"Higher education is perhaps the most transformative power that we have," says Enrique Lavernia, who was appointed provost and executive vice chancellor at UCI last April. Steve Zylius / UCI

In late September, Enrique Lavernia traveled to his native Cuba, the country he hadn’t seen since he left the island with his parents in 1965. He’d come a long way in 50 years, from young immigrant to key administrator at a top research university.

As the new provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California, Irvine, Lavernia met informally with Cuba’s academic and cultural leaders, scholars and dignitaries – a triumphant return made possible by his lifelong dedication to higher education.

“My father was an engineer at ITT [Corp.], and my mother was a biology professor,” he says. “They taught me that the one thing no one can take away from you is your education. That’s yours forever.”

It’s a lesson Lavernia will be passing on to many at UCI, where he’s the chief academic and operating officer responsible for the university’s teaching and research enterprise.

“Higher education is perhaps the most transformative power that we have,” he says.

His own life offers proof. Lavernia attended high school in Puerto Rico, then earned a bachelor’s degree in solid mechanics with honors at Brown University and a master’s degree in metallurgy and a doctorate in materials engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He joined UCI in 1987 as an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering department, eventually becoming chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science and a Chancellor’s Professor. In 2002, Lavernia left for UC Davis, serving as dean of the College of Engineering and the campus’s interim provost. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2013 and returned to UCI in July 2015.

“I came back during the summer to give myself a couple of months to really get to know the leadership at a time when the campus was still a little quiet,” Lavernia says. “I’ve now met one-on-one with every dean and every vice chancellor. It’s a first-rate group.

“I was struck by the degree to which they work together and support each other’s successes – that’s uncommon. Not surprisingly, UCI has a large number of interdisciplinary activities and thrives on those relationships, which is terrific.”

He arrived just in time to help draft the campus’s new, multiyear strategic plan. He and Chancellor Howard Gillman circulated a draft in October and will release the final version in February.

“We sent it out to the entire community for input,” Lavernia says. “That’s a really important first step – to get faculty, students, staff and outside stakeholders to join in and all feel that their voice is heard.”

The plan identifies four pillars:

  • Growth That Makes a Difference: Expanding Our Capacity to Improve Lives
  • First in Class: Elevating the Student Experience to Prepare Future Leaders
  • Great Partners: Making Regional and Global Connections That Enhance Our Mission and Serve the People
  • New Paths for Our Brilliant Future: Forging Best Practices to Power the Coming Century

Lavernia intends to work closely with faculty members on meeting those objectives.

“Part of the strength of this great university is the fact that the faculty are truly leaders in the educational component and work in partnership with the administration to deploy academic programs that make sense intellectually. They are the experts,” he says. “I’m proud to be a faculty member in addition to being an administrator.”

A Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering & materials science, he’ll advise graduate students despite his ambitious agenda as provost. “That’s motivated by several goals,” he says. “I enjoy the interaction with students – it’s one of the main reasons I selected this career. It grounds me and helps me remain aware of issues that affect faculty.”

Lavernia will work with Michael Dennin, dean of undergraduate education and vice provost for teaching & learning, to enhance students’ college experience. The strategic plan, for instance, calls for more opportunities for undergraduates to participate in state-of-the-art research and for ensuring they have the tools they’ll need to succeed in a world of rapidly changing technology.

“We’re also going to study the best modes of delivering online education and teaching underrepresented minorities,” Lavernia says. “The entire campus becomes a laboratory where we integrate our teaching and research mission.”

In short, it’s a plan to provide students from all backgrounds with the one thing he knows can’t be taken away from them: a great education.