriers when she was named to the Langley position, as she had become accustomed to thinking of herself as “another member of the team—not the woman on the team.”
But then, the day her appointment was announced, one word brought it all into focus. “The lady who cleaned the building, she comes into my room and gives me a big hug and says, ‘Finally.’”
Years later, it would happen again in Dallas-Fort Worth in October, when Roe was named the first woman to serve as chancellor of the UNT System, succeeding Lee Jackson. “I had women coming up to me and hugging me and saying, ‘We are so thankful that you are here,’” she says. “It matters to people to see somebody break the glass.” Roe says she now sees it as giving people hope for future possibilities.
As chancellor, Roe is responsible for university operations, including the oversight of more than 10,000 employees across three campuses: UNT’s flagship in Denton, UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, and UNT Dallas, whose College of Law gained provisional approval for accreditation in 2017.
Roe believes the time is right for expanded partnerships between the university system and DFW businesses. The region has won recent accolades for its strong job market for college graduates. It is the second-fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and large corporations relocating to the region need career-ready students.
UNT is working with a wide variety of companies, including Toyota, Fidelity Investments, and the Dallas Cowboys. It has rolled out new graduate degree programs that include interaction design, data science, data analytics, consumer experience management, technical communications, executive computer science, and digital communications analytics.
In March, UNT broke ground on a $17.4 million biomedical engineering building at Discovery Park. It will include research and teaching laboratories for one of UNT’s fastest-growing areas of study: biomedical engineering. The school started an undergraduate program in fall 2014 and a graduate program last year.
“We want to be working with businesses collaboratively on the workforce they need for the future,” she says.
Roe is drawing from her NASA career in her new role, promoting STEM careers to girls and women. That includes girls camps at the Denton campus for eighth-graders. Later this year, the school plans to host a forum for about 500 girls from eighth to 11th grades at its Dallas campus, with a variety of speakers to expose them to careers they can pursue through UNT education.
To prepare fully for her new role, Roe bought some new cowboy boots. “I’m ready,” she says.