Elsa Murano, Ph.D., has set her legacy in stone at Texas A&M as the first Hispanic and first female president of the flagship university.
Murano, a Cuban native, initially came to A&M in 1995 as a professor of food science and food technology. She served as dean and vice chancellor of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences from 2005-2007, and she was then president of the university from 2008-2009. She currently serves as the director for the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture and Development at A&M, a position she has held since 2012.
Murano studied biology at Florida International University, where she said it became clear to her that she wanted to pursue a career in research. Murano said she then attended Virginia Tech, where she earned her master's degree in anaerobic microbiology and her doctorate in food science and technology.
“I studied microorganisms that can cause foodborne illness when they contaminate food,” Murano said. “At that time, food safety was a huge issue in the U.S. because there had been an outbreak of foodborne disease from contaminated hamburgers. It was a huge scandal, and five children had died from E. coli.”
Due to multiple foodborne illness outbreaks, Murano said she was offered an assistant professor position immediately after earning her doctorate. Then in 1994, after a major outbreak due to E. coli O157:H7, Murano was recruited to come to A&M as a food safety professor, where she continued her research and was eventually appointed as director of A&M’s Center for Food Safety.
“In 2001, I got a call from the White House employment office saying they were looking to fulfill the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety,” Murano said. “They had contacted the Commissioner of Agriculture in Texas, Susan Combs, because she had connections with President [George W.] Bush at the time. Combs recommended me for the position.”
After arriving in Washington, D.C. for her job as under secretary for Bush, Murano said she soon discovered she needed an anchor to ground herself in D.C.’s tumultuous work environment.
“I realized that I wasn’t going to please everybody,” Murano said. “There's going to be somebody mad at me, whether it be political parties, the media, the consumer groups or the meat industry that I was regulating, so I told myself I had to base what I do in science.”
After serving as under secretary from 2001-2004, Murano said she returned to A&M in 2005 and was appointed as dean and vice chancellor of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences by former A&M President Robert Gates. During this time, Murano said the department launched initiatives with several companies such as Chevron and Monsanto and received $50 million to build the new agriculture headquarters.
“There was a search for a new president at A&M after President Gates left,” Murano said. “I was contacted by the chancellor of A&M at that time, and he told me he wanted me to consider being appointed president. He told me the university needed someone like me, with my initiatives and my visions.”
When she informed her mother of the presidential opportunity, Murano said her mother advised her to take the position for a variety of reasons, the most important being that she would set her legacy in stone as the first Hispanic person and first woman to be president of A&M.
“As president, I was attempting to elevate the university,” Murano said. “We wanted people to know the incredible value of an Aggie education, so our plan of action was called ‘AGGIE’: ‘A’ stood for academic quality, ‘G’ for great value, the second ‘G’ for globalization, the ‘I’ infrastructure and the ‘E’ for enlightened and shared governance.”
During her tenure, Murano said she implemented a variety of initiatives, including the “Do You Wonder” campaign aimed at recruiting first-generation students. Murano said she also made strides in diversifying faculty by appointing the first female dean of the Vet School, the first female dean of the College of Business, the first Hispanic dean of the College of Architecture and the first African-American woman vice president for diversity.
“My anchor as president was to protect and enhance the reputation of A&M,” Murano said. “Whatever decisions we made needed to enhance the reputation of the university [and] not diminish it in any way.”
A hindrance that Murano said she has perpetually faced in her career is not being taken seriously as a Hispanic woman. Showing her colleagues what she’s fully capable of and personally connecting with peers is what Murano said has led to her success.
“Some of the presidential backlash wasn’t because I was a Hispanic woman — it was because I wasn’t an Aggie,” Murano said. “But I care about A&M. I’ve been here since 1995, and I have a strong connection with Texas from a cultural perspective. I love the traditions, and A&M’s Core Values resonate with the values that my mother taught me.”
Murano said she loved the challenge of getting out and proving herself to skeptical Aggies.
“You have to be yourself and stand by your principles — then everything else works out,” Murano said. “When you show that you can work with people from various places and different backgrounds and get down to the common factors of what's important in life, all of those other differences start to disappear.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Eric Bost, who served as under secretary with Murano at the United States Department of Agriculture and currently serves as her deputy at the Borlaug Institute, said Murano is a tremendous inspiration not only to him, but to other students and faculty as well.
“What sets Dr. Murano apart is that she is a person of great integrity and a visionary when it comes to being an effective leader,” Bost said. “She is very successful in encouraging an environment of teamwork, not only now at the Borlaug institute, but she showed that as president of the university and as under secretary.”