UC Riverside Chancellor France A. Cordova, the first Latina to head a UC campus and the leader of the university's effort to win preliminary approval for a medical school, on Monday was named president of Purdue University in Indiana, where she will become the first woman to lead the school in its 138-year history.
Since Cordova took over as UC Riverside's chancellor in 2002, the campus of 17,000 students has come to enjoy a reputation as one of the most ethnically diverse research universities in the nation.
Cordova said leaving the campus was a difficult decision.
"I think UCR is truly a gem of the UC system. I will just miss all of it," she said. "There's so many things we started, but the work is never done. I assembled a great team of administrators, faculty leaders, staff and student leaders. They're all committed to the institution and they will move forward. I hope I've been a little part of positioning ourselves for the future."
Cordova, 59, was NASA's former chief scientist and served as vice chancellor for research and a professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara. After graduating from Stanford University with an English degree, she earned a doctorate in physics at Caltech.
Her selection as UC Riverside chancellor followed a determined campaign by Latino politicians, campus and community activists. But after her appointment, Cordova seemed uncomfortable with suggestions that her heritage -- her father was born in Tampico, Mexico, and her mother is a native New Yorker of Irish descent -- rather than hard work, helped her win the job.
Cordova said she was proudest of her work on the medical school. UC Riverside won preliminary approval to be the site of the University of California's next medical school, which would be the first new UC medical school in 45 years.
She also took pride in launching the Palm Desert Graduate Center, a satellite campus in the Coachella Valley, which offers business and fine arts masters programs, and in creating a welcoming environment for students from all backgrounds.
Cordova said she was drawn to Purdue in part by the opportunity to continue that mission by speaking from a national platform about the importance of public investment in higher education, especially for women and minorities.
Speaking on behalf of UC Riverside faculty, Academic Senate Chairman Thomas Cogswell said he would miss Cordova's sense of humor and her strong leadership.
"She has a great ability to focus on big issues and follow them through," he said. "The medical school was a great example of that. It was a major political feat for which she labored mightily with regents."
UC President Robert Dynes expressed his appreciation to Cordova for her 20 years in the University of California system and said that efforts to open a medical school in Riverside would continue in her absence.
Dynes said an acting chancellor would be named soon, and the search for a permanent successor would begin, assisted by a search committee made up of UC regents, faculty members and at least one undergraduate student, one graduate student, one alumnus and one staff member.
At Purdue, Cordova's selection followed a seven-month search for a successor to Martin C. Jischke, who will retire June 30. Cordova will remain in Riverside until at least July 1. She will become Purdue's first female president since its establishment in 1869.
She will lead the five-campus, public university system with 69,000 students.
Purdue officials were looking for a strong leader and a proven fundraiser -- at UC Riverside, Cordova increased the school's endowment 43% in two years and doubled philanthropic funding.
"The trustees interviewed several outstanding candidates who would have been excellent presidents of this university," said J. Timothy McGinley, chairman of Purdue's board of trustees.
"As you have heard, Dr. Cordova stood out as the right person at the right time for Purdue. Her vision for Purdue and higher education matches the vision of this board."
Cordova, speaking during a visit to Purdue, said the school had a significant opportunity to address the dearth of women and minorities entering science and engineering.
She pledged a strategic plan that would celebrate students, faculty and staff, and to strengthen bonds with alumni. She said to expect to see her and her husband, Chris, at student functions and sporting events around campus.
"My husband and I are ... thrilled to be back at a campus with a football team," she said.
Times staff writer Richard Paddock contributed to this report.