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'An outspoken conscience that has moved us forward'

Dr. Luis Torres’ life and career are distinguished by his tireless advocacy for underrepresented students.

April 27, 2016

Dr. Luis Torres has made major contributions to MSU Denver and its ability to serve underrepresented students. He will retire at the end of June. MSU Denver photo.
Dr. Luis Torres has made major contributions to MSU Denver and its ability to serve underrepresented students. He will retire at the end of June. MSU Denver photo.

Despite his calm, thoughtful demeanor, Dr. Luis Torres is outraged.

He’s just been reading the legislation passed recently in Mississippi and North Carolina restricting the rights of the states’ gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender denizens.

“If you want to get frightened, read the actual language of the laws passed. It’s just terrible,” said Torres, MSU Denver’s deputy provost for Academic and Student Affairs, and professor of Chicana/o Studies.

Limiting the rights of any individual based on race, background, sexual orientation or station in life goes against everything for which Torres has spent his distinguished career working – and sometimes fighting. And among the fundamental rights of every individual, he believes, is access to higher education.

“It’s incumbent upon us to ensure that everybody has access to higher education so that they can make full use of their intellect and character, and then go out and help others,” said Torres.

The seeds of his conviction – and his passion for education – were planted when he was a 12-year-old in Fort Lupton, Colorado, tutoring the children of migrant farm workers in reading and writing. Those seeds blossomed when, as an English major at the University of Colorado Boulder in the 1970s, he decided he wanted to be chair of a Chicana/o Studies Department one day. The fact that there was no such thing at the time didn’t deter him.

“I knew that in order for us to become integrated into higher education, we could not do it just physically by our actual bodies being there. We would have to establish curricula about ourselves, our history, our culture and our contributions,” said Torres.

He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in English from the University of Washington in Seattle, while independently studying Chicana/o history, sociology and literature. After numerous years teaching English as a college professor at various institutions, Torres finally found his dream job when MSU Denver announced it was hiring a chair to develop a stand-alone Chicana/o Studies Department in 1995. It was the first of its kind in Colorado.

“I was the only official member of the department [when it was first created] so it was very challenging,” he said with a laugh. “When I arrived, I didn’t have a single piece of furniture in my office. I stacked my books to make a chair,” said Torres, who often tells younger professors the tale of the “chair without a chair” as evidence of how far the University has come since then.

And, according to his colleagues, Torres has been instrumental in that evolution.

“Dr. Torres has made major contributions to our institution and our ability to serve underrepresented students,” said College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Dean Joan Foster, who recruited Torres to serve as her assistant dean in 2006. She later promoted him to associate dean and then recommended him for his current position of deputy provost. “He has been our conscience and, when necessary, an outspoken conscience that has moved us forward.”

Torres’ many contributions to MSU Denver over the years include his work in service of MSU Denver’s implementation of an affordable tuition rate for undocumented students in 2012 – a move that helped pave the way for the passage of Colorado’s ASSET legislation in 2013. His efforts began a decade earlier following the defeat of the ASSET bill’s initial iteration in 2003. Today, nearly 400 undocumented students attend MSU Denver, of which 359 are ASSET students, roughly half of the state’s ASSET students.

Additionally, Torres’ work as co-chair of MSU Denver’s Hispanic Serving Institution Task Force continues to transform the University. To achieve the federal HSI designation – and be eligible for federal funds –the University’s student body must consist of at least 25 percent full-time equivalent Hispanic students. Currently, the number stands at just over 20 percent FTE up from 13 percent in 2008. “Within the eight-county area there are approximately 200,000 Latinos in K-12. That’s why I know this is going to happen,” said Torres of the University’s goal of achieving HSI status by fall 2018.

Earlier this month, on the brink of his retirement after more than 20 years at MSU Denver, Torres received the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies’ prestigious 2016 Scholar Award, which recognizes “life achievement” contributions of scholars to Chicana and Chicano Studies. “I’m pleased to represent the University and Colorado to the extent that one can, but I really think this is a [Chicana/o] Department and University award, both of which have done a lot of remarkable things,” he said.

Although he’s retiring from his full-time position at the end of June, Torres will not stop working. He hopes to teach part-time and plans to continue his efforts to enroll, retain and graduate Latino students. He’s already chipping away at his next challenge: creating a pilot program that would enable ASSET students to receive federal Pell Grants.

Whatever he does in this next chapter of his life, Torres will do it with a calm, thoughtful demeanor, fierce conviction and unwavering optimism.

“Things have a way of working out. You just have to trust people, as simple as that might seem,” he said. “You have to trust that people want to help each other. You have to trust that they want others to live comfortably. I think that’s part of what gives me constant hope that things will continue to get better. People are more alike than different.”

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