Northern Arizona University’s incoming president, an engineer who helped lead one of the world’s largest urban universities, lists among his goals a pledge to boost Native American and Hispanic graduation rates.
He officially will step into the job on June 14. But he said work on the transition — to “blaze the trail to the bold future that awaits us” — will begin immediately.
Dr. José Luis Cruz was appointed unanimously on Wednesday by the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s three public universities.
Cruz praised the rigorous selection process and thanked the students, faculty, tribal leaders, elected officials and Flagstaff residents who asked thoughtful questions and shared concerns while he was applying.
Additional campus visits, virtual town halls and in-person meetings, as well as the formation of a presidential transition commission, will guide Cruz throughout the spring, he said.
He will be NAU’s 17th president and its first Latino president.
“I stated my commitment to hitting the ground learning and setting the foundation for the 17th presidency,” Cruz said. “I will be spending a lot of time trying to create trust within the campus community so we can build on that foundation to advance bigger goals around enrollment, excellent academic programs, diversity, equity and inclusion … and all of the issues that higher education is grappling with.”
New leader, new aspirations
Cruz represents the kind of leader that community members made clear they wanted, regents board member Fred DuVal said.
“In Dr. Cruz, I think we met the community exactly where they are, we met the need that exists and we met the aspiration that exists, and that’s very exciting,” DuVal said. “What this appointment confirmed — that we know, and we’re telling the rest of the world — is NAU is a nationally recognized university, just like University of Arizona and ASU. And Dr. Cruz reflected that caliber.”
Cruz arrives from the City University of New York, where he has been second in command of a system of 25 campuses within the city serving a largely commuter student body of more than 270,000. NAU is smaller and more rural, with roughly 30,000 students and one main campus nestled in the mountains, but Cruz said both places hold educational values in common.
The change of pace is hopefully welcome, said regents chair Larry Penley, who extended “a very hearty Western welcome” to Cruz.
An island and two coasts in Cruz’s background
Before serving as executive vice chancellor and university provost at the City University of New York, Cruz was provost at California State University, Fullerton. He also worked at the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., and at the University of Puerto Rico system.
He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, followed by a master’s and a doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology, according to his resume.
Building bridges between NAU and Flagstaff
Among the challenges Cruz will face are declining enrollment and relationships with Flagstaff residents, some of whom have taken issue with the university’s growth.
“The fortunes of Flagstaff and the fortunes of NAU as we move forward into the next chapter of this great institution are inextricably intertwined. There’s just no way to separate them,” Cruz said. “There is a concept of universities being good stewards of place and that it’s not just about being the educational hub, the informational hub, but also an economic hub, a cultural hub for the places they inhabit.
“It’s imperative that we come together to chart a path forward. I’m fully confident we can make it right.”
Supporting diversity, boosting graduation rates
Cruz praised public universities for giving students like him a chance to build solid careers and drive positive change.
He emphasized the need for serving all students, including those from traditionally underserved communities.
Studying and working at universities in Puerto Rico and the Bronx, among the most impoverished communities, and Orange County, among the most wealthy, informed his outlook, Cruz said.
Even though NAU has one of the highest Native American enrollment rates in the country, Cruz said he wants to increase support so that graduation rates rise as well. Soon the university will qualify for extra federal funding as its student population reaches 25% Hispanic, but Cruz said it’s important to use the funding wisely to serve students well.
“Equity is about the policies and practices that you put into place to ensure everyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity and access to resources that will allow them to bring their full selves into their work,” Cruz said.
Improving transparency and trust
Transparency, accountability, open communication and shared governance also are among his top priorities, he said.
What Cruz will earn
Cruz’s three-year contract includes:
- $515,000 annual base salary.
- $70,000 annual housing allowance.
- $10,000 annual car allowance.
- Cash balance pension plan at 18% of base annual salary.
- Eligibility for bonuses related to performance goals.
- Reimbursement for moving costs and up to four trips to Flagstaff between March 1 and June 14.
- Medical benefits, sick leave, vacation leave and retirement options available to NAU administrators.
- Travel reimbursement comparable to other NAU employees.
- Annual disclosure to the board regarding affiliations with organizations and associated compensation.
By comparison, Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who oversees six campuses and nearly 130,000 students, earned a total of $1,024,835 in 2019.
University of Arizona President Robert Robbins, the leader of three campuses and nearly 47,000 students, took home total compensation of $875,000 in 2019.
Arizona Republic reporter Rachel Leingang contributed.
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