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. Linden Lane

Love's labor


An interview with BC's new academic vice president

Photos by Gary Wayne Gilbert

Photos by Gary Wayne Gilbert

Editor's Note: On November 1, Cutberto Garza, a professor and former vice provost at Cornell University, became Boston College's new academic vice president, succeeding Jack Neuhauser, who had been in the position for six years. A Texan, Garza was educated at Baylor University and Baylor College of Medicine, and holds a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry and human metabolism from MIT. The father of three has been a pioneer in the study of infant nutrition and is currently the chair of the World Health Organization's International Infant and Young Child Growth Reference Multicenter Study Group. He has taught at Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences since 1988. On a visit to the campus in August, a month after his appointment had been announced, Garza spoke with BCM editor Ben Birnbaum.

Where do you come from?
I grew up in San Diego, Texas, a community of 3,000 that lies some 50 miles inland from the Gulf. Under various grants from Spain, the area was settled around the late 1700s by a community of families, many of whom had been in the New World for 200 years and had moved progressively north in Mexico. San Diego remained fairly isolated for the first 150 years of its existence. The town was still 99 percent Hispanic during my childhood, and my father, who died when I was 11, ran a grocery store along with ranching. Since there was no law of primogeniture, land was divided among children into increasingly smaller parcels. So most people did ranching and something else.

When I graduated from high school, I wanted to go East for college. My mother felt I was needed in Texas, because I was "a key figure" in the family. She said I could go to any college in Texas that I chose. I thought I'd pick a college she'd never agree to—she had picked out St. Edward's, in Austin, and St. Mary's, in San Antonio—and then I'd have my way and go East. So I picked Baylor, a Baptist evangelical school, thinking she would refuse. She said, "That's a wonderful idea." Only pride kept me from backing out.

What was life in Waco like for a boy from San Diego, Texas?
In retrospect, choosing Baylor was one of the smartest things I ever did for all the wrong reasons. In the community in which I grew up, everyone had the same history, and everything we did, outside of official government matters, we did in Spanish: food, poetry, music. In Waco, I found myself in Protestant America for the first time. I began to ask myself: Why do I believe what I believe? Why do I do the things I do? It was like living in another country. I didn't even know the lexicon of Protestant America. From Waco I moved to Houston, where I attended Baylor College of Medicine. I then decided to do a doctorate as well, in nutritional science.

Had you had a change of heart about being a doctor?
No. But at the time—the early 1970s—hunger was being "discovered" in America. It was a great scandal. My wife Yolanda, who is a dietician, was working on a 10-state survey of hunger. She kept coming home with medical questions about nutrition that I couldn't answer. I began to look into what physicians knew about nutrition, and it wasn't much. I'd completed all medical school requirements with the exception of one course after three years—I've always been something of a workaholic—and spent my fourth medical school year in Boston, at MIT, working on my doctorate. My career has since focused on maternal and child health.

You've got more than 300 publications listed in your vita, and pages of task force and committee memberships in your scientific field. Of all the work, what means the most to you?
From the late 1970s through much of the 1990s, I was part of a group of scientists who investigated differences in the physiological development of breast-fed and bottle-fed children. There was a time in pediatrics when we thought there were no differences between those infants, and our group was quite involved in demonstrating that in fact there were. We documented that breast-fed children had several advantages. The work we did in Houston and Ithaca, and the work done by many others around the globe, became a keystone for the fact that we now think of breast-fed children as the norm. Also, my current chairmanship of the World Health Organization's program to introduce new growth standards for infants and young children internationally is very important to me. Surprisingly, we don't have good standards for growth and its normal variability against which to identify children who need attention. Among the most exciting aspects of this effort is documentation that all infants and young children, regardless of ethnic origin, grow very similarly during the first five years of life, when their health needs are met. The project will give us tools that are scientifically much more robust than those presently available and that can be used for child health advocacy.

And now, after 25-plus years, you are giving up that work? Why?
I've always had three concurrent professional lives: administration; teaching and research; and public service. I've enjoyed all three. About two years ago, I began to understand that in the last phase of my career—I'm 58 years old—I could move to a higher level of involvement and accomplishment in one of these, but not all three. So I began to look at the options. I received a call from Boston College: Was I interested?

You weren't.
Not immediately. I was in Geneva during much of the search, fulfilling a commitment to the WHO program that runs through April 2006, when the new growth standards are to be introduced. So I didn't feel I would have enough time to meet the obligations of an academic search—the interviews, the travel. But BC was persuasive, and flexible. And perhaps it was the height of hubris, but as I looked at where BC was and my own three lives, I thought that I might make meaningful contributions jointly with students, faculty, and staff.

Has the prospect of abandoning research, teaching, and public service caused you much angst?
No. I've had experiences moving on in the sense that I spent the first third of my career at a medical school, in a department of pediatrics. I know that when you proverbially shut one door, you open others. When I identified an opportunity to make more meaningful contributions, I moved from Baylor to Cornell. Do you give up some possibilities in such transitions? Yes, but I know from past experiences that you also gain others. Thus no angst in my decision to join BC.

What was it about the university that attracted you?
I had the very strong sense that Boston College was not wondering who it was, knew that it stands at a pivotal point in its history and is ready for change, with all the stresses that involves. I know that change does not come easy to academia.

And when I looked at the trajectory—at how far BC had come in a relatively short period of time—I was intrigued. Without taking any credit away from Fr. Monan, Fr. Leahy, and other senior administrators, this kind of progress is not achievable without a strong faculty that shares a commitment to progress and is not averse to change. I also was attracted to the Jesuit and Catholic ethos of the University, to what Ignatius referred to as "Nuestro modo de proceder"—our way of proceeding, of moving forward. It was all of these.

What are your motivations for doing what you do? What drives you?
I've often thought about this, of course, but I don't know if I've ever come up with a satisfactory answer. I can do the Freudian bit, and say, well, it was the fact that I lost my dad when I was 11, so I learned that you have to be self-sufficient because unexpected events can overtake your best plans.

And Dr. Freud aside?
I believe that in the final analysis, it's enjoyment of what I do. I have found real satisfaction in all three parts of my life. I work hard, but I'm not a martyr to work; and I suspect, in fact, that martyrs to work make poor academic vice presidents. You have to enjoy the interaction with faculty. You have to enjoy the vicarious nature of your triumphs, the realization that you are, at a distance, striving to improve the lives of students and faculty who pass through the institution. It's all of the above.

Work has always been very satisfying for me. I tell my students: If you haven't enjoyed getting here, then you shouldn't stay, because it's going to be more of the same. And I actually like school. I loved my university experience. I liked medical school. I enjoyed graduate school. I have taken much delight in what I've done.


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