By Wayne Jebian
It has been a long journey for Elsa Núñez from being a first-year student at state college, staring down at a paper filled with red marks, to being president of Eastern Connecticut State University.
Born in Puerto Rico, she moved with her family to Newark, N.J., when she was eight years old. Núñez believes that her life might have gone quite differently had it not been for a very special English professor, a World War II veteran who saw poetry in her name.
“Dr. McGee would read the roster and when he got to me, he would say ‘Elsa Maria Núñez – what a beautiful name,’ every time he read it,” she said. “And then I got my first English paper back, with a million red marks all over it and a note saying, ‘You must come see me.’” Núñez would go to Dr. McGee’s office and spend hours rewriting her papers. “Today, I’m a very good writer because of that,” she said. “I had no trouble in college.”
Because she remembers what it was like to come to this country with no English, and because she so vividly recalls her own lack of confidence sitting in that first state college English class, Núñez will continue to fight for the opportunities of Latino students even as she works on behalf of all students in Connecticut public colleges and universities. “You cannot have a great democracy if people don’t have access to the middle class,” she said, “and the great equalizer is higher education. So my experience with Dr. McGee is what motivates me to say that if you give people the right support, they will realize their potential.”
After graduating from Montclair State College (now Montclair State University), Núñez earned an M.A. at Fairliegh Dickenson and a Ph.D. in linguistics from Rutgers. While a faculty member at Ramapo State College, she had another mentoring experience that again changed the direction of her life.
“I was helping the department chair, Bob Christopher, with administrative duties,” she recalled. “One day he said to me, ‘You know what? You should think about becoming an administrator because you do it well, and you do things on time, and you’re interested in this. That was the first time anyone ever talked to me about administration.”
Although Núñez calls a career path from faculty member to university president “more the exception than the rule,” a key step on her upward climb was a fellowship with the American Council on Education in Washington D.C., where she trained in administration. She went on to work at the City University of New York and two other institutions before becoming the president of ECSU, where she is now in her seventh year.
In addition to being a college president, she also serves on the executive staff of the Connecticut Board of Regents of Higher Education as vice president for the state universities, which puts her in the center of the changes currently sweeping through the state’s system of higher education. These changes include the merger of the community college system with the state university system, the elimination of remedial courses, and other difficult challenges.
Núñez understands that managing change, especially in a field where institutions have long traditions and people have strong opinions, is not always easy. “We’re trying to get everyone to agree on a new approach or adopt an approach that one of the other sectors had. People say ‘You’ve got to convince us that it’s a good change, that change is important,’ and I think that’s what’s happening now.”