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Leroy M. Morishita, the fifth president in CSUEB's 55-year history, holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley (B.A., psychology), San Francisco State (M.S., counseling), and Harvard University (Ed.D.). PHOTO: MAX GERBER

Taking the Lead

  • August 9, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in Cal State East Bay Magazine. Read the most recent magazine from Spring 2012; view more photos; and check out back issues online.

On February 19, Leroy Morishita — newly named as fifth president of Cal State East Bay — attended worship services in the modern, high-ceilinged sanctuary of Glad Tidings Church of God in Christ in Hayward as part of Super Sunday, an annual California State University program that encourages and assists young African Americans in planning to attend college. The church’s robed 20-voice choir and iOpen ts band — organ, piano, bass, drumset, and saxophone — played exuberant gospel music, and the welcoming congregation rose to its feet in applause as Morishita, dressed in a pale gray suit, approached the blond wooden lectern at the right front corner of the vast sanctuary. As the low winter sun shone through modern stained glass, the well-turned-out assembly grew hushed, and the president began to speak.

Morishita’s not a large man; nor is he loud. He begins speaking quietly, focusing on his notes, and going through formalities. But soon, his head and voice rise — and his pace quickens with excitement — as he touches on themes that are familiar and important to him: A college education should be accessible to anyone who wants one. Preparation, hard work, and family support are vital for success. Cal State East Bay is standing by ready to help. He revealed that neither of his parents had a college education, yet he and his siblings all do. Then, looking up over his black wire-frame glasses, Morishita expresses his hope aloud: “Maybe someday one of your youth will stand up here as the president of a university,” he says. Boisterous cheers rise from hundreds of men, women, and children in the pews.

After the talk, Morishita and Bishop J.W. Macklin, pastor of the church (and a six-foot-plus bear of a man in a long, dark suit), share a warm embrace. As is tradition at Glad Tidings, Macklin invites every young person in the congregation to come forward and meet the President. Dozens of young people — energetic girls in crisp Sunday outfits, lanky boys, and others in every size and shape — answer the call; some require an encouraging nudge from murmuring adults before approaching him at the podium. One by one, Morishita looks each youth in the eye, shakes hands, and flashes a heartfelt smile as he shares private words of encouragement, gratitude, and hope. 

Morishita doesn’t rush, nor does the congregation. “This isn’t wasting time,” Macklin declares over the booming public announcement system as the church’s young people cluster around Morishita for group photos. “This is investing time.” It is only as Morishita reluctantly extracts himself from the crowd that Macklin shares why the President has to leave at all: It is his wife’s birthday. As the organist strikes up the next hymn, Morishita waves, smiles, and shakes the hands of a dozen more people in the pews as he weaves his way out the back door.

Morishita’s visit to Glad Tidings illustrates how he has approached his life’s work. He regularly gives his time to others, he encourages and supports people who seek education and a better life, and then he returns to the embrace of his family. Morishita’s passionate belief in promoting educational opportunity and access for everyone — combined with a talent for numbers, genuine love for people, unimpeachable honesty and integrity, and strong family support — have led him to the presidency of Cal State East Bay.

A triple threat

Morishita’s dedication to educational opportunity stems from personal experience, and has been nurtured throughout his career. His father, a Central Valley farmer who raised table grapes, peaches, and plums, obtained a ninth-grade education, and his homemaker mother held a high school diploma. Both wanted more for their children, Morishita recalls. “A lot of Asian families want their children — particularly their sons — to be doctors or lawyers,” he says. “But my parents never pressed me into a profession. My father said, ‘Be anything — just don’t be a farmer, because it’s too unpredictable a life.’”

So Morishita left the farm for college, earning an undergraduate psychology degree and a master’s in counseling. In graduate school he discovered his passion and profession: He worked with middle school and high school students, often  from poor families or crime-ridden neighborhoods, who didn’t see further education in their future. “A lot of (my work) was driven by my desire to help people get into college — to get access,” he recalls. “That came from my background of growing up on a farm, where some people, especially the Chicanos, were tracked into technical fields rather than college.”  

Morishita began work as a counselor at San Francisco State University, and soon oversaw counseling, tutoring, financial aid, and other assistance. After three years he left for a doctoral program at Harvard, bringing his new wife, Barbara Hedani-Morishita; in 1984 the couple returned to the Bay Area so their infant son could grow up surrounded by family. A second son arrived soon after. Returning to SFSU, Morishita worked in admissions and records, generating enrollment projections and analyzing budgets. (“I’ve always been good with numbers,” he says casually.) Even this back-office work fed his zeal for educational access: A wave of Asian immigration was driving enrollment growth, but funding wasn’t keeping pace. So Morishita and a colleague created more precise enrollment projections that resulted in additional state funding for the university — and CSU-wide recognition for himself. He spent the 1987–88 academic year at then–CSU Hayward as an administrative fellow in the provost’s office, immersed in the instructional mission of the University, then returned to SFSU as director of institutional research — a position that put him at the intersection of budgets, planning, enrollment, and more. Other responsibilities were added — Morishita loved the university and had difficulty saying “no” — and within a few years he was reporting to two vice presidents and juggling financial and student affairs responsibilities. 

“Everybody agreed that I was doing a great job,” Morishita says. “But they said I would die if I continued.” 

“I agreed,” he adds, a gentle, playful smile tracing his still-youthful face. (Deadpan humor often marks his conversational style.) He chose to focus on administration and finance, and cultivated connections with professors and administrators at SFSU, with colleagues at CSU campuses, and with people in the CSU chancellor’s office. 

Morishita inherited his knack for interpersonal relationships from his mother, says Barbara Hedani-Morishita. “The woman in the hospital bed next to his mother when she was pregnant with Leroy is still a good friend of hers,” she says of her 90-year-old mother-in-law, shaking her head in amazement. “She’s very friendly, very open, very easy to laugh. That’s where he gets his personality.” But he inherited another facet of his makeup from his father, she adds: “Growing up, his family only spent what they had, in cash,” she says. “He’s so good with money, because he learned that from watching his dad.” (For more about Hedani-Morishita, see Adding polish to a gem.

Acknowledging Morishita’s hard-earned and comprehensive expertise, SFSU President Robert Corrigan eventually named him executive vice president for administration and finance and chief financial officer. “He really is a triple threat,” says Corrigan, citing Morishita’s financial acumen, knowledge of university operations, and ability to bring together people and resources to get things done — a trait Corrigan dubs “entrepreneurial.” 

Ralph Wolff, who has known Morishita for five years through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), points out another distinguishing characteristic. “There are very, very few Asian-American university presidents in the U.S.,” says Wolff, WASC’s president. “I think it’s a matter of great pride (for Cal State East Bay) to have an Asian American president — particularly in the Bay Area, where there’s such a strong Asian-American community.”

Stepping up in tough times

Looking back, Morishita admits surprise at his career path, moving from counseling through finance to administration. “I never dreamed of being a vice president,” he says. He didn’t plot a strategic path to the corner office or position himself for advancement but instead focused on improving educational quality and access. “If I could make a difference — no matter the job I was doing — that was what was important to me,” he says. 

Still, Morishita craved one more challenge, so in 2011 he applied for the presidency of San Jose State University. Former CSUEB President Mohammad Qayoumi got the job, but the selection process was pivotal for Morishita. During the interview process, a CSU trustee asked him why he wanted to be president given the challenges facing SJSU. “When times are good, people want to be president,” Morishita recalls telling him. “But when times are bad, it’s time for some people to step up. I’m prepared to step up and help this institution — to move it forward.” That same motivation, he says, applies to his work at CSUEB. 

“I can’t think of anybody that is more deserving of the job,” Corrigan said soon after Morishita was named permanent CSUEB president in January, following a six-month interim appointment. “There are so many talents that he brings to bear in terms of where I think Cal State East Bay is now in its development.” 

Chief among those talents is Morishita’s gift for numbers, coupled with his acknowledged mastery of CSU budgeting. “I think he understands the budget as well as anybody in the (CSU) system,” says Mike Mahoney, chair of the CSUEB Academic Senate. Mahoney adds that Morishita has been accessible and honest with the faculty about financial matters, which has engendered confidence. “I personally trust the President to do the best he can to get us through this budget crisis,” Mahoney says. 

That excitement is clear in Morishita’s body language. He leans forward as he talks, and his eyes light up when he describes his aspirations for Cal State East Bay. “I’m one of those glass half-full people,” he says. “There’s always reason for optimism, even in dire circumstances. Things don’t always go your way — and yes, we could use more budget money — but we’ve got to figure a way through it. We play the cards we’re dealt, and go forward from there.”

It gets better

Leading a university requires a unique skill set, Morishita says. “One of the hard parts of a president’s job — and one I think I’m pretty good at — is bringing people together to figure out a focus and a vision,” he says. In addition to strong communication skills, “it also requires understanding the dynamics of the numbers, and understanding the impacts that education can have on people.”

To that end, when Morishita arrived at CSUEB as interim president in July 2011, he visited faculty and staff around campus and conducted 15 listening sessions with students, alumni, and other constituencies. He was “astounded” by the response. Although finances were on everyone’s mind, employees didn’t complain about the budget situation; rather, they focused on positive action. “People take pride in the University, and want to figure out how we are going to work together (and) how I (am) going to, hopefully, lead them to make this place better,” he says, referring to comments made during listening sessions. 

And that told Morishita that the CSUEB community is dedicated to educational opportunity — the same goal that has motivated him throughout his career. “I really meant it when I told people (at Glad Tidings) that I hope one of their youth is someday standing up there as president,” he says. “That, to me, is the opportunity that should exist through education. It’s not a guarantee — that’s the reality. But I’ve had that opportunity, and I want to make sure others have that opportunity, too.”

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