As an accomplished university leader who helped boost revenue and enrollment at one of the largest universities in the Midwest, Dr. Carlos Santiago anticipated there would be questions about his recent decision to leave the world of academia.
“One of the questions that certainly might come to you is: Why would someone with 30 years in higher education, having gone up the academic ranks, decide to leave a university environment?”
Santiago left his post as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) last fall.
Speaking before the American Federation of Teachers, Santiago, a longtime labor economist who hails from San Juan, Puerto Rico, related that while serving as leader of UWM and constantly having to hustle up revenue amid increasingly tight funding, he noticed what he refers to as “another crisis.”
“While I’m proud of the achievements that we have managed to accomplish during the six years that I was there, I really felt there was another imperative, another crisis, that really drew my attention,” Santiago told the teachers union.
That crisis, he said, was the crisis in Latino educational achievement.
“I felt it was better to change course and try to contribute to ameliorate the impact of that par-ticular crisis,” Santiago explained. “I have begun referring to this as a national imperative.”
It is with that in mind that Santiago, 58, is settling into his new position as president and CEO of the Hispanic College Fund, a national organization founded in 1993 by Hispanic business leaders who saw a need to support Hispanic youths in pursuit of higher education.
Santiago said he hopes to continue evolving the organization from one that merely grants scholarships to one that is focused on cultivating Latino talent to make inroads into America’s work force.
“The organization was really a scholarship organization. We real-ized that wasn’t really sufficient,” Santiago said during a recent inter-view at his ninth-floor downtown office, one that is far smaller than his opulent office at UWM. Inside the office with the blinds half-closed, a tomato paste-colored cof-fee mug emblazoned with the words “United States Census 2010” and “Esta En Nuestra Manos” (or “It’s In Our Hands”) sat atop an orderly, modest-sized desk. A few feet away stood a bookshelf that held titles such as Oxford’s Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas, Caught in the Middle and Labor Economics.
“We had to do more,” Santiago explained of the broadening mis-sion at Hispanic College Fund. “The scholarships are necessary, but they’re not sufficient.”
So in addition to scholarships, Santiago said, the Hispanic College Fund, which tax returns show operated on a budget of $6.4 million in 2009, will devote more time to connecting Latino youths to and preparing them for the growing number of careers that labor economists predict will require a post-secondary degree.
“The organization now views itself as a Latino work force development organization, not simply a Latino scholarship program,” Santiago said. “I think that’s important as we look to the future as to where we’re going to be five, 10 years from now.”
Hispanic College Fund currently operates at eight sites. It serves youths in Silicon Valley and Central Valley in California; Dallas, Texas; Phoenix, Ariz.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and in Virginia and Maryland. The organization not only provides col-lege-prep and mentoring services beginning as early as the eighth grade, but works with youths after they’re in college as well.
One of its signature programs is NASA MUST (Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology) Project. The program seeks undergraduates who aspire to become researchers and scien-tists and gets them 10-week intern-ships at one of NASA’s field centers. As of 2010, the organization had awarded more than $3 million in college scholarships to nearly 300 students through NASA MUST.
That is just a portion of the near-ly $15 million in scholarships that the organization has given to 5,400 Latino college students since the organization was founded in 1993.
Santiago said he hopes to expand the organization’s reach from eight sites to 20 and to serve thousands more youths.
That kind of agenda will be increasingly important given the projected growth in the Latino pop-ulation in the U.S., according to pro-ponents of increasing the number of Hispanics with a college degree.
“This is an organization that is rather unique in its approach because it’s got the entire pipeline,” said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a Hispanic higher education advocacy group in D.C.
“That’s a great need for the country but certainly for the Latino population, given our current levels of educational attainment com-bined with our demographic growth,” she said.
Those familiar with Carlos Santiago’s legacy in Milwaukee, from a colleague and close family friend to one of his former fiercest critics, say he is uniquely suited to take the Hispanic College Fund to a higher level.
“He’s a visionary. Someone who can see the big picture of an orga-nization or an institution and imag-ine where it can go,” said Patricia Arredondo, a close Santiago family friend and former colleague who is associate vice chancellor of acade-mic affairs and interim dean at the School of Continuing Education in the Graduate School at UWM.
Arredondo, who worked with Santiago on implementing UWM’s master plan, said his academic career foretells the kinds of things he will do to increase the presence and success of Hispanics on college campuses throughout the United States.
During his tenure as chancellor at UWM, for instance, enrollment grew from 27,248 in 2004 to an all-time high of 30,275 in 2009. Research expenditures nearly dou-bled, from $28 million at the begin-ning of his tenure to $54 million at the end; nine new doctoral programs were added; and two new schools –the School of Public Health and the School of Freshwater Sciences –became the first new schools estab-lished at the institution since 1975, according to Santiago’s résumé. And at the University at Albany, State University of New York, where he was provost and vice president for academic affairs from 2001 through 2004, he played a key role in estab-lishing the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE).
“At Albany, he did great stuff. At UWM, he did great stuff,” Arredondo said. “So why not do it” at Hispanic College Fund, “if you have a different kind of passion for the Hispanic future in higher education?”
However, others say that Santiago, who will be paid $320,000 a year for his work at Hispanic College Fund, a salary commensurate with his overall compensation package at UWM – didn’t base his move entirely on a desire to do good in other areas. Rather, some observers say, Santiago, who had already raised eyebrows for apply-ing for other university jobs during his chancellorship at UWM, had become frustrated by social science academics at UWM who opposed his efforts to build bridges between the corporate world and the world of college.
“Santiago is a classic example of a chancellor who comes into a university and starts moving an agenda, but doesn’t realize that the culture of the university that he inherited” is at odds with that agen-da, said Robert Miranda, a long-time Latino activist in Milwaukee and columnist for the city’s Spanish Journal.
“Santiago wanted to enhance the industrial side of the university, and many of your professors on the social sciences end see that as: ‘Uh-oh, our university culture is going to change. The integrity of the uni-versity is going to be put in ques-tion because there’s so much cor-porate research being done,’” Miranda explained. “And corporate research and universities to many academics is not seen as the kind of research that many people look at as something that’s noble, for it’s for commercial purpose only, to drive the free market.”
Santiago conceded that there is “an element of truth” to Miranda’s analysis, adding that he did find it peculiar that he ran into such oppo-sition when seeking to build part-nerships between the world of busi-ness and the world of academia.
Still, Miranda, recalled as con-stantly “beating up” on him early in his tenure as chancellor, actually gives Santiago high marks.
“I have no doubt he’ll be suc-cessful in pursuing the agenda of incorporating more efforts to bring the Latino diaspora into the mix,” Miranda said. “His message will be for Latinos to be dynamic entrepreneurs, to be leaders in the business community, to move the economic market agenda, to be part of the knowledge game and to be leader in that.”
Santiago was born in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1952, the same year that Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States.
His father, José A. Santiago, was an Army artillery officer who start-ed out as a private in the U.S. Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
After serving in World War II, his father took advantage of the GI Bill to get a college degree, then rejoined the Army and went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam.
His mother, Irma J. Santiago, was an artist and teacher.
“Her grandmother couldn’t read or write but raised seven kids on her own,” Santiago said. After her own children were grown, Santiago recalled of his mother, she opened up an institute and taught “all kinds of esoteric religions.”
“She was a very, very smart woman,” Santiago said.
Santiago recalls leaving his native Puerto Rico at age 5 and spending his childhood moving around from one U.S. Army base to another. They included Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Devens in Massachusetts, Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, and forts Clayton and Amador in Panama.
“I moved all those times in 12 years,” Santiago recalled of his pre-college years.
In 1969, when it came time for a then 17-year-old Santiago to fill out a college application as a youth, he was a B student with “OK” SAT scores, but fiercely independent.
“I just didn’t want my parents to do the application,” Santiago recalled. “They couldn’t under-stand why I wasn’t getting admitted to a number of schools.”
But there was a reason that col-leges were turning Santiago down.
When the application asked, “What do you want to be in the future, on the college applications I put ‘truck driver.’ I said I wanted to drive a big rig truck. And I won-dered why I wasn’t getting admitted into college,” Santiago recalled dur-ing his talk to the teachers union.
“I could have benefited from some more support dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.”
Asked why he indicated on his college applications that he wanted to be a truck driver, Santiago recalled that it was an era of anti-war protests and social protest.
“It was just kind of a statement of rebellion,” Santiago said. “I was-n’t doing it intentionally. The truth was, in high school, school didn’t motivate me. It wasn’t until I got into college that I really got motivated.”
Indeed, Santiago graduated in three years, later went on to earn two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. He got interested in economics during the second semester of his freshman year when he took a course in it.
“I never knew what economics was,” Santiago recalled. But after a professor got him interested in the numbers and social science of it all, “it just caught my attention.”
After he earned his bachelor’s degree, he journeyed back to Puerto Rico and got a master’s degree in economics. He worked for the Puerto Rican government at the planning board.
“I just got excited about research,” Santiago recalled. “People understand if you’re a chemist in a lab coat you make dis-coveries. I felt the same way about economics. I would use statistics, analytics, and I loved to make dis-coveries about things.”
Santiago’s wife, Azara Santiago-Rivera, is a psychology professor at UWM.
The couple have three daughters, including one who is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As of late, Santiago has been making the rounds, getting people familiar with the mission of Hispanic College Fund.
At one of his latest public appear-ances, as a guest panelist at the Latino Youth Forum, held at the Newseum in downtown D.C., a Latina youth from a student newspaper asked Santiago what message she should send in an article she planned to write.
“The message is really a nation-al message,” he said. “We’ve looked at the changing demograph-ics. We know that by 2050, nearly a third of the U.S. population will be of Hispanic origin. We know that currently about 13 percent of the Latino population holds a college degree. That’s a huge gap to close in a relatively short period of time.
“But this is a national impera-tive. It’s not an issue of Latinos. It’s an issue of preparing this country for the 21st century.”