Q&A with Dr. José Luis Cruz

President Cruz poses for a photo in the NAZ Today studio with School of Communication faculty, April 1.

After touring the School of Communication’s Media Innovation Center and Advanced Media Lab, NAU’s 17th president, José Luis Cruz, Ph.D., sat down with The Lumberjack's Scout Ehrler and Nathan Manni for an interview. Cruz met with various faculty members and students Thursday afternoon, viewing The Lumberjack's newsroom, the NAZToday studio, the KJACK Radio booth and the school’s esports facility. 

As he transitions into the role of president and moves from New York City to Flagstaff, Cruz will make a handful of visits to NAU in order to get acquainted with campus and its faculty, staff and students. He is slated to step into the role of university president on June 14. 

SE: So, how is the moving process going? 

JLC: It’s going well — a little stressful. The same day the board appointed me officially, that was the day the movers had taken everything out of my apartment in New York City, so all the stuff is in Long Island, in an undisclosed location in a warehouse, waiting for us to have a place here to ship it to. We’ve been working out of Puerto Rico since that time and we’re fairly close to closing on our home here. If that happens, we will probably move before my actual start date, which is June 14. I’ll still be working for New York, but if I can do it from Puerto Rico, I can do it from Flagstaff.

SE: What have you and your transition team been up to in order to prepare for that June start date? 

JLC: I had said when we first talked that the intention was to hit the ground learning, and so we’ve been trying to deliver on that. The first action was to put together a small core team. Kim [Ott], Laurie Dickson, Brian Register have been instrumental in ensuring that we can focus on who I need to be talking to, in what order, to get up to speed quickly on the main issues facing campus before June 14. So, there are a couple of components. One is working with the executive team to have topic-specific briefings on areas like enrollment and budget and all the areas of running a university — both written briefings, as well as Budget 101-type briefings where I’ll hopefully be able to quickly learn the ins-and-outs of how budgeting is done in Arizona, as opposed to California, or all the other places I’ve been. So, that’s one part of the discovery process, as we’ve called it. And then, I think it was just last week, we had the first meeting with the Presidential Transition Commission, which is a broader group. I think we have 28 representatives — students, faculty, staff and community members. We basically charged the commission with, over the next couple of months, developing a plan for my first six months around who I need to engage with — again in what order — to get a better understanding of the culture, the aspirations, the challenges, the opportunities, so that we can go from hitting the ground learning to hitting the ground running and being able to start driving some initiatives. So, so far so good! I’m learning every day. This is part of that process — we built in three visits. This is the March visit, that’s bleeding into April, and then I’ll have another one later in the month, then in May. This one’s focused on students, the next will be faculty, staff and community. 

SE: Do you have any idea what your first plan of action will be yet? 

JLC: You know, the first plan of action is to try to — from all of these efforts that are ongoing, that I’m learning from — is to distill from three to five big themes that we can engage the campus community and the external community in during the first year. And so, there are some topics that are floating to the top and there’s still time to go, so these may change, but issues around consultative leadership, issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, campus climate, issues around the identity from the perspective of research and creative activities, and how those feed into our academic programming and the way we relate to the community. Then of course, issues you’d expect in any institution, this is not just NAU — issues around fiscal sustainability, sustainability in general because that’s a big thing for the university and the community, enrollment, academic excellence, student success. So, what I’m hoping is — perhaps not on June 14 on day one because we have the commission working on a six-month plan that will add more input to the process — but some time in that first semester, in the fall, I’ll be able to come out with the three to five things we would focus on, and these are not the ones I came up with, these are the ones I’ve heard from you. 

SE: So, I know that we’re anticipating reentry into in-person classes next semester. How do you see that reopening going? 

JLC: Well, I’m just now — as part of this learning process — getting a better understanding of what the ultimate goal, optimistic goal would be in what operational and communication, strategic investments, need to be made in order to ensure an optimistic fall that looks more like the prepandemic era — what needs to happen to get there, and what would be some of the mitigation plans that would be in place in case we need to scale back at some point. I feel very optimistic, but we need to be prepared for things going in a little bit of a different direction. I do still have another job, so part of my attention right now is in ensuring that the fall for the City University of New York is in a good place. And what’s been interesting is to see what some of the things we’re doing there, I think could help our thinking here, and vice versa. Some of the things I’m hearing from different folks as to how the campus is looking at the fall and saying, that could be helpful in New York. Two very different situations, obviously, in terms of geography, scale, types of students, etc. 

NM: What are some of those things that you hope to bring from the City University of New York to NAU — things that worked there that you think could be implemented in Flagstaff? 

JLC: One of the things I’ve learned at the City University of New York — even more so than when I was the Provost at Cal State, Fullerton, because of the scale of CUNY and the students that CUNY serves — is the importance of really approaching all challenges and opportunities through an equity lens. And that’s very ingrained in the ethos of [CUNY] — it was founded as the Free Academy. And by law, the 25 campuses that comprise it, with 500 thousand students, between degree and nondegree programs, the mission is to serve as a vehicle of upward mobility for the historically underserved peoples of New York City. It's beautiful language, right? And it provides a really strong framework for the word [equity]. So, in coming to NAU, I bring that mindset into how we approach issues, which is ultimately about driving the mission and ensuring that everything we do is aligned with improving education attainment for the students of NAU, in this case, and in doing so, really accelerating the state’s ability to not only provide more opportunity for Arizonans, but also, as I’ve said before, in doing so, create a blueprint for other similar colleges and universities across the country that are trying to figure it out. That’s also some of what I bring from New York, it’s the scale, right? So I think, we have the Flagstaff campus, but there’s these 20 others, so it could be a mini system, and so how do we create that scale? Because clearly, there’s a lot of impact, so we want to expand that out. 

SE: Our university here has experienced a lot of loss due to COVID, as I’m sure you know, between faculty and staff, decreased enrollment and funding, especially in programs like [those in the School of Communication]. The Lumberjack lost its print edition when COVID hit, so I’m curious — I know this is a long-term question, but in the short-term, how do you anticipate potentially repairing the damage that COVID did? 

JLC: That’s a great question. I think, you know, one thing — just put it out there and we can park it — is, what can we learn from the way we reacted to COVID? Because there are probably things that we learned to do differently that could help, even post-COVID, so I want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the bright spots. I think from a policy and practices perspective — at least this has been my experience in New York and I’m sure it’s probably true here, and as I learn more, I’ll find out what the specifics are — there are things that, at CUNY, faculty, staff and students had wanted to do for many years, then the crisis really created the conditions and the sense of urgency to do them, so I suppose there may be some things here that we want to keep. But to your broader question, I think that as part of this process of identifying the three to five things we want to focus on, the framework that we develop to talk about those things will hopefully give us some insight into how to restore those areas. It’s very difficult to talk about, how do we restore faculty lines or staff lines, or the resources for the print edition for The Lumberjack, a request for a $15 minimum wage, or separately, carbon neutrality by 2030 — I’m just saying the things I’ve heard today from people, these are the things that everybody is passionate about — it’s hard to talk about them individually. So, part of what we want to do in the first six months is to be able to come up with a framework that will engage all stakeholders in saying, OK, we’re going to work really, really hard to increase the size of the pie, we’re going to work with ABOR and legislators, and we’re going to do more with philanthropic support and grants and contracts. But in the meantime, with the size of the pie that we have and the competing aspirations, what’s the most equitable way to go about it? Let’s think of not next year, but let’s think about the next three to four years. And so, along the way, we’ll get some winds in enrollment that will drive tuition revenue up, that will then be able to be funneled back into a print edition of The Lumberjack, for example. It’s going to take time. I’m hoping that the campus will be willing to engage and recognize the complexity, but my experience — my 25 years in higher ed[ucation] — is that when you have an engaged campus community and you have a process in place that people buy into, you can solve these issues. In other places I’ve been, when people say, “We don’t have any money,” I say, “Our money is invested in people.” So, if I can capture 10% of the faculty’s time — when I was at Fullerton, 10% of the faculty’s payroll was $26 million — so if I can capture 10% of your time toward solving this problem, we can solve this problem.

SE: That is a brilliant approach. 

JLC: Anyways, that’s a long-winded answer, but you know, I try to step back — these are complex problems and it’s hard — if we had silver bullets, there wouldn’t be problems. 

SE: Speaking more toward student media — you’re coming from New York City, one of the media capitals of the county, let alone the world, and Flagstaff is almost the exact opposite. As I’m sure you heard, NAZToday is the only TV station in the city. We only have two newspapers, The Lumberjack is one of them. So, what role do you see student-led media playing in the culture of our campus and city, and how do you plan to support that? 

JLC: This will likely be true of several points of pride of this university, but with this specific area, I think that when you talk about universities being anchor institutions, meaning that they are not only intellectual hubs, but also economic hubs and cultural hubs, if they happen to be located in communities that have deficiencies in certain areas, like in this case, information about the local community, then it’s really incumbent upon the university that has the intellectual resources and programs to try to fill that void. In a way that will advance students’ careers, obviously, and the disciplines that the faculty are advancing, but it’s a responsibility, especially in places like this, where you have such a large university and such a, from a population perspective, small town. I say that to suggest that I will be very supportive of working toward trying to figure out how we can scale up the good work and expand the impact that this had. At Cal State, Fullerton, the way that worked out, there was a deficiency in local media, but especially in Spanish — local media reporting with an increased population in that demographic — so we created a newscast with Univision as a partner that was runned by our students, similar facilities to the one we have here, that was based around local news, but delivered by students who were bilingual. So, I just say that as an example of how we looked at a particular place that needed attention, and then put the institutional resources toward that. That’s how I would approach this particular issue — we have this great infrastructure, we already have a great impact, what’s next? Within the framework of the broader campus community, with all of the competing priorities, what can we do, who can we partner with to take it to the next level? 

SE: NAU recently became a Hispanic Serving Institution, and as you know, we have a large population of students of color, and I’m curious on how you plan to support those communities as a Hispanic person yourself, but also what could that mean for the university and its funding? 

JLC: The Hispanic Serving Institution is a big deal from the standpoint of signaling to the world that this is a welcoming university that has expanded access to historically underserved communities, in this case, Hispanic students. You hit that 25%, you get the seal of approval of the U.S. Department of Education, and that’s a passport to get access to extra funding — a new revenue source for the university by just getting to this place. What I want to focus on now is not only the celebration of getting to that Hispanic Serving Institution designation because of what it means for the inclusive environment being built over time here, but focusing on the serving part. What does it mean to be a good Hispanic Serving Institution — serving students well. So for example, if our Hispanic students are not graduating at the same rate as our overall student body, that’s an issue. So, narrowing that achievement gap would be important. If in trying to drive toward that, we realize we need to strengthen some programs that exist already or provide equitable access to others that may need to be created, those are things we would be considering. If it implies that we need to do a better job of reaching out to Latino communities across the states, that’s where we would go. So, I still don’t know enough about where the opportunities and the challenges are, but the serving piece is really what’s catching my attention. Everywhere I’ve worked in higher education has been an HSI. In Fullerton, we were both an HSI and an AANAPISI, which is an Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander Serving Institution, so I sort of know what it means to get the designation and get the money, and how some times, over time, the designation is taken for granted and it’s just about the money. So, this is a great point in time for me coming in because having all these experiences, it’s like, we’re at the beginning of the journey of an HSI, so how can we build a foundation for good service moving forward?