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Faculty Interview: Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, Chair, Department of Education

By John McDonald

In October, UCLA education professor Cecilia Rios-Aguilar was appointed as Chair of the Department of Education at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. Rios-Aguilar formerly served as the school’s Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and is a past director of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA. Her research is multidisciplinary and uses a variety of asset-based conceptual frameworks to study the educational and occupational trajectories of underserved and racially minoritized students. She is currently engaged in significant research on California’s community colleges and the students they serve. 

Rios-Aguilar is a member of California’s newly established Associate Degree for Transfer Intersegmental Implementation Committee. She also serves as a faculty co-director for Policy Analysis of California Education (PACE), as a board member of the Spencer Foundation, and is a research affiliate of Wheelhouse: The Center for the Community College Leadership and Research at UC Davis. 

We checked in with Professor Rios-Aguilar to talk about her new role as Department Chair and priorities for the work ahead.

John McDonald, UCLA: Hi Cecilia. First off, tell me, what does the Department Chair do?

Cecilia Rios-Aguilar: That's a very good question. It is a position that is responsible for managing the entire day-to-day operations of the Department. In my mind it was a little bit different from what the reality of it is. There are a lot of roles and responsibilities. You're responsible for all academic programming, budgets, all the decision making. Then there are faculty searches, with all sorts of signatures that I now have to give for approval for searches and committees. That’s just on the administrative and hiring side.

There's also the academic programs that we need to make decisions about when students ask for petitions about programs. Also, admissions, and setting a framework for admissions. I would say it's the day-to-day operation of the department. That's how I really interpret the job. It's a big scope of work because we're a big department. We have the doctoral and MA programs, the professional schools and professional programs, we have the UCLA Lab School and community schools, and now an undergraduate major in education and social transformation. And, we have many research centers that complement the academic programs. The operation is pretty big. It's not as simple sometimes as we think.

You have done some really interesting work on community colleges, on race and diversity and other issues.  How do you think those experiences have prepared you for serving as chair, and why are you interested in doing this?

Rios-Aguilar: I feel very blessed that I had the opportunity to serve as Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion before I became Chair. That put me in the mix of things at the school level, having to interact with campus for a lot of issues and initiatives. We always had to communicate with campus about what we were doing and how we were doing them. Serving at a school level gave me the breadth, and in some cases, depth, to better understand what was happening with faculty, students, and staff. I'm very grateful that I had that opportunity.

But changing from that position to center myself in the Department of Education is something that interests me in a lot of ways in really understanding our day-to-day operations. What drives me is that I see that we have so much potential as a department to establish our presence across campus and across L.A. We have an undergraduate major that can help us do that. We have graduate and professional programs that can help us do that. I really feel that our department plays a key role on campus in serving students of color. And by serving them well, we can lead the way. What excites me about this role is being able to do that on a larger scale I guess, and share more widely on campus who we are and what we do and what we stand for.

Are there specific priorities that you have for this first year?

Rios-Aguilar: Yes. One of them is increasing the presence of our undergraduate program across UCLA. I want every corner of UCLA to know that we have an undergrad major in education and social transformation. That's something that we haven't accomplished. And not only at UCLA. I want every community college student in Los Angeles, at least Los Angeles, to know that we exist. And then of course, across the entire system. That would be my idea. We're going to start articulating more courses with community colleges. We have one with West LA already. We're going to go try to do that across the Los Angeles Community College District. We're working now with Pasadena City College. For me, the idea is that every community college in California should know that we have an undergraduate major.

We will also be working to support graduate and professional programs. All our programs are committed to social justice and we want  to tell our stories to the larger community at UCLA and to communities outside of UCLA.  That is a top priority for me.

Another is that we are embarking on a reorganization of our department. We want a more vibrant, collaborative and nimble department. We want to break down silos and work more closely and create a new infrastructure that will help us do that. We're pretty well on our way toward that goal. 

We need make that happen so that we can use our talent better. We have so many talented people that we can make so much progress in offering different options for students to be more flexible with what they want to study, to really provide them with the tools that they need. It's a very different world right now with the pandemic. It showing us the way. The educational system was not working before, structures were not working. We need to adapt to the new realities and challenges. That reorganization is a priority for me this year. 

The last one would be to highlight the humanity of all of our faculty, professional programs included. By highlighting the humanity, I mean understanding that we're not just academic researchers producing all this knowledge and doing school research and preparing future leaders, practitioners, and scholars, but that we have our own stories and struggles as individuals, as people. We need to make this department more humane in many ways, and when we make mistakes, we need to support each other, to be there for each other.  I think as part of building that community, we need to aim for a different tone, be more supportive, be more encouraging of each other. We need to learn more from each other, spend more time with each other, talk more with each other. We haven't been able to do that. I think the pandemic affected those efforts. At every faculty meeting, I'm going to look for a moment in which we can learn something from each other.

When I think of the strengths of the department, I always think of the diversity. How do you feel about that.  What are your thoughts about building upon the diversity of our department as a strength? 

Rios-Aguilar: We are the most diverse school on campus, the most diverse department on campus. The evidence is there, the data is there. That's something definitely we celebrate because people have worked really hard to get there. But that shouldn't stop us. We still have blind spots. There's also the need to connect ourselves with, again, UCLA in a different way. The Hispanic-Serving Institution Initiative, the Rising to the Challenge Initiative. We recently heard from Executive Vice Chancellor Darnell Hunt about potential new initiatives serving Native Hawaiians, Native Americans, and Asian Pacific Islander students. We need to play a role in those initiatives. That’s going to bring much more diversity to our department, and that's what we should be striving for. We're not done with our diversity efforts. We have to keep working in our blind spots and be more intentional on how we recruit diverse faculty. We have to recruit more, for instance, Native American scholars, more indigenous scholars. 

Similarly, with Black, Latino, Latinas and Latinx, faculty members, we have still to work to maintain that diversity, and also to increase it. We've done a good job, I think, getting where we are. There is  a history of efforts from a lot of deans and a lot of leadership on that front. But we need to do better and connect ourselves to efforts at UCLA and play a leadership role. Not just to connect with these efforts, but show UCLA and others that it's possible to recruit the best faculty, the most diverse, talented faculty. We've done that consistently. It's possible. We want to lead by example. 

What excites you about your new position, what does this mean for you personally?

Rios-Aguilar: I remember when we had the faculty retreat, I told my colleagues, it's very hard to be in this role it's not easy, especially following leaders like Tina and Megan. They have set the stage in many ways and done tremendous things. Especially I think of Megan as somebody who carried us in the most difficult years under the most difficult circumstances. Wow, it’s hard to follow that act. But what excites me is that now is the time for us to continue that work and to say, okay, we learned a lot from the pandemic. I think I personally am ready to help support my colleagues. It’s not necessarily about being the leader and being at the center stage, but I see myself in a role where I can empower faculty and staff more, to bring them closer together. If I can accomplish that, that's what excites me. Sometimes it’s just a matter of bringing out the best in people, not making so many new things or innovating or trying to make grandiose things, but just enabling them to do their best possible job.

You have done a lot of research at UCLA and with PACE and other research organizations, and lately, quite a bit of very important work on community college issues. As Chair, will you continue your research? Or do you have to set that aside a little bit?

Rios-Aguilar: Well, time is always time. The day is still 24 hours. That hasn't changed. Nobody gave me more hours with this new role. I wish they had some days. It gets challenging, but my commitment to continuing doing research with community colleges is still there. We just got a grant from College Futures Foundation to evaluate the impact of California’s community college baccalaureate program. This grant will give us the resources to do a bigger evaluation, a stronger evaluation of the programs. We will be the primary evaluator of that effort. That's exciting to me. We've worked for that. We have a renewed partnership with the colleges. So definitely, the research doesn't stop just because I have this new role.  It may shift, and what I can do fluctuates from day to day, month to month. But I also have a group of spectacular graduate students who support a lot of my research efforts. We're a team. We have a very active partnership with Pasadena City College. What sustains the work for me is that I can do it in collaboration with my graduate students and undergraduate students that I am mentoring. I can only do this because I have a fabulous team of people who are supporting me and helping me do the work.

Is there anything else you want people to know about this your new job as chair? 

Rios-Aguilar: It's hard. I can tell people it is really hard. There is a lot of details in this job, but one step in front of the other, that's what I tell myself.