Luis Fraga went from a high school that was 86 percent Mexican American to a college where he was one of only 16 Mexican Americans out of a class of about 1,600. That was a shock to his system, but it started him down the path he’s followed ever since — “to expand knowledge, and through that, to expand opportunity.”
He’ll have the chance to do that at the highest level at the UW, where he’s recently become the associate vice provost for faculty advancement. The position is a new one, and is intended to encourage the recruitment, retention and promotion of historically underrepresented faculty, as well as faculty who do research on what might be called historically underserved, understudied and underrepresented communities.
“These positions exist at a number of institutions,” Fraga said, “but it is rare to have an actual faculty member have that set of responsibilities, and I saw that as a wonderful opportunity to try to make a contribution here.”
Fraga is a political scientist who has been on the faculties of three universities, most recently at Stanford, where he spent 16 years. He will also be the Russell F. Stark University Professor in the UW’s Political Science Department, though he won’t be teaching for a while.
What he will be doing instead is working on the one hand with department chairs, search committees and deans and on the other hand with the provost’s office to make sure the University is doing all it can to diversify its faculty.
“The UW is an institution of sufficient caliber to attract some of the top faculty talent in the country,” Fraga said. “But we have a major challenge in keeping that talent, especially as people receive tenure, because in order to achieve tenure at the UW, one has to have a record that would be attractive and appropriate and above the line at many other selective institutions. That’s where we sometimes lose some of our top faculty, and in the extremely competitive environment of recruiting and retaining underrepresented faculty, we need to be especially smart about how we do it.”
Fraga will be working on that task at the strategic policy level and at the individual case level. “I like to say that I’m an advocate on behalf of departments and deans in the provost’s office,” he said. “Frankly, it’s not a tough sell, but the provost’s office has a lot of demands made upon it, so I try to make sure that it’s fully supportive of this agenda within the larger set of agendas that the University must consider.”
It was, in fact, the supportiveness of the provost and the president that lured Fraga to the UW — that and the presence of two research collaborators, Gary Segura and Matt Barreto, in the Political Science Department. Fraga and Segura are analyzing data from their Latino National Survey — the first ever state-stratified survey of Latinos in the United States. It includes respondents from 15 states and the D.C. metro area, representing about 87.4 percent of the Latino populations living in the country. Fraga plans to continue work on that research project even as he attends to his other duties.
His responsibilities here also include being director of the Diversity Research Institute (DRI), which was set up as a means of enriching the research that faculty members are already pursuing in areas that focus on historically underrepresented, underserved and understudied communities — both in the United States and around the world. The DRI has already given six seed grants for interdisciplinary projects led by University faculty.
Fraga said he would devote fall quarter to engaging in conversations broadly to determine what the next phase of the institute should be. The future, he said, might include giving more seed grants, sponsoring conferences, raising funds, or any number of other things. He and the faculty advisory board working with him plan to hammer out a strategic plan for where the institute should go next.
Both his work with the provost and that with the Diversity Research Institute serve Fraga’s larger passion in life of broadening opportunities. “As a nation we have done a very good job of expanding opportunity for first-generation college students,” he said. “We’ve made tremendous progress since the end of WWII.”
He is living proof that’s so. His parents were the children of immigrants and neither went beyond high school. But Fraga went from a de facto segregated school in Corpus Christi, Texas, to Harvard, thanks to a high school counselor who recognized his ability and first insisted he apply to a very selective summer science program in Maine and then helped him with his college applications (he was also accepted at Columbia, Yale and the University of Texas). After completing an undergraduate degree in government, he earned his master’s and doctorate in political science at Rice University.
But Fraga believes the work of broadening opportunities is unfinished. “We haven’t made nearly as much progress in graduate training,” he said, “and certainly not in faculty hiring at Research I institutions. This position gives me the opportunity to see if I can make a difference there and work in a collaborative fashion with department chairs, deans and the provost.”
Collaboration, Fraga said, is what it’s all about. Since his arrival in July he has been in constant meetings — with deans, with department chairs, with directors of other research institutes on campus, with search committees, with the executive vice provost, with his own advisory board. “I can’t do my work unless I have collaborative relationships,” he said.
He’ll also be able to keep tabs on the UW’s efforts for undergraduates through his wife, Charlene Aguilar, who will serve as the new director of undergraduate education initiatives. Aguilar will work with Ed Taylor, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs; Eric Godfrey, vice provost for student life; and Sheila Edwards Lange, vice provost for diversity and vice president for minority affairs, to promote the success of UW students who come from families who have not had the privilege of a university education.
When he isn’t in meetings or occupied with research, Fraga is devoting time to completing an introductory American government textbook aimed at high school students. The book grew out of his work on the Civic Engagement in Education Committee of the American Political Science Association, convened in response to data showing that the lowest voting rates are among youth 18 to 26.
“Among the reasons given for why youth tend not to be involved in formal processes of government is how American politics tends to be taught in secondary schools,” Fraga said. “It has a tendency to be taught as a set of rules to be learned, procedures to be memorized, facts and figures to have at hand. Our goal is to do something that empowers students to understand their responsibilities as citizens to build their own better future.”
It’s the first time he’s ever written a textbook, and Fraga said the various state regulations involved are complex, but as a student of politics, he’s enjoying the process.
Given all that’s on his agenda, Fraga isn’t obligated to teach for three years (his administrative appointment is for five years, subject to renewal), but he says he’s not sure he can stay away from the classroom that long. At Stanford he was so popular that there were widespread student protests when he left, and a tribute was held in his honor. He was given a hardback book containing personal messages from 72 of his current and former students. The dedication reads:
For all the times you inspired, enlightened and encouraged.
For the reassurance and support when we doubted ourselves and our next steps.
For reminding us that our capacity to solve the problems of the day is limited only by our resolve.
For your energy, your generosity and your wisdom.
We honor you.
With that kind of appreciation, why did he leave? “This new work gives me a chance to take the goal I’ve always been committed to of expanding opportunities for individuals who come from communities without histories of significant opportunity and work on that at a higher institutional level,” Fraga said. “That’s exciting.”