Lauro Cavazos (born 1927) was the first Hispanic American to be named to a cabinet position. He served as Secretary of Education under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1988 to 1990. Educated in zoology and physiology, Cavazos was also a college president and professor who wrote numerous books on medical sciences and medical education. In addition, he consulted internationally on public health issues.
From Ranch to Boston
Born on January 4, 1927, on the sprawling King Ranch near Kingsville, Texas, Lauro Fred Cavazos was a sixth–generation Texan with a Mexican ancestry. His father was the cattle foreman of the ranch's top division, and Cavazos spent his childhood surrounded by ranchers and herders. Cavazos attended public schools in the Kingsville area and then entered the military in the closing months of World War II. He returned after the war and enrolled at Texas Agricultural and Industrial College for a time. He transferred to Texas Tech University (then known as Texas Technological College). He eventually received both his bachelor's degree in zoology and a master's degree in zoological cytology from Texas Tech. He then went on to doctoral studies at Iowa State University, where he completed a Ph.D. in physiology in 1954. Cavazos met Peggy Ann Murdock while both were students at Texas Tech. They married and started a family that would grow very large indeed—they eventually had ten children in all. The closeness of their family relationship would later prove a bit problematic when Cavazos entered public service.
In the fall of 1954, Cavazos accepted his first full–time teaching position, at the Medical College of Virginia. For the next ten years he taught anatomy there. In 1964, he moved to Tufts University in Boston, where he taught at the School of Medicine. He also became dean of the medical school at Tufts in 1975. While at Tufts he also sometimes taught classes at Texas Tech and at its Health Science Center.
Ran Texas Tech
In 1980, after sixteen years in Boston at Tufts University, Cavazos returned full–time to his alma mater, Texas Tech, accepting a position as university president. He was the first person to lead Texas Tech who had also been an undergraduate at the school. During his tenure as president, he also directed the school's Health Science Center. While leading Texas Tech, Cavazos was a strong but approachable president with a penchant for compromising among different factions. He cemented a growing reputation for quiet tenacity. In 1984, in a dispute over tenure rules, the Texas Tech faculty approved a no–confidence vote against him; but Cavazos was unfazed and worked behind the scenes for two years to fashion a slightly revised revamping of tenure regulations that was accepted without further protest. He later had a reputation as a teacher's advocate, but at Texas Tech he did not seem to take sides.
As the leader of a major university, Cavazos soon expanded the reach of his influence. Over the years he published several important books on medical sciences and on medical education. He became a consultant to the World Health Organization and other national and international public health groups. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan gave him an award for Outstanding Leadership in the Field of Education.
In 1988, following the resignation of noted conservative commentator and educator William Bennett as secretary of education, President Ronald Reagan picked Cavazos to succeed him. Cavazos was nominated on August 9, 1988, and confirmed on September 20, becoming the first Hispanic American ever to hold a cabinet post. Because of this achievement, Cavazos received the National Hispanic Leadership Award from the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The appointment of Cavazos came during Reagan's last months in office, and it was widely viewed as political. Most commentators believed that the prime reason was that having Cavazos in the presidential cabinet would help with Hispanic voters in the presidential campaign of Reagan's vice–president, George H.W. Bush. But the selection also was sensible on other grounds. Cavazos was well respected as an educator, and Hispanic children had the highest school dropout rate (37 percent) of any racial or ethnic group in the country. "Please, children, don't leave school," Cavazos pleaded in Spanish at his first press conference after his confirmation. In addition, Cavazos was a longtime friend of Bush's, who might have suggested him for the job.
Reagan had taken office talking about the radical step of abolishing the Department of Education altogether. But Bennett persuaded Reagan otherwise and used his cabinet post as a bully pulpit, encouraging local reforms he approved of and making a name for himself as a spokesman for conservative values on education. Bennett was outspoken and highly partisan while crusading for more parental choice in schools, stronger core curriculums, and a return to basic educational values—all ideas that the right wing of the Republican party cherished.
Cavazos's selection probably came as no surprise to Cavazos, since he had known for eight years that the president was interested in having him on his team. Reagan's transition team had actually approached Cavazos in 1980, when Reagan was first elected to office, to explore the idea of a cabinet position, but at the time Cavazos had just assumed the presidency of Texas Tech and wanted to stay there for awhile.
Moderate Lightning Rod
When Bush won the 1988 election and took office, he retained Cavazos, not surprisingly; if nothing else, it was one way to fulfill a campaign promise to have a Hispanic member of the cabinet. But it was also a signal of a shift in policy toward more moderation. Cavazos, a Democrat, had a view of the education department that was diametrically opposed to Reagan's initial impulse to abolish it. Cavazos wanted the federal government to be very active in education and Cavazos's personal style was very different from the feisty Bennett as well. Cavazos had a well deserved reputation as a quiet consensus builder, and he immediately set to work constructing bridges to Congress that Bennett had burned. Bennett had often attacked teachers and administrators, but Cavazos, by contrast, was from the ranks of these groups and understood and sympathized with their concerns.
Greeting the announcement of Cavazos's reappointment, Lamar Haynes, the president of the top teachers' union, the National Educational Association, called it a "hopeful sign that perhaps Mr. Bush will fulfill his campaign promise to become the 'education President.' " Even liberal Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy praised Cavazos, calling him "a man who shares our views about the importance of education." But conservatives were disenchanted, with the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial, calling Cavazos's reappointment "the first major blunder" of Bush's presidency.
Though Cavazos made clear that he agreed with the Republican agenda of more school choice for parents, more accountability for school improvement, and uniform achievement standards, he also said a priority for him would be to make education more accessible to poor children. He spoke in favor of increased federal aid for students and for programs in bilingual education. But he faced the continuing problem of lack of funding for such programs as Bush refused to push for major increases in education allotments. Still, Cavazos hoped to change the direction in which the department had been heading under Bennett. "We've heard a lot about budget and trade deficits," he said. "We've got one that's equally dangerous—the education deficit."
Cavazos was concerned about strengthening educational opportunities for those students who would not attend college. In a speech on vocational education, he spoke of the "forgotten half" of students who quit school in high school or after graduation from high school and of the increasing problem of functional illiteracy among them. "Our system of education—with federal support—must ensure that non–college–bound students are given the opportunity to acquire the skills they need," he said.
During his short tenure as secretary of education, Cavazos initiated special programs to fight substance abuse in schools. He advocated stronger parental involvement in education and community–led reforms that would raise standards and expectations among students, teachers, administrators, and parents. But his profile was so low compared to Bennett's that he was criticized for not rallying public support for legislation that would aid in preventing school dropouts and teacher shortages.
While Cavazos was in office, his wife Peggy Ann, a former surgical nurse, occupied an office next to his even though she had no paid federal position. She routinely worked on her husband's speeches and policy papers and even participated occasionally in department staff meetings. One of the Cavazos' sons worked for TWA, making it possible for Peggy Cavazos to fly for free on that airline, and the couple frequently traveled together, sometimes using time–consuming road trips to make connections to fly TWA, to get to the many speeches the secretary of education made across the country. Because of this, perhaps, Cavazos was criticized for not putting in enough time on his job and running the department of education haphazardly and without a clear agenda.
Along with questions about these personal matters, Cavazos was attacked from both the conservative and liberal sides for being perceived as a weak cabinet member. The right wing of the Republican Party was particularly disappointed because Cavazos was a Democrat and a supporter of teachers' unions, and ideologically he was a big change from Bennett. Toeing the president's line, Cavazos did campaign for school "choice," but he sometimes was accused of doing so half–heartedly.
Cavazos was also criticized for making many speeches but accomplishing little of substance beyond rhetorical flourishes. Cavazos was accused in The New Republic of lacking "simple clarity of thought and expression" in his speeches that, according to the editorial writer, were "full of cloudy thinking and doubletalk." And an editorial for U.S. News & World Report said "the mild–mannered Cavazos has emphasized platitudes over leadership." In his job, Cavazos was hampered by his lack of knowledge of elementary and secondary schools, and by Bush's lackluster performance on education. Despite his vow to be the "education president," Bush failed to fill the majority of the top jobs in the Department of Education and did not approve any increases in funding for federal education programs.
Cavazos stepped down as Secretary of Education on December 15, 1990, at the request of President Bush. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, personally asked Cavazos to resign, according to Time magazine, because of suspicions that Cavazos paid for his wife's airline fares with frequent–flyer miles he earned on government business, a violation of federal ethics rules. The Justice Department investigated the allegations, but after Cavazos resigned the investigation was quietly dropped. Cavazos was replaced as secretary of education by Lamar Alexander, who had skirmished with teachers unions in Tennessee and, for that and other reasons, was more acceptable to conservatives.
After his brief but pioneering stint in the cabinet, Cavazos returned to university teaching, becoming a professor of family medicine and community health at Tufts University School of Medicine. He also directed the graduate programs in those fields at Tufts. Cavazos has received at least 21 honorary degrees from many colleges and universities. He also was honored by Hispanic Business as the "Most Influential Hispanic" in the United States.
Economist, October 1, 1988.
National Review, March 24, 1989; January 28, 1991.
New Republic, July 10, 1989.
Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Spring, 1991.
Time, August 22, 1988; December 5, 1988; May 29, 1989; December 24, 1990; May 27, 1991.
U.S. News & World Report, May 21, 1990; August 6, 1990.
"Lauro Cavazos (1927–. . . )," World Book Website,http://www2.worldbook.com/wc/features/cinco/html/cavazos.htm (January 2, 2005).
"Lauro F. Cavazos: An Inventory of His Papers 1943–1991 and undated, at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library," Texas Archival Resources Online,http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/ttusw/00035/tsw-00035.html (January 9, 2005).
"Secretary of Education: Lauro F. Cavazos (1988–1989)," American President Website, http://www.americanpresident.org/history/ronaldreagan/cabinet/secretaryofeducation/laurocavazos/h–index.shtml (January 9, 2005).