Joseph Garcia, the newly appointed president of Colorado State University-Pueblo, will have some mending to do when he takes the helm of the university this fall.
A little more than a year ago, the school was fractured by allegations of racism, and many of Pueblo's Latinos are hoping Garcia can help heal the lingering wounds.
"I hope he has the ability to understand the growth and cultural issues. And I hope he understands the need for diversity," says Margaret Mora, director of the Pueblo branch of the Colorado Progressive Coalition.
Garcia, who has served as president of Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs for the past five years, comes into the position amid high hopes and expectations. Many in the community are eager to see if Garcia will change how the university reaches out to them.
"My goal is to go there and listen to everybody, and to learn how to move the university forward without focusing too much retrospectively," Garcia says.
Roots of distress
In March 2005, professor Dan Forsyth allegedly made comments referring to "lazy, bitter Mexicans" during a forensic anthropology class. After a student filed a complaint, the university launched an internal investigation. Then-President Ronald Applbaum sent Forsyth a letter of warning in regard to his classroom behavior, but university administrators did not take disciplinary action against him.
The incident reverberated with prominent Latinos in the city. In August 2005, state Sen. Abel Tapia (D-Pueblo) hosted and chaired a series of meetings with local Hispanic leaders to discuss the university's relationship with area Latinos. From those discussions came the Cardenas report, a document that cites a lack of communication between the university and the community, as well as concerns about the enrollment and employment of Latinos at the school.
The report highlights demographic disparities between the city and the school. While the report does not use specific numbers, those disparities are not difficult to quantify. Latinos comprise nearly half the city's population, but they account for just over a quarter of the university's student body and less than two dozen professors.
Applbaum initiated meetings with local Hispanic leaders to discuss some of the issues detailed in the report. But in early October, Applbaum announced he would step down as president.
"The community and the student activism placed him on a hot seat that he couldn't deal with anymore," says retired Chicano studies professor Dave Marcus, who advised student activists after the Forsyth incident.
Applbaum says his resignation is "absolutely not" connected to the incidents. He will return to the university as a faculty member.
"It was time to finish my career as a professor, and I think I can make a significant contribution prior to my retirement, which will be in four years," he says.
The right stuff
Joe Ulibarri, a retired municipal court judge in Pueblo, was on the search committee that recommended Garcia. He also took part in Sen. Tapia's discussions and met with Applbaum after the Cardenas report was released.
"In a sense, we addressed some of the issues raised in the Cardenas report," he says of the search committee. "One of the things related to the search had to do with the kind of person we wanted to get someone who would relate to the community."
Garcia says he hopes to engage with all of Pueblo.
"The success of the college and the success of the community are linked very closely," he says.
Garcia expects to boost Latino enrollment and employment numbers at CSU-Pueblo, but he warns against focusing on one ethnic group.
"I hope people don't look at it as a priority of mine just because I am Latino," he says. "I think anyone has to be looking very closely at the Latino population because that is the fastest-growing part of the college-age population."
Garcia recently initiated a program he calls "target-of-opportunity hires" at Pikes Peak Community College. The intent is to diversify the faculty by creating new positions for qualified minority candidates. PPCC will use the program to make half its hires this fall; the other half will be employed via a traditional search.
"If you don't put resources behind these initiatives, they are fairly meaningless," Garcia says. "I can say all I want about my goals and interests in hiring a diverse faculty and recruiting minority students. You have to be able to put resources there. If you are not putting resources in, it is just words."
Garcia will move to Pueblo with his wife, Claire, an English professor at Colorado College. He plans to start as university president before fall semester begins.