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UC Riverside Appointment a Breakthrough

Education: Latino groups cheer the choice of astrophysicist France A. Cordova as the school's next chancellor.


The University of California named its first Latina chancellor Tuesday, choosing astrophysicist France A. Cordova to take the helm of the UC Riverside campus.

Cordova, 54, now vice chancellor for research at UC Santa Barbara, will lead a campus that is the fastest growing and most ethnically diverse in the UC system.

Her selection followed a determined campaign by Latino politicians and campus and community activists to bring a Latino chancellor to Riverside.

But UC President Richard C. Atkinson, who recommended Cordova to the UC Regents after a three-month search, downplayed the role of the activists' campaign. In brief remarks during a telephone news conference, Atkinson focused on Cordova's career and education as a scientist, touching on everything from her PhD from the California Institute of Technology to her stint as the chief scientist at NASA.

"She has truly had a distinguished scientific career," he said.

At the same time, Atkinson said, Cordova has had a "truly outstanding" record in reaching out to underrepresented minorities.

In the news conference following a 16-0 vote by the regents approving her selection, Cordova said her chief challenge would be managing continued growth at UC Riverside. Last fall it enrolled 14,429 students, a 10% increase from a year earlier.

The expanding student population, she said, "means growth in the faculty and staff. And I think that's one of the very attractive things about taking this position, and it's one of the big challenges."

Other top goals, she said, would be raising funds from private sources and finding "more ways to get more people prepared for higher education, especially underrepresented minorities."

Although Cordova will become the first Latina in the 134-year history of the UC system to head one of its nine campuses, there was one previous Latino chancellor: poet and literary critic Tomas Rivera, who headed UC Riverside from 1979 until his death of a heart attack in 1984.

Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus, said he was overjoyed by the appointment--even though Cordova wasn't on a list of Latino candidates that he and legislative colleagues submitted to the UC system's leaders.

"These are incredibly important appointments," Firebaugh said. A chancellor, he said, "conceivably has the ability to lead a dialogue on education statewide."

"The University of California is absolutely the jewel of California higher education. And to lead one of those campuses is to be offered a pulpit from which to lead on education matters," Firebaugh added.

Armando Navarro, chairman of the ethnic studies department at UC Riverside and the leader in the campaign for a Latino chancellor, agreed.

"There's a glass ceiling that's hard to penetrate or break, and apparently there's been a crack created through the success of Dr. France Cordova. There is hope for us now."

Judith Rodin, the president of the University of Pennsylvania who in 1994 became the first woman to head an Ivy League school, said Cordova "will be looked to as a role model and mentor."

She said Cordova will need to use the "mantle" of being a ground-breaker wisely and well, because being first gets a lot of attention.

Cordova's personal history crosses the globe. Her father was from Mexico and her mother was a fifth-generation American of Irish descent. Cordova , the eldest of 12 children, was born in Paris, where her father served as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department.

The family later moved to Southern California, and Cordova attended high school in La Puente. From there she went to Stanford University, receiving a bachelor's degree in English before turning to science and earning a PhD in physics from Caltech in 1979.

Cordova assumes her new job July 1. She replaces Raymond L. Orbach, who resigned early this year after 10 years in the post to become director of the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy.

As chancellor, Cordova's salary will be $265,200, the same amount that Orbach earned.

Cordova is married to Christian J. Foster, a science educator, and she has two teenage children.

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