Texas Tech University

Cavazos Discusses Groundbreaking Career in Education, Government

Heidi Toth

October 6, 2015

Alumnus Lauro Cavazos was the only Hispanic president in the history of Texas Tech and the first Hispanic member of the U.S. Cabinet.

Lauro Cavazos Jr.

Lauro Cavazos wanted to write.

When he enrolled at Texas College of Arts and Industries in Kingsville after World War II, the Kineño – the moniker given to  the “King's People” who lived on the famous King Ranch in South Texas – majored in journalism. He wasn't allowed to just write, though.

“You needed to have a science course, so I took biology,” he said. “I fell in love with it.”

It was the teacher as much as the subject who inspired his love of science, Cavazos, now 88 said. When his biology teacher at Texas A&I transferred to Texas Technological College, Cavazos packed up and followed him 600 miles to the High Plains. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in zoology before heading to Iowa State for a doctorate.

That move set him on a path to becoming an educator whose career has spanned the country and included prestigious medical schools, becoming president of his alma mater and being Secretary of Education under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the first Hispanic to be a Cabinet member.

For a South Texas boy who grew up on a ranch and first went to school in a two-room schoolhouse, it was quite the climb – more than this Kineño once thought possible.

“I remember my father telling me, ‘you're going to go to college,'” Cavazos said. “First of all, I didn't think I was smart enough to go to college. Secondly, I didn't think we could afford it. He said we'd find a way.”

Getting started in education

Although Cavazos Sr. was the foreman of the showcase Santa Gertrudis Division, he knew the importance of education. Lauro, his three brothers and one sister started school in the two-room schoolhouse on King Ranch. Each row consisted of one grade.

Cavazos signs book for Bill Dean. (circa 2006)

“They taught us in English, but on the playground we all spoke Spanish,” he said. “At home I spoke English to my father and Spanish to my mother.”

When he was a little older the children transferred to a school in the nearby town, where he graduated from high school. He joined the U.S. Army, and when World War II ended, he went to college, then graduate school. In the process he met his wife, Peggy, and they began their family of 10. From Iowa State he went to the University of Michigan Medical School to take a few human anatomy classes, then he got a teaching position at the Medical College of Virginia.

From Virginia, the Cavazos family moved to Boston, where Cavazos became a professor and then dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine. In 1980 he returned to Lubbock to become the 10th president of Texas Tech and the third president of the Health Sciences Center. He is the only Hispanic to hold this position, as well as the first alumnus.

“It kept me pretty busy,” he said of this job, which included leadership of the academic centers in El Paso, Amarillo and Odessa and other regional health centers.

Through the almost three decades between graduating from Texas Tech and returning as president, he'd earned nationwide acclaim for his leadership in education. According to Cavazos' papers at the Southwest Collections/Special Collections Library, President Reagan presented Cavazos with an award for outstanding leadership in the field of education; in 1985 he received the Distinguished Service Medal from the Uniformed Services University for the Health Sciences; and in 1988 he was given the National Hispanic Leadership Award in the field of education from the League of United Latin American Citizens.

A focus on minority education

When Cavazos took the oath to become Secretary of Education in 1988, he had one primary focus: keep children, especially Hispanic children, in school. His career had been in higher education, and he'd seen how underrepresented minorities were in various professions. That wouldn't change as long as non-white and low-income students were getting low grades and dropping out before graduating.

Plaque located on Texas Tech University Administration Building.

“My concern was well-justified,” he wrote in his book, “A Kineño Remembers: from the King Ranch to the White House.” “Low educational achievements coupled with the growth of the Hispanic population could have a serious economic, social and political impact on the nation.”

During the two-year period when he was Secretary of Education, the dropout rate of Hispanic students was between 9 and 11 percent, the highest of any ethnic group, and more than half of Hispanics 25 and older had not finished high school. Even fewer graduate from college.

In his research, Cavazos found the single biggest factor to improve the performance among Hispanics nationwide was parental involvement. Too many parents were intimidated by their children's teachers, didn't speak enough English to feel comfortable going to school meetings or didn't know how to help their children because they were uneducated.

During his tenure he commissioned studies to look at how to correct educational disparities among Hispanics and to assess the participation of Hispanics in federal education opportunities, such as research grants, and identify the barriers limiting participation. He also did focus groups in largely Hispanic schools, talking to teachers, students and parents, and did a study on lagging educational performances among Native American students. Cavazos also drew attention to migrant students, many of whom were Hispanic, and encouraged partnerships between neighboring states to keep track of these students and helped move them toward graduation.

It wasn't an easy process, however. He'd gone to Washington to improve education and found himself in the middle of political activity. No matter how hard he tried to stay away from it, in Washington, it's just not possible, he said.

“I don't like politics,” he said. “I went there really to try and improve education, and I think we did a pretty good job. I can take pride in the fact that as Secretary of Education I really focused the federal government on the need to improve the education of minority students and how to do it.”

Although they had a number of ideas, the suggestion he moved forward was an executive order, which President Bush signed on Sept. 24, 1990, on the South Lawn of the White House. The order established the President's Advisory Commission on Education Excellence for Hispanics, and for the first time in U.S. history created an organization that would highlight the needs of Hispanic students and work to overcome barriers.

President Bush was not the only president to ink that executive order either. All of his successors since have signed similar orders.

“That executive order we wrote for the president has now been signed by four presidents, and it still continues,” Cavazos said. “I feel pretty good about it.”

Although he still sees disparities in education, it's getting better, and he plans to keep working on improving education for as long as he can. He's passed the same message onto his children, all of whom went to college.

“We passed on to them the whole concept of what I've been talking about – parents have to be involved in the education of children, or somebody has to care about it,” he said. “If not parents, then somebody.”