Monday, Sep 17, 2012

382 SACNAS has lost a founding father and two-term President, Dr. Eugene Cota-Robles, who died September 12, 2012 in Naperville, Illinois. He was 86.

Dr. Cota-Robles was nationally prominent as a microbiologist and as a leader in higher education championing the advancement of minority students and faculty. In recognition of his significant contributions on behalf of underrepresented minority students, the Regents of the University of California named the Eugene H. Cota-Robles Fellowships for graduate students in his honor.

The Early Years

Cota-Robles, whose parents were elementary school teachers in a mining village in northern Mexico, was born in 1926 in Nogales, Arizona, adding, in a 2002 SACNAS Biography Project interview with SACNAS staff, “… [that was just] six years after the end of the Mexican Revolution.” The Cota-Robles family moved to Tucson where Gene graduated from high school. In twelve years of school he recalled only having one Latino teacher.

The Navy, Undergrad through Postdoc

He served in the Navy during World War II, and after the War attended the University of Arizona on the GI Bill, earning a BS in bacteriology in 1950. He worked for Gerber Baby Foods in Oakland, CA as a quality control bacteriologist, and then earned both an MA and PhD in microbiology from the University of California at Davis. After earning his PhD in 1956, he was awarded a U.S. Department of Public Health Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, where he met his wife of 55 years, Gun.

University Service and NSF

Back in the United States, Dr. Cota-Robles took a faculty position at the University of California at Riverside, and also served as Director of the Educational Opportunity Program there. In the early 1970s he served as Chair of the Department of Microbiology at Penn State University, and in 1973 returned to the University of California system as Academic Vice Chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), serving in that role until 1979. It was during those years that Cota-Robles helped to found SACNAS, and guided the organization in its early years as President. For six years in the 1980s Cota-Robles served as Provost of Crown College at UCSC, followed by five years in the Office of the President of the University of California as Assistant Vice President, Academic Advancement. Following his retirement from academia, he was a Special Assistant to the Director of the National Science Foundation.

Further Leadership Positions

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Dr. Cota-Robles to the National Science Board for the 1978-84 term. He also served on the board of trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; he was a founding member and past president of the National Chicano Council on Higher Education, and a board member of the California Achievement Council and of MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement).

Dr. Cota-Robles is survived by his wife Gun, children Feliciana Farran and Erik Cota-Robles and six grandchildren. Plans for a memorial service are pending, as of this posting.

Dr. Cota-Robles was a role model, mentor and friend to many, many students and colleagues over the decades. Numerous SACNISTAS remember him fondly, and have shared their recollections in the messages which follow. We invite you to add your thoughts on the SACNAS Facebook page,

SACNAS Remembers Gene Cota-Robles ...

SACNAS Board Member Greg Villareal, PhD—As a young scientist I had the opportunity to train under the Eugene Cota-Robles graduate fellowship at UCLA. His vision and generosity made it possible for me and other SACNISTAS to develop leadership skills and to create a pathway towards a fulfilling scientific and socially responsible career. His legacy will live on in each one of us. Forward!

SACNAS Board Member Maggie Werner-Washburne, PhD—When I met Gene, he was already an icon. But he was such a wonderful, welcoming, gentle person. He leaves a void, for sure - but the effect he had remains strong - in inspiring those of us who are continuing to help students - even in the face of many difficulties that have not changed over the years. It amazes me that the river of the struggle for Civil Rights has continued to flow. Gene gave us all lift and the vision that one person could make a profound difference. We are all better people for having known him.

Gini Matute-Bianchi, PhD—I first came to UCSC with nothing more than a BA and secondary teaching credential. I was hired on first as a "supervisor of teachers" and then, at Kresge, the touchy-feelie college at UCSC, as a lecturer - all on soft money. After two years in these positions, I recognized that if I wanted to stay on at UCSC and not return to teaching junior high, I needed to earn a PhD. Gene arranged it so I could take a leave of absence from UCSC while I did my graduate work at Stanford, that a hard money FTE awaited me upon my return and that I didn't need to apply for the position. Gene made sure my name was on this FTE. I then went on to become the first Chicana to earn tenure at UCSC. So many of us benefited greatly from this wonderful, caring humanitarian. Clearly for me he was one of the two most important figures in my academic career. I can't believe he is gone. My heartfelt condolences to Gun, his children and grandchildren.

Cecilio Barrera, PhD—Gene lived a long and very productive life, but it is sad to hear that he is gone. He was a tireless champion for our community and many of us benefited from his efforts, whether we realize it or not. I first became aware of his work in the early 60's when Chicano scientists were basically unheard of.

Arturo Madrid, PhD—Dear Friends of Gene Cota-Robles: Greetings to many of you whom I know, in some measure via Gene, with whom I worked over the years to develop the first significant cadre of Chicana/o academics, and particularly Chicana/o scientists.

I met Gene on one of his visits to California when he was at Penn State, but I didn't get to work with him until after he had returned to California in 1973 and I had been sent off to replace him in exile (in Minnesota, rather than Pennsylvania). We collaborated over the years on a shared objective, first under the auspices of the Ford Foundation's Graduate Fellowships Program, when I assumed the directorship in 1975, and subsequently through the programs of the organization we founded together, the National Chicano Council for Higher Education. He, Ricardo Griego, and I made many visits to foundations to secure funds in support of fellowships and grants. Having two distinguished scientists flanking me on those visits assured attention to our petitions. Gene's stature validated all our initiatives during those difficult days.

More importantly he encouraged us all, principally by his example, but also by his support and encouragement. We've lost both a friend and role model. He was truly a “roble,” an oak of a man. My deepest sympathies to all of you.

Pedro Castillo, PhD—I first met Gene in Riverside, California when we were both marching in support of the United Farm Workers in the 1960's. As a young Assistant Professor he was the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UC Santa Cruz when I was hired in 1976 and helped me in my academic career. Gene has a long history of struggle in the Chicano movement and his advocacy for educational change in higher education is exemplary. I will miss his advocacy, his sense of justice and his support to many Chicano scholars. My condolences to the family and to many of us who knew him and loved him.

Victor Saenz, PhD—May he rest in peace. Professor Cota-Robles was a pioneer and mentor to so many scholars and especially scholars of color over the years. As most of you know, the UC System's most prestigious diversity fellowship is named in his honor. He leaves behind an amazing legacy as a researcher, as an educator, as a microbiologist, and as a mentor to so many, a legacy that will far outlive his time.

Dr. Cota-Robles reached out to me several times over the last few years. I was humbled by his interest in my research work, and he often offered his advice and helpful suggestions. I never worked with him or studied with him, yet he took time to reach out and connect with me as I'm sure he did with so many young scholars and grad students over the years. Vaya con dios, profe.

Frank Talamantes, PhD—I am totally upset by this news. Eugene was responsible for selecting UCSC for my first and only job. He was a very kind individual who would go the extra mile to help students and academics. A real fighter for the Chicano cause. May he rest in peace.

Elma Gonzalez, PhD—He was such a dear man and wonderful mentor to me and hundreds of others. He was deeply interested in our career development and made time to stay abreast of where we were in our academic development. Only recently I let him know of a recent verification of data I had published in the ‘70s. He responded by asking me for the reprints which he felt should be distributed to the editors of the relevant journals. Indeed, he was a great man.

María Elena Zavala, PhD—This is very sad indeed. Gene was on the vanguard. He was encouraging, realistic and courageous in his fight for educational equity. It most certainly was my honor to have known him and to have had conversations with him. ¡Adelante!

Terry Woodin, PhD—I knew him at NSF and beyond. It was amazing that he always seemed to know all of us here, and his example of what is important to get progress was inspiring. He shall be missed.