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Dr. Estela Lopez Tackles New Challenge As Interim Head of State's University System

Dr. Estela Lopez was recently named, as the interim head of the Connecticut's Higher Education system.

Dr. Estela Lopez was recently named, as the interim head of the Connecticut’s Higher Education system.

Bill Sarno
Dr. Estela Lopez likens her new role as interim provost of the Board of Regents for Higher Education to being a participant in a relay race. It just so happens, however, that her leg in this relay race may prove pivotal since it will include the introduction of Transform CSCU 2020, a new strategic plan that Governor Malloy announced in February 2014.
The goal of this plan is to unite the four members of the Connecticut State University System, 12 community colleges and an online college into one interdependent “world-class higher education system.”
As interim provost, Dr. Lopez will play a major role in carrying forward the academic side of this project.
Dr. Lopez, , who was vice chancellor of academic affairs for the Connecticut State University System from 2002 to 2007,  said her “first goal” is to “continue things that are already going on” and to make sure they stay on course.
The introduction of Transform CSCU 2020, which essentially is being spearheaded by Board of Regents President Gregory Gray, recently has run into heavy criticism from faculty leaders over what they say is inadequate funding for academics and their lack of input. They also expressed disappointment about the sudden departure in November of a provost who they saw as an ally.
As the new provost, Dr. Lopez said she wants to receive the faculty’s input, primarily through the faculty advisory committee, and to convey their concerns to the regents. She hopes to start this listening process during her first weeks on the job.
Over the long run, the Cuban-born educator also intends to look into how the state colleges help Latino students progress in higher education and will remain in an advisory role for Excelencia in Education, a national program in this area, for which she had served as a senior associate until her new appointment.
Dr. Lopez plans to examine the data from different campuses, especially the two-year community colleges. “They are the places most Latinos go to,” she said, noting that Latinos comprise at least 25 percent of the enrollment on some campuses. “I also want to see what happens to them when they transfer to four-year colleges,” she said.
Having left semi-retirement to accept Gray’s appointment to serve as the interim provost, Dr. Lopez brings extensive and impressive credentials to her new job, including a doctorate from Columbia University and experience as a higher education administrator in Illinois, Puerto Rico and Connecticut.
One point that Dr. Lopez emphasizes is that the word “interim” comes before her title and that her tenure runs to June 30, 2016. She said her appointment had to be set up with the sunset proviso to accommodate her wish to retire next year.
However, total retirement seems unlikely. For one thing, she hopes to be nominated in February for another four-year term as a member of the state Board of Education.
In announcing the appointment of Dr. Lopez, Gray said, “Her record of exemplary history of service to our institutions, as well as her professionalism and effectiveness, make her an ideal candidate to serve in this capacity.”
Dr. Lopez has served as  provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, as a senior associate at the American Association for Higher Education and as a senior fellow at the American Council on Education.
She also served as vice president for academic affairs and planning at Inter American University in Puerto Rico, and director of the Hispanic Health Council where she promoted policies to address health disparities within the Latino community.
Dr. Lopez has received numerous awards including both the Hispanic Caucus of the AAHHE Distinguished Leadership in Higher Education Award, and the Illinois Latino Council in Higher Education Distinguished Service Award. In 2006, she was selected Latina Citizen of the Year for the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. In 2008, she received the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association Achievement Award.
Dr. Lopez, whose husband is Puerto Rican, went to high school and college in New York City. Even though greatly enjoys her life, the good Puerto Rican foods and her friends in Connecticut, going home still means, she said, New York City.
As an immigrant from post-Castro Cuba, she quickly recognized that education would be her salvation. “I had lost a country, but they can’t take that (my education) away from me.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Queens College, and both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Spanish literature from Columbia University.
In retrospect, it would have helped her if programs like  Excelencia in Education had existed, she said, adding that with a mentor she might have made some different choices in school.
During her previous service with CSUS, Dr. Lopez was responsible for leading and coordinating public initiatives and services pertaining to planning, research, student advocacy and learning at the four universities. She also worked on community college programs to respond to workforce development needs.
During this period, the four state universities and the community college system were administered differently than today.
Less than four years ago, the Board of Regents was created as part of Governor Malloy’s plan to unify the governance of Eastern Central, Western and Southern state universities with the state’s community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College.
This changeover has not always gone smoothly, with board having to deal with controversies relating to leadership and questionable salary practices.
In December, state legislators questioned the regents about a nearly $2 million payment to a consultant to develop a strategic plan, the administrative costs of a $6 million program to increase enrollment and a $70,000 severance package cloaked in privacy issues that was given to the previous provost, Michael Gargano who abruptly left his $224,000 a year provost position after about eight on the job.

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