SJSU's new Afghan-born president sees optimism despite adversity

  • August 21, 2011

By Lisa M. Krieger
SJ Mercury News Staff Writer


Everything Mohammad Qayoumi needs to know about running San Jose State he learned as a boy in working-class Kabul, the son of a carpenter: Build something big, with whatever tools are handy.

From banging a hammer to becoming a California State University president, Qayoumi's life has been as carefully constructed as the homes his father once built. Childhood English lessons opened doors to a U.S. engineering scholarship, which led to four master's degrees, a doctorate, eight books, 85 articles and a 23-year career at CSU -- ending up last month with his new job on the top floor of San Jose State's ivy-covered Tower Hall.

Yes, he wishes the university had more money. But he's a practical man. Times are tough -- a familiar theme in his life -- so Qayoumi (pronounced kigh-YO-me) knows better than to waste time on hand-wringing.

"More good ideas come at times of adversity than times of abundance," he said during a recent late afternoon conversation, energetic despite his 4 a.m. wake-up call and daylight fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "Adversity forces us to think, because we are not as comfortable."

Call him 'Mo-Mentum'

On his first day on the job, Qayoumi mailed out 220 letters to Silicon Valley business leaders to request a visit, seeking to learn how San Jose State and its students can better connect with the iconic valley industry.

Then, the college president nicknamed "Mo-Mentum" scheduled 40 town hall-style meetings and launched a campuswide "90-Day Plan." He began planning how to accelerate a $200 million private fundraising campaign, reduce campus inefficiencies and raise outside revenue through restructured graduate programs.

"What I admire about Mo is that he looks at a glass half-full. He works to leverage all the resources available, as opposed to worrying about the barriers, the limits, that are in place," said Amir Mashkoori, CEO of Kovio and a trustee of San Jose State's Tower Foundation, who interviewed Qayoumi for the job. "He has that look in his eyes that a new CEO has, saying they are ready to go conquer."

Qayoumi, 59, arrives at San Jose State with a budget $25 million smaller than last year's. To make matters worse, if the governor's revenue projections aren't met, it faces an additional $7 million cut.

But adversity is an old companion to Qayoumi, the eldest son of six children, born to a mother who was never taught how to read or write. As a boy, he pored over books about Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Helen Keller -- "people who, given all of the difficulties and challenges they had, were able to succeed," he said.

Weekend for homework

As a teenager, he walked an hour to get to the home of an English instructor. And every winter, when school was closed, his parents insisted that the children prepare themselves by studying the next semester's textbooks.

His father's education had been cut short due to the death of a parent. But he made a point of introducing Qayoumi to classmates who had continued their studies -- and became doctors, lawyers and CEOs.

"He said, 'You make your choices,' " Qayoumi recalled. "But he also gave us the tools to be successful."

Civil war erupted during his final year at American University in Beirut. Every morning, before heading to class, Qayoumi and his new wife, Najia Karim, listened to the radio to learn which roads were free of snipers.

His engineering degree would open doors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during the mid-1970s oil boom. Then, thanks to a scholarship from the University of Cincinnati, he arrived in the United States in 1976. Within six years, while working full time, he earned three master's degrees and a doctorate.

"I'd work until 5, eat dinner, and go to class from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., four days a week," he said, shrugging. "Then I went to bed and got up at 3:30 or 4 to study until 6. I took a nap before work. Weekends were for homework."

There were setbacks. For instance, the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island occurred when Qayoumi was completing his master's degree in nuclear engineering -- dooming job prospects.

So he went back to school, and switched to electrical engineering.

"It is natural to always look for that major breakthrough," he said. "But that's not how life usually works. Usually it is a series of small improvements."

Love for academia

Grateful for all that education gave him, he found his interest shifting from business to academia.

"I love universities," he said. "Where else do you rub elbows with so many great talents, in so many fields?"

But he was startled to discover how much campus operations lag behind industry.

Many university presidents ascend to their post by climbing each step of academia's ivory tower. Qayoumi is an exception.

With an MBA and engineering experience, and with a firm foundation in finance, he has gained a reputation as "a bottom-line guy," said Cal State East Bay statistics professor Mitchell Watnik.

When Qayoumi took over as president of Cal State East Bay in 2006, he inherited a multimillion-dollar deficit; by 2011, despite state cutbacks, it was gone. He also boosted student enrollment, increased the number of tenure-track faculty members and enhanced the campus' physical facilities.

It was not without controversy.

While Qayoumi "kept the campus in the black, bringing it out of dire straits," his mission to convert the school from a business and humanities focus to a place of science and technology faced some resistance, said Cal State East Bay history graduate student Mark Laluan. "His executive style of decision-making was not collaborative. ... It could be overbearing."

Tech-focused San Jose State could be a better fit than Cal State East Bay, several observers said.

Already, Qayoumi has accepted the largest freshman class in San Jose State history: 4,000.

"We can accommodate them," Qayoumi said. While former President Jon Whitmore refused to take students that the state wouldn't fund, "we have a responsibility to build the workforce of tomorrow -- and the California we would like to see," Qayoumi said.

To save money, he has urged consolidation of Cal State-wide services, such as computer servers.

Another idea, called "stacking credentials," could help many valley professionals, while boosting San Jose State revenues. Rather than committing to a full MBA, a student could take several courses of interest -- say, project management or finance -- and earn a certificate. Eventually, it could all add up to an MBA. But there would be no rush.

"Industries are constantly changing," he said. "Our role should be to create graduates with the competencies they are looking for."

As the first person of Afghan descent to head a major U.S. university, Qayoumi continues to support the war-torn nation, remembering it as a place of calm and prosperity before the Soviet invasion.

As a boy, he watched his weary father carry tools to construction sites every day. "Do you want to be like me," his father admonished, "working on weekends?"

He laughed. In an elegant office, halfway around the world, Qayoumi was devoting Saturday and Sunday to getting ready for Monday's first day of school.

"I'm working weekends, too," he said. "But I'm helping shape the future of a region, a society and the world."

Mohammad Qayoumi

Born: Kabul, Afghanistan
Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, American University of Beirut, and four degrees from the University of Cincinnati: master's in nuclear engineering, master's in electrical and computer engineering, and an MBA and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering
Family: Wife Najia Karim, Persian poet and clinical dietician. No children. His family followed him to the U.S. in the 1980s, fleeing the Soviet invasion. His mother, 80, lives in Sacramento. His father is buried in Hayward.
Home: President's House, Naglee Park, San Jose
Ties to Afghanistan: He has published a photo essay about the nation's past, called "Modernity Lost." He served as an adviser to the Minister of Finance and the board of directors for the Central Bank of Afghanistan.
Languages: English, Pashto, Farsi, Arabic, with some German, Russian and French
Hobbies: Travel, reading and listening to classical music

Mohammad Qayoumi will deliver the Fall Welcome Address at noon Monday in the Morris Dailey Auditorium at San Jose State. The event is open to the campus community.

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