F. Javier Cevallos starts every morning at 5:30 a.m.
“That’s the only thing that happens every day,” Cevallos said.
“I try to read my newspapers and I try to do daily yoga,” he said explaining yoga helps with his flexibility.
Waking up at 5:30 a.m. allows for “some time for myself,” he said. “Then the days are totally different.”
Cevallos has been a university president for 18 years and started at Framingham State University in 2014. Today he celebrates the five-year anniversary of his inauguration.
Cevallos began his career as an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Maine at Orono in 1981. Throughout his time at UMass Amherst he was promoted to associate professor, then full, and eventually department chair of Spanish and Portuguese, according to the Framingham State website.
In 1994, Cevallos started his work in administration. In 2002, Cevallos then became president of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.
But his journey began in Ecuador where Cevallos spent most of his childhood in the highlands of Cuenca.
“I always joke with my kids that I was actually born in the 19th century because Ecuador in the 1950s was very different than it is today,” Cevallos said.
“It was a different world,” he said.
“When I was a child, we didn’t have television in my hometown,” Cevallos said. “TV came to my hometown when I was around 11 or 12, and I remember waiting for hours in front of the screen just to wait and see if Bugs Bunny or something like that would come up on the screen.”
At 14 years old, Cevallos and his family moved to Puerto Rico where he later completed his undergraduate degree.
Cevallos did not know much about the American Education system, but when his brother had gone to Illinois to get his Ph.D. in engineering, Cevallos followed.
“It was not a particularly thorough decision,” he said. “I just figured it was the easiest way to do it.
“I wanted to be a professor,” Cevallos said. “My parents were both professors.
“So, that’s what I did. I wanted to be a professor. I finished my B.A. and I didn’t even think about it – I went for my master’s and Ph.D. because I wanted to get onto the track,” he said.
“My first impression [of America was when] I landed in Chicago. I took a taxi down to the Greyhound terminal and then the Greyhound down to Champagne, and it was just flat,” Cevallos said. “I was just looking at corn and flat. It was early June, so the corn wasn’t even high yet.
“One thing that really impressed me was the sky, because the sky in the Midwest was so big because you have no mountains,” he added. “Nothing cuts the sky. You have this huge view of the sky.”
Cevallos studied Latin American Literature.
In Cevallos’ office almost every wall is covered from top to bottom with books. “I have always loved literature,” he said.
“I used to write poetry when I was young, and I used to write short stories. I pretended to at some point start writing a novel,” Cevallos said.
“Of course, I never did,” he added. “I never finished.”
“But I have always enjoyed reading a lot,” he said. “I have always been an avid reader. I still am. I read constantly. I always have two or three books I am reading at the same time. I always had two or three books when I was growing up. So, it was kind of a natural thing.”
“Plus, I am one of five siblings,” he added, explaining how each of his siblings are involved in the STEM field.
“So, somebody in the family had to balance things out,” he said jokingly. “Somebody had to be in the humanities for a change. I am surrounded by all these mathematicians, chemists, and scientists.”
Of all his books, Cevallos’ favorite is “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes.
“I actually read it every two years,” he said. “My wife makes fun of me because she’ll say, ‘You’re reading Quixote again?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yep, I’m reading that.’”
Having always wanted to be a professor, Cevallos never foresaw he would become a university president.
“I was a typical faculty member teaching my classes and doing my research, writing books, and writing articles,” Cevallos said. “At some point, I was promoted to full professor. Our son was born and it was one of those things where you just go into the mirror and say, ‘Should I do something different?’
“I started moving up from there, and all of a sudden I found myself getting into this track and I said, ‘OK, I like it.’ I enjoyed it. I discovered that I could make a difference in the work that I was doing as an administrator,” he said.
Cevallos said coming to work at FSU was like “coming home.
“My wife and I missed Massachusetts when we were in Pennsylvania,” he said. “We wanted to return to New England. When the opportunity to come to Framingham came up – I was very fortunate I was asked to take this job and I was appointed.”
When first arriving, Cevallos was “really impressed by how friendly and how much of a community this campus is.”
“I mean people here truly care for each other,” he said. “That’s something that I really like having.
“We do have issues, and we have had some sad incidents and things that have happened, but by in large people care for each other,” he added. “People are engaged. Faculty truly want students to succeed. That’s something I really like. Coming back to this environment was really positive.”
Cevallos has now been president of FSU for six years having been inaugurated at the end of his first year. In those years here he has been engaged in numerous projects.
“So far I think there are two things we have done as an institution that I think are really good,” he said. “One is that we acquired the Warren Center. That provided the space for having a conference center for us. That is going to allow us to develop the hospitality program.
“The other thing I’m really proud of is the Danforth Museum,” Cevallos said. “The City of Framingham was going to lose the museum. They were going to close it. It was going to be disbanded. I thought it would be a shame for a city not to have a museum, especially Danforth. It has a wonderful collection.
“The idea that we could merge them into us and part of the University could incorporate it – I’m really proud of that. It was a lot of work. It was not easy to do, but it’s done,” he said.
Sarah Mulhall Adelman, a history professor, said, “As a Framingham resident, I am very grateful the University and the museum have partnered to allow the museum to continue to exist and be sustained as part of the community.
“It’s a great thing to have in our community and so it’s great the University and museum were able to work out a mutually beneficial partnership to allow that to continue to exist and stay in Framingham,” she said.
Desmond McCarthy, chair of the English department, said, “His tenure as president has been marked by significant and long-lasting successes.
“Particularly, the acquisition of the Danforth Art Museum and the Warren Conference Center in Ashland, which is a huge parcel of beautiful land on a reservoir that will significantly boost our environmental studies programs and provide opportunities for our hospitality major,” he said.
Cevallos said, “There are a lot of things that we do on a daily basis in terms of managing the institution – making sure the budgets are balanced – those things, but doing things out of the box like that I think is really important.”
When it comes to the challenges of being president of a university, Cevallos said he has not had as many in Framingham as he did in Pennsylvania.
“In Pennsylvania the budget situation was really difficult,” he said. “I had to make some really, really tough decisions.
“When you have to lay off people and close departments, you are affecting lives,” he added.
“Knowing that my decisions were affecting people was not an easy thing. It personally hurts because nobody likes to hurt people,” Cevallos said. “There is certainly no recovery from that. You just have to do what you have to do.
“We all make mistakes, and sometimes you make silly mistakes, and you just apologize when you make a mistake, … and you correct whatever it is,” he said. “Fortunately, I have not done any big ones.”
McCarthy said, “As you know, the faculty were without a contract for two years. It was a very stressful and upsetting time. When those negotiations with the board of higher education were finally concluded, President Cevallos emailed the faculty to apologize for what had happened in those negotiations.
“Which again is an incredibly kind and gracious gesture on his part. It’s another indication of his character,” he added.
Cevallos said,“I think that people don’t really realize that the job truly is 24/7 and the time commitments that we have to make to be a college president. You have to always be available and always ready to attend things.
“People – they look at the office, they don’t look at the person. We’re all human beings so sometimes you get tired and you want to sleep,” he said.
“Overall, I think that it is really important to keep in mind that whatever event I attend, it may be the 10th time I go to that event, but it is the first time that is an event for somebody else,” Cevallos said. “So, you cannot become cynical or forget about how important things are in the work that we do. I always try to keep that first perspective that every day is a new day and it’s different.”
Connie Cabello, vice president for diversity, inclusion and community engagement, said, “I think one of the hardest things about being a college president … is that you don’t get to spend a lot time on campus because you are out so much.
“A lot of your role is doing advocacy and meeting with stakeholders off campus and getting the institution resources,” she said.
“I would love for him to, you know, have a clone and be on campus more and be able to really engage in campus life,” she said jokingly. “But the reality is that the work that he is doing externally is so incredibly important.
“So, I think something that probably all college presidents struggle with is that you ideally want to spend as much time on campus as possible, but because the demands, the travel demands, of the work are so high, you have to be flexible and nimble,” Cabello said.
“We hosted the MLK Youth Conference on campus … honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” She said Cevallos “came at the end of the day and made some closing remarks.
“I think just listening to him speak at that conference – it made me feel like he is really about the work. He really cares about diversity and inclusion,” Cabello said. “It’s part of who he is.
“What was also striking about that was it was a Saturday, and he was coming from another event that was in Boston,” she added. “Then he was actually on his way to the basketball game. This was a Saturday. He didn’t need to do all that. But I think he knew it was important to wear all these different hats that day.”
Cevallos said, “It’s a wonderful job. I am very fortunate, and I think that I am really lucky to have this position and to have the opportunity to do something that makes a change and makes a difference.
“I am really a fortunate happy man,” he added.
“I have been happily married for almost 35 years now. I have two kids that finished college, they are working, and they are off my paycheck so I’m happy,” Cevallos said jokingly. “I wish they were a little closer, but you know that’s life.”
Those who were interviewed were each asked to describe Cevallos in one word. Each provided a different word to describe him.
“Accessible,” McCarthy said.
“Inspiring,” Cabello said.
“Engaged,” Mulhall Adelman said.
“Intelligent,” said Angela Salas, former provost and vice president of academic affairs.
“Responsive,” McCarthy said.
“Supportive,” Cabello said.
“Insightful,” Salas said.
Cevallos said when it comes down to it the best part about being president is, “You can make decisions that affect student’s lives in a positive way.
“I think that is the most important thing,” he said. “Every time I get up in the morning, I think that we can do something positive.”
When Cevallos worked as the president in Pennsylvania the university had faced a “horrible” budgeting crisis. He explained how for weeks he had to send out emails detailing more and more bad news.
“It had been like two weeks of sending bad, negative emails, and I just said, ‘OK, I want to tell you something different today,’” he said.
“I have been telling you what keeps me up at night, for the last few weeks,” Cevallos said. “I want to tell you what gets me out of bed in the morning.
“To see that we are making a difference in the students’ lives, that our faculty are in the classrooms engaged, teaching, … that they are bringing that knowledge to you,” he said. “That you are happy to be learning, that you are engaging in activities, that students are participating in the newspaper, in the theater, in music, in choir, in athletics, in whatever.
“That engagement, that vibrancy, that life in the campus – that is so powerful,” Cevallos said. “That is what gets me out of bed. Otherwise, why would you come in if you are not happy with what you are doing?”