Elsa Núñez has dedicated her life to education.
Núñez, who has been president of Eastern Connecticut State University for seven years, has led a strategic planning project that has expanded the university buildings and created more support services for students. Under Núñez, Eastern was named one of the top 30 public regional universities in the North by U.S. News and World Report. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Núñez serves on boards for the Girl Scouts of Connecticut, Hartford Healthcare, Leadership Greater Hartford and the Council for Higher Education.
Prior to joining the Connecticut state university system, Núñez led academic affairs for the University of Maine, Lesley University and the City University of New York. Previous to those leadership positions, she was affiliated with Ramapo State College in New Jersey, the College of Staten Island and Lehman College of the City University of New York.
Q: What was your first goal, and how did you achieve it?
A: My first goal was to get to know the faculty and staff, to really understand the culture of the institution and what it was. I knew … I had to respect what was there. I decided I would do a strategic planning process.
Q: What is the most important decision you have had to make in the past year?
A: I decided I would put all my money into the faculty and support services for the students. In the end of the day, people could do with less things, things that make people happy but aren't necessary.
Q: Did you have any crises this year, and how do you overcome them?
A major crisis that I had this year was when a student went on Twitter and offended the African American Bruins player. What I had to do was talk to the student. What he wrote on Twitter, I don't want to repeat. It was a racial slur. What the student ended up doing on his own was apologizing. The crisis was how do you educate young people? Not just about academic learning, but other values that we expect in our society. His behavior was unacceptable ... through talking and discussing with him how he had offended that man, he came to the conclusion that he should apologize. As an academic, educator, mother, that was a crisis that I was happy to overcome.
Q: When was the first time you acted like a leader?
A: My brothers and I were in our apartment alone. I'm in my early 60s so this was in the 1950s. My mother and father worked in factories. They used to leave us in our home. Today you would be arrested for that. For some reason, I woke up and smelled something. The entire corridor was on fire. I was only eight. I was home alone with my little brothers. I took each one of us and put us on the fire escape and the firemen came. My first leadership role was saving the life of my brothers. I remember it like it was yesterday, that I had to think quickly.
Q: What do you consider most important for Eastern?
A: I believe public higher education is the way out for people from modest backgrounds. Other schools cost $50,000. We do it for $18,000. We provide people with a high-quality liberal arts education from modest backgrounds.
Q: Where do you see yourself and Eastern Connecticut in the next five years?
A: Eastern will be in the top three public liberal arts colleges in the country. It's very important that we keep our classes under 20. The way we're getting there is hiring full-time faculty and having out-of-the-classroom activities. We are 90 percent residential, so we want to have more dormitories.
Q: What is your favorite thing about Connecticut?
A: Oh, I love it. I love eastern Connecticut. The nice part about Connecticut is you can be a Yankee fan. You can be a Red Sox fan. With western and eastern Connecticut there are people from a variety of backgrounds. Eastern Connecticut is rural and majestic. I grew up in a town that was rural and on a farm.