They came from the same small neighborhood on a hill in a city on the western edge of Puerto Rico and now sit at the top of their respective institutions. Dr. F. Javier Cevallos and Dr. Ricardo Azziz can reflect on a shared childhood and look forward to similar challenges in university financing and student debt but also the rewards of shaping young minds.
Cevallos, the president of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, came to visit Azziz at Georgia Regents University last week. Both grew up in a family of professors at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Cevallos’ parents were a historian and a linguist, and Azziz was raised by a social anthropologist and a theoretical physicist.
“Those discussions were pretty interesting stuff,” Azziz said.
The two lived within about a quarter-mile of each other and Dr. Waded Cruzado, now the president of Montana State University.
“It is a little hill in Mayagüez that is called Miradero, ‘the lookout,’ ” Cevallos said. “So it is the Lookout Hill. We all moved up there because it was a little cooler, with the breeze. The views were great. You could see the entire bay. It was a nice, nice place to grow up.”
“Javier’s house was very interesting,” Azziz said. “His parents’ house is actually on the edge of the cliff.”
Azziz’s family would later build their house nearby.
“We built it by hand,” he said.
“They did it themselves,” Cevallos said.
BOTH ATTENDED THE same private Catholic high school where “99 percent” of the students went on to college, Cevallos said.
“It was not even a question. It was just an expectation,” he said.
“In fact, I can’t remember anybody dropping out at all,” Azziz said.
“In our families, in his family and my family, the expectation was not only to go to college but it was:
What graduate degree are you going to get?” Cevallos said.
Yet they knew theirs was a “privileged” existence, even without a lot of money, because they could see the impact of a lack of education in the poor areas around the city, he said.
“We were the fortunate ones,” Cevallos said. “You could see what not having an education and not having a profession” would mean.
BOTH GRADUATED FROM their hometown university and went on to careers in the United States. Cevallos plowed straight through from his doctorate into teaching and then a full professorship.
“Then at some point I woke up one morning and said I want to do something different and started getting into administration,” he said. “It’s been kind of a seamless progression.”
Azziz, an OB/GYN and an accomplished researcher who still has an active lab at GRU, said he didn’t start thinking about administration until about 15 years ago,
when he was finishing his MBA. His father had always warned him against that sort of thing.
“My father would say to me all of the time, ‘If you become an administrator, it is the end of your professional career,’ ” Azziz said, laughing.
“You’re done,” Cevallos chimed in.
“In many ways it has helped certainly myself and probably Javier understand how faculty feel about administration,” Azziz said.
It is not the same job it was in their fathers’ time, Cevallos said.
“It is a job that requires a lot of time, it is 24/7 nonstop,” he said. “And you have to do three jobs at a time.”
It means being a lot more savvy about finances at a time when the traditional sources of academic revenue are shrinking, Azziz said.
“Clearly states are getting out of the business, the federal government is getting out of the business,” he said. “The education is becoming more expensive. And the competition from abroad, not just internally from for-profits but the competition from China, who is investing huge amounts of money into this field, how are we going to be competitive?”
In real dollars, the level of funding on average is where it was in 1998, Cevallos said.
“Not only do we have more students, but the expenses we have are significantly higher (than then),” he said. For instance, “ask any college president how much you have to spend in broadband just so students can have Wi-Fi.
“If you have a health system, as we do,” Azziz said, “duplicate those barriers and that cost.”
THE BIGGEST CONCERN they have is for the students.
“We are getting to the point that students can no longer afford to go to college,” Cevallos said. “And it is a very dangerous thing because our nation has thrived because of education.”
“It’s becoming unaffordable for most people to do that,” Azziz said. “It is becoming unaffordable for the universities to actually manage that system. Society seems to be forgetting that an educated population is a population that is successful.”
Yet for all of the challenges ahead for them, the academic life they grew up in and lead now is a good place to be, they agreed. Both Kutztown and now GRU have significant numbers of students who are the first in their family to attend and graduate from college.
“You know that you are making a difference in those lives,” Cevallos said. “That is what makes you very happy.”