If NAU’s next president, José Luis Cruz, Ph.D., had a motto, it would be, “equity and inclusive excellence.”
The university’s 17th president, his wife Rima Brusi, Regents Lyndel Manson and Fred DuVal, along with a few others were carted around campus Friday, touring various facilities and meeting with community leaders. Throughout the afternoon, Cruz met with numerous deans and spoke with the faculty senate, as well as other leaders on campus.
While getting acquainted with campus and some of its many figureheads, Cruz continuously expressed appreciation for and acknowledgement of NAU’s programs, faculty and students, as well as the surrounding landscapes. Cruz stated he plans to move to Flagstaff, and happily.
“We are just so excited and hope that we will be able to build a life here in Flagstaff,” Cruz said during a forum with a group of deans in a University Union conference room. “This university … is a singular university, it is unique in the higher ed landscape in the United States. As I’ve said in other forums, there’s just no other institution that I know of that can be described in the same way — an institution that has a 120-year legacy of service, an institution that takes very seriously its possibility to provide opportunities to all Arizonans, especially those who are underserved.”
An electrical engineer by training, Cruz currently serves as Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost of the City University of New York (CUNY), which is the largest urban university system in the country and serves 25 campuses and a quarter-millionstudents, according to Cruz’s curriculum vitae. Prior to that appointment, he was president of Lehman College of CUNY and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Cal State Fullerton. His career in academics began in Puerto Rico, where he and his wife were both born.
During a forum with regent professors — or exceptional faculty who have earned national or international recognition — in the Applied Research and Development building, Cruz shared an anecdote from the early days of his partnership with Brusi. The first trip they took together as a couple was to northern Arizona, Cruz said.
“We didn’t really have any notion of what the future had in store for either of us or our relationship, but we did say during that trip that we got to figure out a way to get back up here some day,” Cruz said. “I guess the magic of northern Arizona made it happen. I mention all of that because the attraction and the commitment to the work ahead is both intellectual in nature, it’s vocational in nature, it’s based in lived experiences, but it’s also based in romance. So, we really intend to be part of this community and build a life here and hopefully make a difference with your support.”
With the beauty of the region in mind, sustainability is at the heart of much of what NAU does. Representatives from the schools of Earth and Sustainability, Biological Sciences and more spoke with Cruz about the importance of the program’s work and the prevalence of the issue within the local community.
Recent Ph.D. graduate Stéphanie Arcusa touched on the importance of these topics, stressing that the NAU community takes climate change extremely seriously, and the university strives to be a leader in sustainability and climate research. Arcusa put forward four actions for Cruz to consider when entering office: Put intersectionality at the center of every effort, commit to being a leader in climate action, continuously fill the position of sustainability manager and elevate that office to the executive branch.
Cruz said the university’s work in sustainability is just one of the reasons he was attracted to NAU. He praised the faculty and staff’s work regarding the disciplines of these programs as examples other schools on campus could look to, in terms of transdisciplinary, intersectional models.
“At the end of the day, if we are driven by equity, if we are driven by inclusive excellence, if we are driven by ensuring that we positively impact social justice issues across the world — if we’re really interested in doing that, then it's great that it’s happening in your ecosystem, but we need to ensure that the entire university is organized in a similar way.”
In regard to the Indigenous community and relevant retention rates, Cruz acknowledged the challenges that come along with making sure students, especially Indigenous or first-generation students, stay enrolled.
“I’ve heard throughout this process that there is a distance we must travel to get there, not only in terms of recruiting the students, but also the retention and graduation, which says a lot about the magnitude of the challenge,” Cruz said. “We are in the top 10 in the country in graduating Native American students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, yet our graduation rate is still 30 percent. So, it’s really a grand challenge … and I hope together we can not only be top in that number, but do so in a way that really amplifies those numbers in a productive manner.”
Furthermore, Cruz stressed the importance of diversity on campus and stated “recruiting high-quality diverse faculty that reflect the student body” remains a high priority.
While meeting with the faculty senate in the Student and Academic Services auditorium, Cruz said he reviewed two years’ worth of senate minutes to get a feel for the issues on campus — which was met with a laugh — and said firstly, he wanted to develop a shared understanding of those topics with the senate. Cruz expressed a desire for candid feedback and honesty from faculty leaders, and said his first orders of business will be to “learn and listen.”
“We very much look forward to coming to an agreement about how to work together,” Faculty Senate President Gioia Woods said to Cruz during the forum. “I think it will be wonderful work — really looking forward to rolling up our sleeves … I think you’ll find our faculty to be incredibly engaged, so committed to this institution — people who really believe we can be our best selves, so you’re going to find some good people ready to get started and establish our relationship.”
In a virtual evening address to the NAU community, Cruz introduced himself to the Lumberjacks and expressed his gratitude for his recent appointment as the next president. He gave the community a sneak peek into his objectives as president.
“I am going to hit the ground learning by investing time and listening to you in the weeks and months ahead. I want to learn from you as we build together on the fabulous legacy at this vital institution — an institution that for 120 years has seen as its mission, one of being student-centered and one of helping others fulfill their potential.”
At the end of his speech, Cruz shared his beliefs with the audience. Among them, he emphasized shared governance, retaining and supporting community members and bridging the divide between city and university. Cruz listed many of his values: transparency, accountability, diversity and inclusion, but above all, he said he wants to put students at the center of everything NAU does.
Cruz expressed hope for the university’s future as the NAU community reaches nearly a year of uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While plans for reentry next fall are yet to be laid out, Cruz said he believes this community is “prepared to emerge from this crisis stronger, more unified and better prepared for a shared future.”
“Today is just the first day, and in the days ahead, I look forward to meeting many more of you. And please know, this is exactly where I want to be, here in this moment, in one of the most absolutely gorgeous places on Earth, leading Northern Arizona University as we embark on this time of unparalleled challenge and opportunity.”