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Legacy Leaders: Francisco Cigarroa
March 8, 2018


Legacy Leader Dr. Francisco Cigarroa in San Antonio. GABE HERNANDEZ | SABJ

By W. Scott Bailey, San Antonio Business Journal 

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa's life experiences have helped shape who he is and what he has become — a renowned pediatric surgeon, educational leader and Latino pioneer on the national, if not international, stage.

Growing up as one of 10 children in Laredo, he gained a deep understanding of diverse cultures on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as an appreciation for how limited access to medical care has affected South Texas.

“I understood what life was like in an underserved region. That understanding was a big plus,” said Cigarroa, who has borrowed from past inspiration to address equality and access.

Cigarroa joined the University of Texas Health Science Center in 1995 as director of pediatric surgery. Five years later, he was named president of the institution, now named UT Health San Antonio. He held that position until 2009, when he planned to go back to the operating room, but he instead heeded the call to become chancellor of the University of Texas System in Austin.

“I was never contemplating administration when I came to San Antonio after finishing my fellowship at Johns Hopkins,” Cigarroa said. “I wanted to be the busiest and best pediatric surgeon possible.”

In fact, Cigarroa initially had no intention of applying for the president position at UT Health San Antonio. But he changed his mind after serious encouragement from his five sisters and four brothers, becoming the first Hispanic chief executive of a comprehensive health sciences university in the continental U.S. And he continued to perform transplant surgeries on a part-time basis during his tenure as president.

Cigarroa then made more history, becoming the first Hispanic chancellor of the UT System — and made the most of that opportunity.

When Cigarroa was a faculty member at UT Health San Antonio, his father, who was also a surgeon, told him that his only regret was not having an opportunity to teach the next generation of physicians because there was no medical school in deep South Texas.

“I never forgot that. It really hit me hard,” Cigarroa said. “I understood what life was like in an underserved region.”

As chancellor, he helped push to build what is now the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

Dr. William Henrich, who succeeded Cigarroa as president of UT Health San Antonio, said the Laredo native’s role in establishing the medical school would “stand as one of his outstanding legacies” and ultimately prove to be a “game changer for education, student access and economic growth for South Texas." 

Multiple presidential administrations have taken note of Cigarroa’s efforts. In 2003, President George W. Bush appointed Cigarroa to serve on his Committee on the National Medal of Science. More recently, President Barrack Obama chose Cigarroa to be a commissioner for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

After six years as chancellor, Cigarroa decided it was time to return to surgery and teaching.

“Part of being a great leader is understanding when you’ve reached what you have wanted to accomplish in that role,” he said “I realized … if I didn’t go back to surgery, I was going to lose that skill.” 

“You can’t not like Francisco Cigarroa,” Henrich said. “He’s continually challenged to do his best — partly because of the way he was raised, but also because he has a personal commitment to perform at the highest level.”

Cigarroa remains involved with multiple organizations, including the Ford Foundation, as he continues to address the need for more education and equality. 

“Even though I am no longer president or chancellor, I still have a voice,” he said. 

He still has a passion for teaching, as well.

“It is exceedingly satisfying educating medical students and residents,” Cigarroa said. “From a personal and professional standpoint, I couldn’t be happier.”

BioMed SA Editor’s Note: Dr. Cigarroa received BioMed SA’s 9th annual Julio Palmaz Award for Innovation in Healthcare and the Biosciences in 2014. See

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