Dr. Zulma Toro took the helm of CCSU just over three months ago with a long and ambitious list of goals she plans to check off during her tenure as the 13th president of the university.
But this is no check list of things Toro hopes to get done — these are deeply thought out, big-picture objectives that she fully expects to achieve as both CCSU’s first female and first Hispanic president.
“My three top priorities are increasing enrollment, becoming a real community-engaged university, and diversifying sources of funding,” she states.
Toro likes to start her day bright and early and get out in the real world, not lead from behind a desk. Her first mission at the university has been an ongoing “listening tour.” She’s already had many breakfast and lunch meetings with CCSU’s academic departments and support offices and plans to meet with every one of them. By April, she had met with 34 academic departments; 46 support offices; eight student groups; and 52 off-campus community and education officials and had attended 32 campus events.
“The goal for me is first to get to every person that is part of the Central community because as president, one doesn’t have too many opportunities to meet individuals,” she says. “Ultimately, we are here because of the students, and if we don’t work as a team, and I believe in working as a team, we cannot provide our students with what they need.”
Toro, who has a PhD from the Georgia Institute of Technology, says she became an industrial engineer instead of going into another field of engineering because she wanted to deal with the human side of systems, which she says is critical to being a good leader.
“People believe you have quite a bit of power as university president, but you don’t have any power,” Toro says. “It’s about the people that work for you believing in your vision and embracing what you want for this institution. That’s where the personal relationships come into play…as president, my role is to provide an environment in which every individual that is part of this community feels appreciated and valued, and motivated and excited, every day when they drive to work.”
Toro is passionate about assisting underserved populations and has already visited with elected officials and school superintendents throughout the region, including those in New Britain, Hartford, Farmington, and Bristol.
“I am the public face of the university, representing what we are as an institution, what we bring to the table, the value of our educational experience,” she says.
“One example of what we need to do is work with the K-12 system to elevate the quality of education offered to the students,” Toro notes. “By doing that, we are building a student pipeline to Central and we’re helping those school districts with the goal of working with them in educating more college-ready students, so when they come here, they will be more successful.”
Toro says she’s identified in conversations with the superintendents that teachers are needed in languages, special education, and the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Upon graduation, she’d like to see students from underserved populations, who want to get degrees in these majors at CCSU, go back to the schools in their own communities to teach.
“We’re going to be able to have in those areas teachers that look like the students they’re serving,” she says.
Once these students are enrolled at CCSU, “there is quite a bit of work to do to retain them and help them graduate, and that isn’t only programs that are academic in nature, but also help them deal with personal challenges,” she says. “These include on campus childcare, better public transportation, and career development.
The CCSU ‘story’
Marketing the university is another critical aspect of Toro’s job.
“The slogan we’re using is ‘See Yourself at CCSU,’ developed by a group of students several years ago and it will be in place until early fall. But simultaneously, we are developing a new Central story. New because as an institution we have not articulated the value of our education and model programs,” Toro explains.
“So we’re in the process of developing that Central story with the feedback and participation of the internal as well as external community. It will speak to Central as the most affordable institution of the four universities within the state system. But also speak to the strengths of our programs, and the fact that employers who hire our students are telling us that our students are career ready.”
Toro adds that CCSU also graduates individuals who are going out into the world and “contributing to the democratic debate that we’re having and need to have in this nation. Our students are equipped to be involved in society.”
She points out that CCSU is facilitating this real-world readiness in a number of ways, from faculty-led undergraduate research participation and study abroad programs to internships and externships in organizations and companies, as well as service learning, which allows students to be involved in the community and address its particular needs. For example, a wellness clinic provided by the nursing department has been established near a housing project in New Britain for people who otherwise would not be able to afford healthcare services.
“What I am saying is we have a very wonderful story to tell,” Toro says.
Toro says she is happy to be back in Connecticut. From 2001 to 2005, she was dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at University of New Haven. Before her arrival at CCSU, Toro served as executive vice chancellor and provost of University of Arkansas, Little Rock.
“I like Connecticut — the way people treat each other — and the diversity of food! It feels like I’m back home,” she says.
She is particularly enthusiastic about joining CCSU.
“I could not have asked for a better position because this allows me to do what I’m passionate about. It’s a unique opportunity in that the external community that surrounds Central is so committed to the institution, and you don’t find that often,” she says.
“I also think that being able to open doors for people that otherwise would not have opportunities for higher education is very important for me, and the diversity of people you interact with here, it’s unbelievable.”