As Northern Arizona University’s 17th president, electrical engineer and educator José Luis Cruz wants to bring the school the same worldwide recognition as its sister universities through a vision that can be backed by the entire community.
After two days of interviews, the Arizona Board of Regents announced late Thursday evening that Cruz is the finalist for the position to be vacated by current NAU President Rita Cheng, who announced in September she would leave the role after 40 years in higher education. Cheng has served as NAU’s president since 2014.
The date Cruz will replace Cheng has yet to be announced. ABOR will take action to approve Cruz’s appointment and contract at a future meeting.
“The past couple of days have been very constructive and impactful,” Cruz told the Arizona Daily Sun Friday morning as he traveled to Flagstaff for a campus visit. “I have had an opportunity to meet members of the campus and Flagstaff. I have learned about their aspirations, about the challenges and the opportunities that they see moving forward, and I very much look forward to having those conversations. I want to hit the ground learning and work together with all of our stakeholders, internal and external, to create a vision that we can all rally around and move forward.”
This shared vision is his current top priority, and once it is established, Cruz said, NAU can begin focusing on and developing specific programs and initiatives to improve the university’s access, success, scholarship and community engagement.
Cruz holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering.
He began his career as a faculty member in engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, before eventually becoming chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and dean of Academic Affairs. According to his curriculum vitae, he has since held leadership roles at various universities and educational groups, including provost of California State University, Fullerton, and vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have experienced academic life from various vantage points. … And when I think about what the common denominator of that is, it’s all about being very in touch with the needs and the aspirations of the people that you work with and the people that you serve, and so the skill of bringing people together, of listening, of articulating a common way forward at the end of the day is what I think I will tend to most likely lean on as we embark on this 17th presidency,” Cruz said.
He said he decided to leave his most recent position as provost at the City University of New York in favor of NAU because he wants to return to a more community-integrated university. As an “equity-minded person,” he added, NAU is the place to be.
“I have spent 25 years in higher education working throughout the country on issues of access, success and equity, and the opportunity that this represents was so well aligned with my values and what I would hope to be able to contribute moving forward that it was not a hard decision to make,” he said.
Cruz acknowledged that in the coming years NAU will face the same challenges as other universities and, as president, he and his team will need to carefully manage enrollment, diversify revenue streams and work to increase graduation rates, among other efforts.
In his first public address Friday afternoon, Cruz made his goal to “hit the ground running” and recognized NAU’s 120-year history, including the campus’ location on indigenous land and contributions made by previous presidents.
“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,” he said to more than 500 live viewers.
Cruz told the Arizona Daily Sun the future of NAU is intertwined with that of Flagstaff.
“It’s one topic of conversation, and to be successful in building structures and routines will require engagement with the community,” Cruz said. “I think that we will be able to ensure that that balance actually materializes and helps shape the trajectory both of the Flagstaff community and all of these groups.”
Cruz and his wife, Rima Brusi, have been considering relocating to the state for more than 15 years because northern Arizona was the site of the couple’s first trip abroad from their home in Puerto Rico.
“We spent some time in the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and have forever since been thinking about the colors, the smell, the people, the sights of the place and the sounds. So we are very exciting about building a life here,” Cruz said.
The two will relocate to Flagstaff along with their youngest of five children, who is 15 years old.
“My family and I are in this for the long run. We really want to make sure that the university and the Flagstaff community reach their full potential together, as a joint enterprise, and very much are looking forward to building a life in Flagstaff,” Cruz said.
In a brief section of Cheng’s weekly update letter to campus Friday, she announced Cruz’s selection as the presidential finalist and welcomed him and his wife to the Lumberjack family.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.