As incoming NAU president, Dr. José Luis Cruz feels like he’s spent a lifetime preparing for this role.
He began his career as a faculty member in engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, rising through the ranks and serving as chair of the electrical and computer engineering department and dean of academic affairs. He is a former vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., and a former chief student affairs officer for the University of Puerto Rico system. Previously, Dr. Cruz served as provost of California State University, Fullerton.
“When you put it all together, it’s been like I’ve been on the job training for it for NAU for 25 years,” Cruz says. “I feel fortunate and privileged to be given this opportunity.”
The Arizona Board of Regents approved Cruz as the 17th NAU president on March 10. Cruz earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, and then completed his master’s and doctorate at Georgia Institute of Technology, both in electrical engineering.
“Upon being close to graduating (with my bachelor’s) I accepted a job offer with a research company in Princeton, New Jersey,” Cruz says.
“A faculty member who I admire very much stopped me one day in the hallway and said, ‘I know you took this job, but why don’t you get a doctorate instead and come back and teach?’”
That is exactly what Cruz did.
“I applied to grad school, did my doctorate at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and went back to Puerto Rico to teach at my alumna mater,” Cruz says.
“I did that for several years but early on, I got into the administrative track, which is really what ultimately led to NAU.”
Cruz’s most recent role was as the executive vice chancellor and university provost at The City University of New York (CUNY). He began his tenure at CUNY in 2016 as the third president of Lehman College, the only senior college in the Bronx, and was later elevated by the Board of Trustees to the role of executive vice chancellor and university provost for the 25-campus system in 2019.
Cruz received a vague call in December 2020 saying a leadership position was going to soon be available. He didn’t know the position was for the new NAU president.
“I wasn’t particularly in the market at that particular point in time,” Cruz says. “I’m listening, and they say it’s for Northern Arizona University, and I was like, ‘I know NAU. I’ve heard of NAU and it’s in Flagstaff.’ My wife (Rima) and I had taken a trip to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. That was our first trip as a couple 15 to 16 years ago.”
Cruz and his wife have a photo of themselves at the Grand Canyon that they keep on the living room shelf. Going back there “has been a part of our imagination for a very long time, so we are very excited” about moving to Arizona.
“If we could be there tomorrow, we would be there tomorrow,” Cruz says. He and his family are in Puerto Rico doing what he needs to “transition out of my current position in a responsible way.”
Throughout the process of becoming the new NAU president, Cruz and his family have made several trips to Arizona, NAU and the surrounding area.
Cruz hopes to have two weeks between his final day at CUNY and his start date at NAU to check out the sights in Arizona.
“It’s obviously one of the larger states in the country in terms of geographic area so we will probably not be going to see but a fraction of it in those couple weeks but that is certainly our hope,” Cruz says.
“We also have a lot of interest in getting to know the community that we serve because we have a lot of Native American students,” he says.
“It’s at the top of our list to visit those Native nations in whatever capacity.”
FUTURE OF NAU
Before Cruz accepted the NAU position, he met with many people at the school.
“It was a cumulative learning that occurred at that time when I was getting to know an institution that has a 120-year legacy of expanding opportunity in Arizona.”
He discussed how NAU as an institution has seen an upward trend “in the percentage of Hispanic students” and how it should now be looking toward “what a Hispanic-serving institution really means and how to adapt to that.”
Cruz also touched on the institution’s commitment to “Native American success and first-generation student success.”
“The more I learned about where the university had been and where it aspires to be, the more I thought that I would want to be part of that,” Cruz says. “A part of the faculty and the staff and the community that went from where we are to where we want to be.”
He talked about how several new policies and practices have been put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue education.
“I really think that higher ed, in general now, is undergoing a real reckoning of what it should look like, not only post-pandemic— if we can call it that — but more toward the future in general and how we can leverage what we have learned in the past year through the pandemic to forage that future,” Cruz says.
“Generally speaking, my aspirations for NAU are in a very short amount of time to make it a nationally recognized model, comprehensive university for its ability to expand access, enhance learning, increase student outcomes, push the frontiers of knowledge and better serve their communities even when facing tough fiscal conditions and public health emergencies. How do we do things not only do things so well for our students that we get recognized, but that in being recognized we are helping other institutions across the country do the same for their students?”
The process has been a whirlwind and Cruz is just trying to stay focused.
“I would just say that we are not only excited about the opportunity but have also been very pleasantly surprised by the gracious welcome we have been receiving from Flagstaff and NAU and the Arizona Board of Regents system and community,” Cruz says.
“I have gotten to talk to so many people and exchange so many ideas and we really feel that it is the right place for us to be part of that community and I am very much looking forward to it.” CT