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Astrophysicist to lead UCR

France A. Córdova had been chief scientist for NASA

by: Kris Lovekin   (April 2002)


France A. Córdova, the astrophysicist appointed in April as UCR’s seventh chancellor, is a charismatic Renaissance woman who seems to be a perfect match for UCR.

For campus scientists, she is a nationally known physicist with previous faculty appointments at UC Santa Barbara, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Pennsylvania State University. She served as chief scientist for NASA and worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.

For social scientists and humanities scholars, she earned an English degree from Stanford University and spent a summer of anthropology work in Oaxaca, Mexico, later writing a novel called “The Women of Santo Domingo.”

For students, she is committed to hands-on research across the curriculum; to the strength and value of programs that cross departmental lines; and to reaching students underserved by the UC system.

For the larger community, she has championed public access to university resources and strong connections between the university and K-12 schools. A one-time Los Angeles Times reporter, Córdova was later featured as a science star in the PBS Nova program called “BreakThrough: The Changing Face of Science in America.” She is a practiced fund-raiser, an experienced leader, a mother and wife, and a woman who embodies the UCR notion of “diversity and excellence at the same time.”

She is a runner and a rock-climber who successfully competed with more than 200 candidates vying to lead UCR, a 14,400-student campus in the midst of a growth spurt that will reshape the university with new students and new resources. Córdova, 54, starts July 1.

“We were impressed by the qualifications of many candidates, but among all of them, France Córdova clearly stood out,” said William Jury, a distinguished professor of environmental sciences at UCR and a member of the National Academy of Science. He was among several faculty, staff and students chosen for a committee to advise President Richard Atkinson on a replacement for Chancellor Raymond L. Orbach, who is now in charge of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

“Her distinguished background as a scientist and scholar, her practical experience as a manager and leader, her energetic personality, and her collegial approach to working with people will make her an outstanding chancellor,” Jury said.

Her appointment has drawn more attention than usual because she is the first Latina appointed as a UC Chancellor. Córdova is accustomed to being first.

A native of Paris, France, she is the first of 12 children born to a Mexican-American U.S. State Department employee and his Irish-American wife. Her parents intended to name their first-born after her father, Fred, but when the baby turned out to be a girl she was named Francoise. She, in turn, has shortened her name to France.

The family traveled a great deal, but eventually they settled in West Covina. She attended a Catholic high school, Bishop Amat in La Puente, and even made a trip to UCR as a member of her high school debate team.

She was the first female student from her high school to attend Stanford University. At high school graduation, she was named one of California’s Ten Outstanding Youths. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English cum laude in 1969. Ten years later she completed her Ph.D. in physics at the California Institute of Technology after convincing the graduate division to admit her by first auditing physics classes.

In 1984, while a staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Lab, Córdova was named one of “America’s 100 Brightest Scientists Under 40” by Science Digest magazine. In 1996, she earned NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal.

It would be easy to go on about her honors. But people who served on the advisory committee for the chancellor committee say they were also impressed by Córdova’s personal charisma, her memory for names, her humor and honesty.

S. Sue Johnson, a committee member from Riverside who recently finished a 12-year term on the Board of Regents, said she is confident that the community will be enormously proud of their new chancellor.

“In some respects, examining the lives of such educational leaders is like looking at an intricate mosaic made of beautiful tiles, each one a work of art,” Johnson said. “One can choose to look at just one piece and be satisfied. Yet, that picture will be incomplete and a poor definition of the totality that makes up a person and a life. Those who will work with and rely upon Dr. Córdova deserve to be shown the whole person, just as she deserves to be depicted as the whole remarkable person she is.”

Already, Córdova’s office has been inundated with requests for meetings and appointments, which will come in handy as she gets to know the community. She said listening to faculty, staff, students and the larger community will be her first duty as chancellor. She and her family, husband Christian J. Foster and teenage children Anne-Catherine and Stephen Foster, will live in the chancellor’s residence near campus.

“It’s an elegant campus and a beautiful city,” Córdova said. “UC Riverside is a vibrant institution with a demonstrated commitment to excellence in teaching, research and public service. I eagerly anticipate working with the faculty, students, staff, alumni, neighbors and friends of UCR to build on the progress and distinguished achievements they have made.”

She said under Chancellor Orbach’s leadership, UCR rose in distinction. “I hope to advance that distinction,” she said.

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