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Chancellor Tackles Image Problems

The new head of UC Riverside wants respect for her school -- and the way she sees herself.

May 27, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

France A. Cordova, UC Riverside's first-year chancellor, had plenty to say recently to the student group Latinos in Science.

She spoke of growing up the eldest of 12 children, earning an English degree from Stanford and then being so smitten by astronomy that she switched gears to pursue a career as an astrophysicist. She spoke of being a woman in a field dominated by men, and of rising to become NASA's top scientist.

But as Cordova charmed her audience with her personal story and gentle humor, there was one thing she didn't mention: her Latina heritage.

Though hailed by activists as the first Latina chancellor in the UC system upon her selection a year ago, Cordova seems to chafe at that label -- and at any suggestion that ethnicity, rather than hard work and ability, helped her get ahead.

Being Latina, Cordova explained in an interview, is part of her fiber but "no more or less of a fact than many other facts about me.... To me, what's important is what I do with this job."

Cordova sees her school, the most ethnically diverse UC campus, in a similar way. She values its diversity, but wants it to be known for much more.

She wants to turn UC Riverside, perhaps the least academically distinguished among the UC campuses, into a top-tier institution.

"Every decade there is a university in America that emerges that was the long shot that people didn't talk about," Cordova said. "USC was an example of that in the past decade.... It climbed out of a lot of things that were not so positive and became a real shining light.

"I want UCR to be the shining light of this decade."

She has never led a university, and this one will be a challenge. In her $269,200-a-year job, Cordova will need to manage the rapid growth of a school whose enrollment, at 15,900, is up 70% since 1997. It is projected to rise to 25,000 by 2015.

Meanwhile, the state's budget crisis has had staff members e-mailing her to inquire about the security of their positions.

Cordova's plan is to take advantage of the campus' growth by using state dollars pegged to enrollment gains to hire hundreds of additional professors, many in business, engineering and the sciences.

At the same time, she will probably be forced to look for cuts in other campus programs.

Many colleagues expect her to hoist the reputation of UC Riverside with the same quiet determination she has applied to everything from her scientific career to her onetime hobby of rock-climbing.

Resistance in NASA

Daniel S. Goldin, the former NASA administrator who hired Cordova, noted that she encountered resistance among the largely male ranks of the space agency when she became its first female chief scientist.

"She held her ground," he recalled. "She did her job, which was exactly what I wanted her to do. She understood that she had to win people over."

With a career as varied and hard-earned as hers, Cordova, 55, was puzzled by news coverage that focused on her being the first Latina chancellor in UC's 135-year history.

For one thing, her Latino background is only on her father's side. He was born in Tampico, Mexico, and came to this country at the age of 8. Cordova's mother is a native New Yorker of Irish extraction.

Also, there was a previous Latino chancellor: poet and literary critic Tomas Rivera, who headed the Riverside campus from 1979 until 1984.

Those who knew Cordova well ribbed her about the sudden attention to her ethnic heritage.

She recalls her former boss, UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang, deadpanning that he never knew he had hired a Latina scientist.

"People didn't discover me as being a Latina for a very long time," Cordova said. "Nobody connected with me because of that."

She added with a laugh: "Nobody's asked me to an Irish festival either."

Although Cordova has often spoken to women's groups and sought out female mentors in her career, her professional experiences did not turn her into a women's rights activist.

"I'm not really a political person," she said.

Question of Diversity

Yet Cordova faces a potentially vexing political problem: Some of those who advocated for a Latino chancellor expect her to maintain or increase the ethnic diversity on campus.

"If at the end of three or four or five years, there's no difference in the numbers, with the leadership of Chancellor Cordova

"It means that even if you struggle to get someone in [the top position], it doesn't really make a difference. The reality of discrimination and exclusion continue." Others, including UC Regent Ward Connerly, insist that ethnicity should be irrelevant and, as state law provides, must not be considered in the hiring of faculty or admission of students.

Cordova says she values diversity -- but she doesn't see it as a numbers game. To her, it's a foundation for a school. In her public remarks, she often speaks of "building on diversity" by taking research and curriculum in new directions.

"It's like when women entered the academy," she said. "Then you started seeing more papers, more scholarship, more research on women

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