Lauro Cavazos, Former School of Medicine Dean, Dies

The first Latino cabinet member, he was secretary of education during the Reagan and first Bush administrations

Lauro Cavazos, the eleventh dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine, died on March 15. He was 95. In addition to his faculty and administrative roles at Tufts, he served as president of Texas Tech University—and as secretary of education from 1988 to 1990 under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Cavazos was born on January 4, 1927, on the largest ranch in Texas, the King Ranch, near Kingsville. According to The New York Times, Cavazos’s father was the ranch’s foreman, and his mother was descended from Francita Alavez, the “Angel of Goliad,” who saved the lives of many Texas prisoners in a 1835-36 rebellion by Texas against Mexico. After having begun his education in a two-room schoolhouse on the ranch for the children of King Ranch employees, Cavazos went on to receive his undergraduate and master's degrees from Texas Technological College, majoring in zoology and cytology, and a Ph. D. in physiology from Iowa State University in 1954.

Following graduation from Iowa State, he joined the faculty of the Medical College of the Virginia School of Medicine, instructing courses in anatomy, and rising from instructor to professor during ten years with that school’s anatomy department.

He arrived at Tufts in 1964 as professor of anatomy and chairman of the anatomy department for both the School of Medicine and Dental Medicine. His appointment was heralded by Dr. Joseph Hayman, then the dean of the School of Medicine, as “a significant development of not only our pre-clinical faculty but an important step towards new methods of teaching and relating teaching to medical research.”

In 1972, Cavazos became associate dean of the School of Medicine, and then acting dean of the school from 1973 to 1975. In 1975, he assumed the permanent deanship of the school, a position he held for five years.

At the time that Cavazos was named dean, Tufts President Burton C. Hallowell said, “Dr. Cavazos comes to this post at a time when the medical school is embarking upon a new era of academic excellence. This is particularly fitting since he has been a major force in this growth. I am pleased that his leadership both as an academician and a high-level administrator will continue to benefit the School of Medicine.”

During his time at Tufts, he became known as an accomplished investigator in the field of endocrinology as well as for his work in university administration as related to academic health planning, including medical and postgraduate education.

He played an instrumental role in planning the schools of veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences. He also had served as a member of the Tufts-New England Medical Center Joint Planning Committee and the Committee for Equal Education Opportunities at the School of Dental Medicine and chaired the Educational Affairs Committee.

“Dean Cavazos was passionate about education and led the medical school through an important time in its development, helping to strengthen its reputation for academic excellence,” said Helen Boucher, dean ad interim of the School of Medicine and Tufts Medicine chief academic officer. “He is remembered at Tufts as a skilled administrator, effective communicator, and respected scholar, but most of all as a warm, empathetic leader who was intent on listening well to the people he led.”

Cavazos left Tufts in 1980 to assume the presidency of his alma mater, Texas Tech, as well as its medical school. As reported in The New York Times, his leadership of Texas Tech made that university the largest school in the nation to be led by a Latino. He was later made Secretary of Education by President Reagan in 1988 and continued in that position under the Bush Administration. After he left the cabinet in 1990, Cavazos returned to Tufts as a professor of public health and family medicine.

Recollecting her experience with Cavazos as a member of the TUSM Class of 1975, Betsy Busch, now an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and trustee emerita, recalls the dean as deeply attuned to the need of students. “Back then, medicine was very hierarchical, and it was uncommon for medical students to have much of a voice,” said Busch. “But Dean Cavazos made us all feel as if he truly cared about us, and that if we wanted to speak with him, he would listen thoughtfully and with respect. I remember him fondly and was not surprised to learn that he later became a university president and U.S. Secretary of Education, since education clearly was his passion.”

Echoing Busch’s sentiments, Michael Atkins, M80, now deputy director of the Georgetown-Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Georgetown University Medical Center, remembers Cavazos as a “commanding, but kind, supportive and calming presence.” Atkins said, “He was committed to education and supported novel learning approaches and student collaboration. We had great teachers and a strong school spirit—and Dean Cavazos set the tone.”

An admissions interview with Cavazos was key to William Owen’s selection of TUSM for his medical education. Now dean and chancellor of Ross University School of Medicine, Owen, a member of the TUSM Class of 1980, recalls Cavazos as very kind and a scholar who was proud of his heritage. As an African American medical school applicant, Owen felt welcomed by Cavazos—important at a time in the 1970s when Boston was experiencing racial tensions as concomitants of the court-mandated busing crisis.

“Dean Cavazos linked me with Dean Pinn [Vivian Pinn, H93, TUSM associate dean for student affairs from 1974 to 1982], who became a lifelong mentor and friend,” said Owen. “Diversity and inclusion in higher education are still elusive, especially for the health sector. I hope those of us guided by Dean Cavazos have lived up to his high hopes and expectations. He was a good man… the paradigm of paying it forward.”

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