A Very Public Historian Signs On to Foster Inclusion at Arizona State

Arizona State U.

Eduardo Obregón Pagán
March 03, 2014

Ensuring "excellence" seems a lot to ask of any academic administrator; but Eduardo Obregón Pagán has just been entrusted with that role at Arizona State University.

The seasoned professor of history is the new vice provost for academic excellence and inclusion—even though he has long drawn the skepticism of many of his peers with his passion for popularizing history.

Far from apologetic, he chastises colleagues who don’t do likewise in their fields: "We’ve really missed key opportunities to take what’s fascinating about what we know and share it with the public."

At 53, Mr. Pagán has a substantial record of promoting history. His first scholarly book, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A., which the University of North Carolina Press issued in 2003, took the form of a detective novel. He has also published popular histories of Phoenix, his hometown.

His most prominent public role has been as a co-host of the public-television series History Detectives. In 2009 he leapt right in with segments on the provenance of an old Navajo rug, a portrait sketched in a World War II death camp, and a Pancho Villa commemorative watch fob. With academics as three of its five hosts, the program has conveyed key aspects of what academic history entails, such as painstaking authentication of artifacts.

The program is being revamped, leaving Mr. Pagán’s future with it unclear. While he enjoyed doing the show, he says, the change gives him more time for his new job.

Succeeding a colleague who was the first holder of the job as vice provost, Mr. Pagán will call on skills he has demonstrated in such roles as chair of the Arizona Faculties Council, which represents faculty governments at Arizona State, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Arizona. He will stay in that job until the next election.

Since 2002, under President Michael M. Crow, Arizona State has embraced a vision of transforming itself into "something new and dynamic," fusing academic accomplishment and enrollment diversity, Mr. Pagán says. His assignment is to help those efforts fuel each other. He will also seek recognition for faculty efforts through national awards and other means.

Mr. Pagán grew up five miles from Arizona State’s main campus. Yet, he recalls, "at high school, no counselor ever pulled me aside and encouraged me to apply to a university."

Granted, he adds, "mostly I was into goofing around; that was my skill." But the distress in his voice is apparent as he continues: "I didn’t come from a family of college graduates. That’s why I’m always mindful of the friends I had growing up who didn’t have my opportunities."

He went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in history at Princeton University, but he almost missed getting that far. He had enrolled at Arizona State at age 19 but soon fled, intimidated and frustrated, only to return after he had begun to raise a family.

For both faculty members and students, he believes, inspiration can come from the emergence of minority groups as "the majority minority," in the Southwest, and from the region’s deep and rich history of Hispanic and American Indian life.

For example, in his courses, Mr. Pagán alerts students to the Southwest of the late 19th century, when it buzzed with "all manner of ethnic whites," Chinese laborers, Jewish merchants, and African-Americans. His own forebears include revolutionaries who rode with Pancho Villa, Yaqui Indians who fled persecution during the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s, and a cook for General John J. Pershing, whose troops pursued Villa deep into Mexico.

In Mr. Pagán’s childhood, he recalls, his father took the family to see centuries-old Southwest cave dwellings. Now Mr. Pagán takes his own family not just to the Grand Canyon; Tombstone, Ariz.; and other fabled attractions, but also to dusty small-town museums and his favorite spot in Arizona, Canyon de Chelly, whose floors and rims were the ancient home of the Anasazi and Navajo peoples.

He says he often harks back to the long tenure of the tribes that were attracted to the Southwest. That historical process has a parallel in higher education today, he believes, as people of many cultural backgrounds find opportunity in the area, drawn by a prospect of success that not all of them can realize. "If you really believe in opportunity for all people," Mr. Pagán says, "you’ve got to find a way to give talented, motivated youths opportunities to do that."