Cuban-born Woman in Line to Head Texas A&M

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A Cuban-born woman is the only finalist recommended to the Board of Regents for the presidency of the formerly all-male Texas A&M University. 

Elsa Murano, the finalist selected from 140 submissions, would be the first woman and the first person of Hispanic heritage to head the university in its 131-year history. With more than 45,000 students, officials say it is the 6th largest university in the nation.

In a statement about the selection, Board of Regents Chairman Bill Jones said, “We conducted a nationwide search to find the best candidate for the presidency of Texas A&M University, and we discovered that individual in our own backyard. Dr. Murano is a distinguished researcher and academic leader, a successful manager who has transformed agriculture across the A&M System, and a visionary with the credentials to oversee a $1.2 billion annual enterprise like Texas A&M University.”

Under state law, the regents must wait 21 days before formally offering the job.

Murano, 48, who has a Ph.D. in food science and technology from Virginia Tech University, is vice chancellor of agriculture for the A&M System and dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M. She has a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University.

The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted December 7 to name Murano the lone finalist to succeed former president Robert Gates, who left in December to become the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Murano served as undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2004, overseeing 10,000 employees and an annual budget of $905 million.

“I’m ecstatic,” Murano said after the announcement. “I’m just in a cloud right now.”

Gov. Rick Perry, a Texas A&M alumnus, credited Murano with revitalizing the agriculture program over her three-year tenure. According to the university, the school’s undergraduate enrollment has increased over the past two years, following a sharp decline before her arrival.

Perry said he is “excited an agriculture expert will lead the university for the first time in a long time, recognizing [that] agriculture is vital to our future and not merely our past.”

After leaving Cuba with her family in 1961, Murano lived in several Latin American countries where her father worked before her family settled in Miami when she was about 12.  She is married to Dr, Peter S. Murano.

In 2005, according to the university, Dr. Murano was inducted to the Alumni Hall of Fame of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. In 2002, Hispanic Business Magazine recognized her as one of the “100 Most Influential Hispanics.” She is the recipient of multiple academic fellowships and the Sadie Hatfield Endowed Professorship at Texas A&M from 2000 to 2001. Dr. Murano’s work has been extensively published. She has received numerous research grants totaling more than $8.7 million and has served in a half dozen academic service and professional societies

She began her academic career in 1981 as a research laboratory technician at Florida International. She joined Texas A&M’s faculty in 1995, after spending five years as an assistant professor at Iowa State University. She was director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M when President Bush nominated her to oversee the Agriculture Department’s food-safety programs.

Murano’s nomination capped a contentious selection process that left some faculty members complaining that their opinions have been ignored by the board of regents.

Chancellor Michael McKinney appointed a 15-person committee of regents,

administrators, students, alumni and community members to narrow the applicant field to three candidates. The regents ultimately decided to interview other candidates, however, and told faculty members who complained that they have sole discretion on the issue.

Professor Doug Slack, who chaired the search committee, said that has hurt relationships between the board and the university’s faculty and staff. He said the committee should have been invited to interview Murano before she was named the finalist.

“The decision may have been the same at the end of the day, but at least they would have more information to make a better decision,” he said.

The Eagle newspaper of Bryan, Texas, noted that the pending appointment comes at a time when women are outnumbering men at most colleges across the country and the Hispanic population of Texas is growing at a strong rate.

The newspaper said Murano was overwhelmed to be making history as a woman and Hispanic.

“I can’t quite comprehend that,” she said. “It’s important for me to do the best job I can for the people that come after me. We’re breaking new ground here.”

Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. told the Eagle: “This [nomination] is outstanding and historic for the university. I think the university is telling the world that they want to increase their diversity on campus. It was the first woman and first Hispanic. It is like hitting two targets with one bullet.”

The newspaper said the selection surprised some who criticize the school as resisting change and not being inclusive enough, while minority and women’s supporters applauded the regents’ decision and said the atmosphere on campus had changed.

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Merna Jacobsen, interim director of the A&M Women’s Center, was quoted as saying,

“I think A&M has shown a tremendous capacity to hold on to the values and characteristics that bring it strength, and at the same time, undergo tremendous transformations that will make it stronger. That is just really delightful.”

A&M archivist David Chapman said women were allowed to enroll as degree-seeking students in 1963 on a limited basis, Chapman said. Women students and staff gained full acceptance around the early 1970’s, he said.

“It is a fairly recent occurrence that you have woman administrators,” Chapman said. “I think it took a lot of time to change, and in many ways, it is still changing.”

Women account for about 47 percent of A&M students, according to the A&M Office of Institutional Studies and Planning, and about 32 percent of the faculty is female.

In a state that is about 35 percent Hispanic, A&M’s Hispanic enrollment is about 11 percent of the student body, and about 5 percent of the faculty is Hispanic, according to the school.

–Associated Press and Diverse staff

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