MENLO PARK -- Cecilia Burciaga, a former administrator at Stanford University and California State University Monterey Bay and nationally respected leader in civil rights and higher education, died Monday in Menlo Park after a seven-month battle with cancer. She was 67.

Revered as a relentless crusader for Latino causes, Burciaga also served under two U.S. presidents, first as commissioner for the National Advisory on Women under President Jimmy Carter and then as a member of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans under President Bill Clinton.

In 2010 she appeared on Latina Magazine's Pride of the Century list as one of the Top 50 Latina Women of the Year.

Her late husband, Jose Antonio "Tony" Burciaga, was an accomplished Chicano artist, poet and writer who explored issues of Chicano identity and American society. He died of cancer in October 1996.

"They were kind of a legendary couple," said professor emeritus Amalia Mesa-Bains, CSUMB's former head of Visual and Public Arts and a 30-year friend of Cecilia Burciaga. "Both were very active in cultural politics, arts and higher education.

"Cecilia was a strong, strong person. Very tough," Mesa-Bains said. "She became accomplished very young and truly became a legend herself because she was capable of so much leadership. She took things to the highest level as an advocate for the Latino community, and also for women."

Helped students

Burciaga was a graduate of CSU Fullerton and later earned a master's degree in policy studies in higher education from UC Riverside. She then worked as a foreign service intern for the U.S. Information Agency, a program officer for the Interagency Committee on Mexican-American Affairs, and as a commissioner for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

She went on to become an associate dean and development officer for student resources at Stanford University, where she spent 20 years and became its highest-ranking Latino administrator. Students, faculty and staff staged a protest when her position was eliminated in spring 1994.

In November of that year, Burciaga was hired to serve on the founding team of CSU Monterey Bay, which opened in September 1995.

"I also was with her as part of the founding faculty here, and my memories are of a person who was completely focused on helping students become successful," said Marsha Moroh, dean of CSUMB's College of Science, Media Arts and Technology.

Moroh said CSUMB's philosophy of serving the underserved proved to be a great fit for her former colleague.

"I think she really found her niche here because our campus vision really meshed with her own beliefs," she said.

Among Mrs. Burciaga's earliest duties at the university were helping to review 3,000 applications for faculty positions and developing a residential learning program.

"She had an unshakable focus on student success, especially first-generation Latino students," said Moroh.

Movement to justice

Burciaga served as executive assistant to CSUMB's first president, Peter Smith, but was dismissed from that job in 1999. Her dismissal became a key part of a lawsuit against Smith and the university, which included two other Latino plaintiffs, Bert Rivas and Octavio Villalpondo.

An out-of-court settlement included a total payment of $1 million to the three plaintiffs, plus an agreement from the university to establish a $1.5 million scholarship fund for low-income students on the Central Coast.

Burciaga continued with the university until 2002 as a high-level administrator in Student Affairs.

"She was a person of leadership in the Latino community long before it became fashionable," Mesa-Bains said. "If things were unjust, unfair, not right, Cecilia would take up the cause and she wouldn't back down until the problem was fixed. I would consider her one of the people who most embodied the movement toward justice."

Burciaga is survived by her adult children, Antonio Jr. and Rebeca, who established a tribute to her at www.caringbridge.org. Funeral arrangements are pending. The family said a memorial service is likely to be scheduled at the Carmel Mission.

Contact Dennis Taylor at 831-646-4344 or dtaylor@montereyherald.com.