LOS ANGELES — A physicist who served as chief scientist for NASA was appointed chancellor of the University of California at Riverside on Monday, becoming the second Hispanic to head a campus in the system’s 134-year history.
France A. Cordova, 54, emerged as the top contender for the job following a nationwide search involving 200 candidates and a fierce lobbying effort by students, activists and politicians to have a Hispanic appointed to the post.
“She has a truly distinguished scientific career,” said UC President Richard C. Atkinson, who denied politics played a role in the hiring decision. “Frankly, I think other people were more aware of the campaign than I was.”
UC regents, meeting in a special session by telephone Monday, voted 16-0 to approve Cordova. In making their decision, they were prohibited by Proposition 209 from considering race or ethnicity.
Cordova, currently vice chancellor for research at the University of California at Santa Barbara, becomes the second Hispanic to head a UC campus. Poet and educator Tomas Rivera led Riverside from 1978 until his death in 1984.
Cordova told reporters she was “humbled” by the appointment, adding she looks forward to building on UC Riverside’s multicultural enrollment, where 22 percent of students are Hispanic.
“Enhancing diversity is very important to me,” said Cordova, who reflected on her own education. “Let me take you back to my childhood. I was thrilled by the beauty of science. But when I was in grade school, I did not have mentors.”
The daughter of a Mexican father and Irish-American mother, Cordova was the first female Hispanic student from her high school to be accepted at Stanford University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English. She earned a Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1979.
The oldest of 12 children, she was born in Paris and grew up in La Puente, a suburb just east of Los Angeles.
After receiving her degree, Cordova became a staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 1993, she was named chief scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. She was named one of “America’s 100 brightest scientists under 40” by Science Digest magazine in 1984.
Despite her achievements, Cordova is reluctant to become a poster child for the Hispanic activists who lobbied on her behalf. “I am just the happy person that got selected,” she said.
She replaces outgoing Chancellor Raymond Orbach, who is resigning to direct the U.S. Department of Energy’s office of science. She will earn a yearly salary of $265,200, and begins July 1.
Professor Armando Navarro, who chairs Riverside’s ethnic studies department, sees in Cordova an opportunity to set future education policy.
“What’s at stake here is not so much the present, but the future,” Navarro said. “Within the next 20 years, Hispanics will constitute a new majority in California. And yet, in positions of power we are being excluded, particularly in higher education.”
The lobbying effort to get a Hispanic named chancellor extended to Washington, where the 18 Hispanic members of Congress sent a letter to the University of California Board of Regents. Hispanic state legislators and leaders of some 15 national Hispanic advocacy organizations also lent their support.
“This kind of synchronicity of the Latino political gears is unprecedented,” said Navarro. “This transcended the boundaries of California. This caught the imagination and the fervor of a lot of people.”
Navarro said national interest was fueled by a phenomena he dubbed “the browning of America.” In the case of California, 34 percent of the population, or 12 million people, are Hispanic. Systemwide, Hispanics comprise 11 percent of the student population at the 10 UC campuses.
“Regardless of skin color, ultimately what’s most important is the delivery of policies that are fair for everyone,” Navarro said.