Cevallos leaves behind a positive legacy
By Leighah Beausoleil
By Dallas Gagnon
On the second story of a large building, a room overlooks historic halls and brick pathways - worn from University traffic. One wall is filled entirely with books, and at the heart of the office a new novel rests atop a cherry-stained desk.
For nearly eight years, the Framingham State University community has known this as President F. Javier Cevallos’ office.
However, in July 2022, the cherry-stained desk will be occupied by a new University president and after 42 years in academia, Cevallos said he will “turn a new leaf” and retire.
Despite retirement, Cevallos said he has many plans for the future. “I cannot spend my life playing golf and watching TV.”
Instead, he plans to spend more time reading, playing guitar, and has accepted a one-year position in the Presidents-in-Residence program at Harvard University.
Reading has always been one of Cevallos’ favorite pastimes. He said he is always reading at least three books at once - one he keeps in his office, an audiobook in his car, and the third on his bedroom night stand.
Cevallos, who lived in Ecuador until moving to Puerto Rico at age 14, said he moved to the U.S. for graduate school at age 19.
“My dad used to read to us [siblings] every day. You have to go back to Ecuador in the 1960s. When I was growing up, we didn't have television in my hometown,” he said.
His father read fantasy stories, invented his own, and gradually progressed toward more serious literature such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, said Cevallos.
“I did that to my children as well,” he said. “They would give me crazy words and just make up stories about that.”
One of his favorites was a story that came out of the exercise with his son, Alex.
“It was the poor ghost that is haunted by the house, instead of the house being haunted by the ghost,” he said. “They loved that.”
With his father having been a professor of history and philosophy, and his mother a professor of linguistics, Cevallos said he “never even questioned” a career outside of higher education.
“I finished high school at 16, graduated from college at 19, and I had my Ph.D. at 24. So I was very young,” he said.
As a graduate student, Cevallos was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois in 1976. At age 25, he became an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Maine.
“In Illinois, I basically went to the Spanish Department and they gave us a three-day orientation on how to teach and that was it. ‘Here's your book, this is your class - go teach’,” said Cevallos.
He said although it was a little embarrassing, “They didn't kill me [and] they didn't go to the chair of the department complaining.”
While attending the University of Illinois, many rock bands performed on campus.
“We’d have concerts like every week,” he said. “So basically, every popular classic rock band you can think of in the ’70s, I probably saw them in concert.”
Some include Fleetwood Mac, Styx, The Ramones, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Heart. Cevallos especially noted Queen and Bruce Springsteen, who played “for three hours, non-stop.
“I love music,” said Cevallos. “I try to play [classical guitar] every day, just a half hour or something to keep your fingers going.”
He first picked up the guitar in Puerto Rico when a neighbor showed Cevallos and his younger brother a few chords. Cevallos said he and his brother “really took to it.
“I asked my father for a guitar for Christmas,” said Cevallos, and that was his gift that year.
Although it is “really old and doesn’t sound well anymore,” his first guitar is “still around” and with his brother in Florida.
Cevallos said he has always wanted to learn how to play the piano and although he cannot, his wife Josée Vachon, and daughter, Caroline, both “play very well.”
After graduating with his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Cevallos taught at the University of Maine, where he met Vachon.
The couple have been married for 40 years and have two children.
In 1984, Cevallos said he worked at UMass Amherst as an assistant professor of Romance languages, and was promoted to associate professor in 1988, and to professor in 1992.
After 18 years at UMass, he said he left to serve as president of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, where he increased student diversity from 5% to 15%.
“We have done the same thing here [at Framingham State],” Cevallos added. “It’s not that I do it, it’s that the team [administration] does it.”
Some of Cevallos’ accomplishments as FSU’s president include the acquisition of the Danforth Art Museum, the Warren Conference Center, increasing diversity, and leading the University through COVID-19.
Cevallos said he was “shocked” by the “racial disparities that exist in this country,” when coming from South America to the United States.
The first time he “really” noticed it was when as a graduate student, he, a friend, and his brother were trying to get into a bar.
His brother went into the bar “because he looks white,” but his friend who had “dark skin” was asked for three picture IDs, and was told “a student ID doesn’t count,” said Cevallos.
“Of course, we walked out and never, never came back to a place like that again,” he said. “That was Chigago in the 1970s and they were still doing that.
“I’ve been so committed to diversity since I’ve come here because it was a surprising thing to me,” he said.
Susan Dargan, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said, “I was a member of the search committee that selected Javier as a finalist, and I am grateful that the board selected him from a pool of highly qualified applicants.
“To me, the most important achievement in his administration came when he declared that FSU would strive to be an anti-racist institution,” Dargan said. “This declaration was followed by serious efforts to look at all of our practices and policies with an equity lens.”
She added, “Javier is a respectful leader who has served the institution with grace and humility. He will be missed!”
Marc Cote, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, said, “I was impressed with Dr. Cevallos’s ambitious proclamation of the school’s commitment to anti-racism and the thoroughness with which he teamed with departed VP Connie Cabello to follow through with an action plan toward that promise.”
Cote said, “Additionally, I am very thankful for his dogged determinism in helping to merge the Danforth Museum into a vibrant center for our University. Coupled with the Museum, he was instrumental in leading the approval for new ceramic and sculpture studios for our visual arts programs in the Maynard building, including a new wood shop.”
Dale Hamel, executive vice president, said, “He's been a strong leader and we've certainly needed that over this period.”
Hamel said the University was “fortunate” to have Cevallos as president during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He credited Cevallos with setting the “tone” and “culture” of the University in his work to create a “friendly, welcoming and inclusive environment that’s willing to listen to the various constituents that are across campus.”
“I’ll certainly miss them, personally,” he added. “We’ve obviously become friends over the past seven or eight years. I'll certainly miss that, and wish him the best as I think he'll be successful in his retirement.”
James Cressey, professor and chair of the Education Department, said, “President Cevallos supported FSU’s Education programs consistently during his tenure in large and small ways.
“If you have heard him give a public address, you’ll know that he always makes a point to highlight our proud history as the first public institution in the United States to prepare future educators,” Cressey said. “President Cevallos is a lifelong educator and supporter of public education and it showed clearly in his work as University president.”
Kevin Foley, chair of the Board of Trustees, said, “I admire Dr. Cevallos. He's been a great leader.”
Foley explained how he was a part of the committee that initially hired Cevallos.
“He brings a lot of insight from both the nonprofit and higher education to the various organizations he belongs to,” he said.
“Additionally, I think that I just want to make the point that not only is he an extremely competent leader, but he's a great person,” he added. “He's a great human being. He always thinks on a personal level, whether you're having a one-on-one or you're part of a committee or a larger group.”
Majorie Agosin, a professor of Spanish at Wellesley University and friend to Cevallos of 40 years, said, “He has a tremendous quality that not many leaders have.
“A lot of people go with what is politically correct or politically savvy,” she said. “I admire his profound honesty and his commitment to a premium safe community.”
Cevallos said he recently wrote an article for a collection of essays Agosin was compiling about universities as a place of refuge.
He added, “Universities have always been accepting of refugees of many kinds in different ways.”
Agosin said Cevallos “is interested in educating all people, but especially people who have not had fantastic access to education.
“It is important to reach those who are most vulnerable and I think he has created a wonderful University,” she added.
Cevallos said he will “miss all the things that happen here [FSU] … the different lectures, the performances, the games, you know - the things we do.”
He said what he has “always learned is that you have to always be open to learning more and trying new things, and to experiment and not be afraid of things that are different - that goes for food when you travel to different places … meeting people or going to a concert of music you never expected you would like - just try to be open and try new things.”