Viewpoints: CSU’s new leaders play a pivotal role

  • July 25, 2012

By Laura-Lynne Powell

Recent headlines have focused on the controversy surrounding the salaries of new presidents at California State University campuses. At a time of fiscal crisis – the board of trustees last week discussed tuition hikes, enrollment reductions and job cuts to cover a $250 million midyear loss in state funding should Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax hike initiative fail in November – many criticize any raise in salary at all.

But the headlines miss a more important story – why are so many university presidents leaving in the first place?

The salaries the CSU board of trustees decided were for replacements at seven campuses – new presidents have taken the helm at CSU Northridge, CSU San Bernardino, San Francisco State University and California Maritime Academy and interim presidents at CSU Dominguez Hills, CSU Stanislaus and CSU Monterey Bay.

Two more left other campuses since the start of this year bringing to nine the number of universities under new leadership in the past seven months. Add to that three new campus presidents hired in 2011, and you have 12 universities, more than half of the 23 campuses in the CSU system, going through a leadership shift.

So many have left that trustees have called for a new mentoring program to train and encourage midlevel university officials to fill a fast-growing leadership vacuum.

On top of that, the CSU system is about to lose its top executive. Chancellor Charles Reed announced his retirement in May.

He joins chancellors from the Community Colleges system and University of California’s flagship UC Berkeley who are also leaving.

The real story is this: For California postsecondary education, the times they are a-changin’.

Perhaps the exodus is triggered by crisis. Enrollment pressures have impacted several universities while a perpetual state budget shortfall forces unpleasant austerity measures. Students are being turned away from universities and those that do get in often can’t get the classes they need. Student and faculty groups march in protest.

It can’t be easy to be a university president these days.

But what matters to me most is not that so many are leaving, or even why. What matters most is what happens next.

What matters is that the men and women who fill the vacancies be up to the task of steering California’s state universities through rocky seas. What matters is that they keep an eye on distant shores, that they manage the needs of today’s students while seeking resources that allow them to lay the groundwork to meet the hopes of tomorrow.

These new leaders face huge challenges. But they’re being given a great opportunity as well.

With the right mix of creativity and compassion, the ability to harness the support of businesses and surrounding communities, and the willingness to work a complex political system to education’s advantage, California’s new university presidents could make the difference between a postsecondary education system that simply survives and one poised to flourish.

The state’s financial quagmire will end one day and the CSU system, the nation’s largest, must be poised to take advantage of new opportunities that will surely present themselves.

This new generation of university presidents has an opportunity to make a difference. And it will be up to them to figure out how to do that. It’s up to us, the people of California, to support their efforts. The difference they make will be felt by all of us, as well as the university system and its students.

Especially the students.

Students like my son, who last week attended freshman orientation at CSU East Bay, one of the many campuses under new leadership. Leroy Morishita was hired as president earlier this year.

Morishita is faced with the daunting task of meeting CSU East Bay’s mission of expanding access to a diverse student body from surrounding cities. His challenge will be to maintain successful existing programs such as East Bay’s admired learning community initiative to help historically disadvantaged students thrive as freshmen. He is faced with accommodating new communities of students spilling over from impacted San Jose State University and San Francisco State University. He has to prepare for a changing landscape that predicts East Bay’s student body will almost double by 2020.

Indeed there are challenges there, but opportunities too.

The parents of the students of California’s state university system call on its board of trustees to not take lightly its task of hiring this new generation of university leaders. We call on the new presidents to arrive with an open mind willing to reach out to new communities, a creative spirit and a lot of energy.

We call on them to do what’s best for their students.

Because their students are our future.

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