A Time to Consider SDSU’s Future

San Diego State University is currently in the process of reaffirming our accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.  This intensive process, which we last underwent in 2005-06, has multiple components.  To date, we have created an institutional report, undergone an off-site review, and received an off-site review report (all available at wasc.sdsu.edu).  The off-site review report presents 12 commendations and four major lines of inquiry that set the stage for the March 22-24 accreditation visit by a distinguished review team.  This team will provide important guidance and counsel regarding SDSU’s future.

While one of the central goals of this process is to reaffirm our accreditation, the process also provides us with opportunities to reflect on our educational mission and the state of our university.  For me, it is an opportunityDome of the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union at San Diego State University. Photo by Paul Lang to think about the broad outlines of our university’s future and how we will create that future.  This is especially timely for us as we are in the third year of implementing our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.”

“Building on Excellence” was created in a time of enormous financial challenge – near the end of one of the longest recessions in our nation’s history.  Appropriately and necessarily, it focused on the immediate challenges of the coming three- to five-year period.  Foremost among the plan’s initiatives were very specific efforts to increase revenue and to improve the university’s academic and co-curricular programs.

While the work of “Building on Excellence” is ongoing and these issues remain critical, it is also important to consider a broader perspective on our long-term aspirations.  I believe there are three touchstones that can be part of a broad vision of our university’s future, and my hope is that we can, as a community, consider them as part of the reaffirmation process.

First, maintaining and increasing the quality of our academic and co-curricular programs is essential.  This focus continues the decades-long tradition established by my predecessors Presidents Day and Weber and our dedicated faculty, staff, and students, who have made aspiration and achievement central to our campus’ ethos.  Many may debate the meaning of quality.  For me, the key is that quality academic and co-curricular programs prepare students to contribute broadly to the society they will enter.

Today, quality programs must include a general education curriculum that helps students develop a broad range of abilities and understandings, a major program of study that immerses students in an academic discipline and professional preparation, and exposure to cutting-edge research and the vibrancy of the creative Members of the San Diego State Rocket Project assemble a rocket before launch.arts.  Quality programs must also provide our students with opportunities for holistic development. These include high impact practices such as international experiences, entrepreneurship, internships, mentoring, leadership development, service learning, cultural diversity, engagement at national and international conferences, interaction with national and international leaders, and numerous specialized co-curricular opportunities.

Second, we must be a campus that welcomes students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds, and we must ensure that students from all backgrounds succeed at the highest level – intellectually, personally and professionally.  In doing this, we continue one of our university’s proudest traditions and serve a critical public purpose in our region and throughout California.

Third, we must be financially strong.  We are in an era in which universities – especially public universities – are under enormous and continuous fiscal stress. Nearly every day we read of the financial challenges and controversies affecting universities and colleges across our country.  Our financial strength will provide the resources necessary to maintain the quality of our programs and serve our diverse students.  Our efforts must involve increasing revenues from public and private sources, as well as prudent and effective stewardship of these revenues.

These three elements – a focus on quality, service to diverse students and financial strength – are broad outlines for an enduring and successful university that serves its students and our society.

Each element, of course, raises many questions and can be pursued in multiple ways.  Let’s use this spring’s accreditation review as an opportunity to discuss these broad perspectives and consider how we can use them as guidelines to create the future of San Diego State.








Filed under Uncategorized

Why Athletics Is An Integral Part of the Aztec Experience

Something very special happened this past Friday night.  In a match-up of two teams undefeated in conference play,Aztec football players celebrate a score during the team's 48-14 victory over Utah State. our football team defeated a strong Utah State team, 48-14, in front of a crowd of 26,000 members of our community and a national TV audience.  Our team had faced significant challenges at the beginning of the season, and it was wonderful to see the team overcome these adversities.  While the game was a challenging one for our Utah State counterparts, they are a fine team and we know they also will rebound.  For us, we look forward to the remainder of the season, including our next home game – the Homecoming game against Wyoming on Nov. 14.

In many ways, our victory illustrated the best of college football.  Supported by our community, our players and coaches worked together, they persevered through adversity and their hard work and effort were rewarded.  It was great to hear our community’s pride in SDSU’s athletics’ achievements – the women’s soccer team won its fourth consecutive conference title on Sunday – as I traveled throughout the city this weekend.

Members of the women's soccer team hold their trophy for winning a fourth consecutive Mountain West championship in 2015.We are in a time of extraordinary change in college athletics, and this weekend of success and achievement provides an opportunity to reflect on three aspects of our athletics programs – the role they can play in supporting the broader university, the challenges they face in today’s environment and the incredible opportunities they can provide to our student-athletes.  Our tradition of athletics’ achievement is strong at San Diego State, and we are poised to seize these opportunities and to meet our challenges.

Turning to athletics’ broader role, our programs are a highly visible aspect of our university’s culture of achievement and excellence.  In athletics, our aspirations are to contend at the highest competitive level and to conduct our programs with the highest level of integrity.  Our successes are a powerful and tangible symbol of our entire community’s commitment to excellence in our educational programs, our research programs and our creative efforts.  This ethos of achievement is reflected in our university’s countless national recognitions and honors.  Thus, the aspirations of our athletics programs are part of our overall aspirations for excellence.

The primary challenge our athletics program faces in today’s landscape is that, fueled by media revenues, the expenditures of some top-ranked programs have increased dramatically.  For example, Ohio State now spends $114 million annually on its athletics programs.  These spending increases have reshaped the competitive landscape and, in some cases, they reflect a shift in university priorities.  To meet this challenge, we must balance the need to make financial investments to compete at the highest level with the fiscal prudence necessary to sustain the primacy of our educational, research and service missions. Attaining this balance involves generating revenues from philanthropic and other private sources to support our athletics programs, and ensuring that tuition revenues and state support are expended on our core missions. Similarly, we must ensure that our expenditures on athletics scholarships, facilities and personnel produce the greatest possible impact on our student-athletes’ development and our teams’ competitive opportunities – these cannot simply be automated efforts to attain parity in spending with other universities.

Finally, and in many ways most important, we have the opportunity with our athletics programs to reaffirm and dedicate ourselves to the ideal that the personal, professional and intellectual development of each student-athlete is the central purpose of these programs.  We want to be recognized not just for competing at the highest level, but also for providing the greatest possible support of our student-athletes’ personal development and growth.  Given the breadth and diversity of the academic and personal abilities of our student-athletes, this opportunity will mean different things for different student-athletes.  Some will participate in a co-curricular activity like study abroad or research, while others will take advantage of further academic enrichment to prepare for graduate school or obtain an internship to support career opportunities.  Whatever form they take, these opportunities for personal growth will have the common ingredient of helping our student-athletes develop their potential for a productive and meaningful life after their athletic careers end.

We are blessed at San Diego State to have an exceptional Department of Intercollegiate Athletics directed by Jim Sterk, and we are fortunate to have coaches, student-athletes and staff members whose daily focus is moving our programs and our university forward.  I am grateful to them and to all of the supporters in our community who are helping our programs and our student-athletes achieve excellence.

SDSU running back Donnel Pumphrey turns the corner during his 181-yard, two-touchdown game against Utah State.


Filed under Athletics, Uncategorized

Montys Showcase Key Role of Alumni in Providing Quality Education

Last week, we honored our distinguished alumni at the Monty Awards.  This year’s awards were a little different.  We began the evening with a reception in the Lee and Frank Goldberg Courtyard of the Conrad Prebys Aztec SDSU President Elliot Hirshman, left, with 2015 Monty Award honoree Jack Tempchin at the awards ceremony.Student Union and then moved to the Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre for a rock concert by The Mighty Untouchables. I told you it was different. Even the president got rid of the tie.

One thing, however, was the same.  The extraordinary achievements of our honorees testify to the renown and distinction our alumni bring to our university.  Among our honorees were business leaders like Andy Esparza, Ziad Mansour, Ed Marsh, and Mike Pack, who have built and led successful corporations and have been extraordinarily generous to our university.  The creative arts were well-represented. Songwriter Jack Tempchin and Hollywood media executive Mort Marcus brought a touch of celebrity to the ceremony.  Our tradition of service was also highlighted with the honoring of Jean Landis’ extraordinary service to our country and Sam Ciccati’s contributions to public higher education.  Last, but certainly not least, Associate Vice President Sandra Cook and alumnus Keith Harris were recognized for their exceptional service in advancing the university. It was a great night.

Eight of the 10 Monty Award winners honored by San Diego State in 2015.

The night also displayed the essential role our alumni play in supporting the future of San Diego State.  In an era in which state support and family resources are limited, the philanthropic support of our alumni is the key to continuing our tradition of excellence.  While the history of alumni giving to public universities in California has been limited, our alumni have, over the last eight years, met the challenge.  We set a goal of raising $500 million in our first comprehensive fundraising campaign, and thanks to the generous support of our alumni and community supporters, The Campaign for SDSU exceeded our initial goal last year and we raised our goal to $750 million.  As of today, the campaign has raised over $630 million.

The best news is that these efforts are just the start.  The potential impact that our over 300,000 alumni can have on our university is extraordinary.  As just one example, if every alumnus donated $100 per semester for student scholarships, we would have enough scholarship funding (over $60 million) to reduce the tuition of every student by over 50 percent.  Thus, 55 years since the inception of California’s historic Master Plan for Higher Education, we can still realize its vision of quality education, but we must include our alumni as full partners to do so.

Our entire university is embracing this historic opportunity.  We have created regional councils to bring together members of the Aztec family who reside throughout California and our nation.  The Aztec Mentor Program is bringing alumni and community supporters together with today’s students.  Internships and corporate visit days are providing opportunities for our alumni to guide our students in preparing for the work world, and the SDSU Strive crowdfunding site provides opportunities for every alumnus to support projects of special interest to them.  Recent graduates and current students are also playing roles.  Last year’s graduates created a $26,000 scholarship endowment, and this year 1,900 freshmen (with the help of 200 sophomores, juniors and seniors) raised $21,500 for scholarships before they had taken even a single class – a wonderful example of our theme that “Leadership Starts Here.”

I am certain we will succeed in our efforts to harness the extraordinary power and philanthropy of our alumni for the good of our university and our students. Anyone who has any doubt of this can simply look to the accomplishments of this year’s Monty Award winners to see the extraordinary things members of the Aztec family can achieve.

Replicas of the "The Aztec" statue presented to SDSU's 2015 Monty Award winners.



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Welcome to the New Year

Our community’s achievements are moving SDSU forward into the ranks of the nation’s top public universities. I hope you will take a moment at the beginning of the new academic year to learn more in the video message found here.SDSU President Elliot Hirshman.

Go Aztecs!

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Does tech revolution change education’s foundational goals?

It is commonplace to recognize that changes in societal norms and needs, including technological developments, change our academic programs and educational goals.   For example, the development of land grant universities – focused on agriculture and technology – in the 1860s reflected the needs of an emerging industrial society.   Similarly, the rise of normal schools – San Diego State’s provenance – reflected our society’s need for broad public education in America’s growing democracy of the 19th century.

Students in a classroom in the early days of the San Diego Normal School.

Students in a classroom in the early days of the San Diego Normal School.

The ties between specific technological developments and individual fields of study are even more direct.  Aerospace engineering degrees emerged with human flight and molecular biology degrees emerged from a constellation of discoveries in genetics and biochemistry.

Clearly, the development of information technology is also producing program developments.  The dramatic growth of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in computer science, computer engineering and information systems are three prominent examples.

A more complex question is whether the emergence of multifaceted and ubiquitous information technology should change our broad educational goals. In prior blogs – linked here and here – I have discussed how online learning technologies affect pedagogical approaches and business models in higher education. In this blog, I turn to the question of how these technologies are influencing our broad educational goals and programs.

To consider this issue via analogy, think about how the development of television in the 1950s changed our educational goals and programs.  Television (and related media) allowed mass dissemination of information, including mass marketing, at a heretofore inconceivable pace and scope.  This mass dissemination of information amplified the importance of the ability to persuade others and of the complementary ability to critically evaluate media messages in our society.  Universities responded to this need by incorporating courses on mass communication and critical thinking into their general education curricula and by expanding specific programs in communications; public relations; marketing; and critical studies in ethnic studies, film studies, journalism, and sociology, among other areas.

The widespread availability of computing power and ubiquitous connectivity is also producing significant societal changes.  Most dramatically, the reduced cost of information, computing power and other resources accessed through universal connectivity (e.g., 3-D printers), is dramatically democratizing the ability to produce things – products, algorithms, services and ideas.  The computing power and information inherent in a watch or hand-held device that costs hundreds of dollars today would have cost hundreds of thousands– even millions – of dollars even two decades ago.

These developments create the possibility of an era of mass customization in which small groups with relatively limited resources become centers of production and innovation.  In a dramatic departure from the future envisioned by Marx and Engels, the tie between investment capital and the mechanisms of production has been weakened.  To prepare our students for this future, our educational programs must help them develop the abilities necessary to produce things – the abilities to design, collaborate and create.

The evolving notion of “design thinking” is one framework for preparing our students.  Broadly defined, design thinking focuses on addressing important problems or challenges, developing collaborations to bring people with different abilities together, simulating or rapid prototyping of solutions to challenges, and iterative testing and refinement of potential solutions.  At San Diego State, our Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and our Zahn Innovation Center, with its H.G. Fenton Company Idea Lab, are providing opportunities for growing numbers of students to participate in the design thinking process.  Design thinking is but one concept for fostering the abilities and skills our students will need.  I know our faculty, staff and students are considering, and will devise, many other academic and co-curricular frameworks as we educate students for a future in which relatively low-cost design and production capabilities are widely available.

A student team at SDSU's Zahn Innovation Center is developing ShredLights for skateboards.

A student team at SDSU’s Zahn Innovation Center is developing ShredLights for skateboards.

It would be possible to imagine, as some have, that a focus on design, production and solving challenges highlights the importance of vocational education and diminishes the importance of a classical liberal arts education.

While there are few things in life that are exact, this surmise is exactly wrong.

Just as synthesis requires prior analysis, so the challenges of design thinking require the classical abilities of critical thinking, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and an understanding of diverse places, times and cultures that are at the heart of a liberal arts education.  Meeting challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities presented by our information technology revolution requires taking these classical abilities and applying them in new frameworks of collaboration, synthesis and solution.

The changes in information technology that dominate our contemporary lives are revolutionary, and our education goals and programs must evolve.  Yet, even as we embrace new educational approaches, we reaffirm the classical liberal arts education that allows us and our students to understand the implications of these changes and how to respond so we can address our society’s challenges. This is the great opportunity that presents itself at SDSU and throughout higher education.


Filed under College of Engineering, Uncategorized

Status of Online Learning

Aerial view of SDSU campus, 2014-15

Photo courtesy of Joel Ortiz

As we complete our commencement celebrations and look ahead to the next academic year, we have an important opportunity to reflect on broader developments, such as the role and impact of technology on our educational programs.

At the height of the Great Recession, a new orthodoxy emerged with claims that technology-mediated instruction was transforming higher education (see my blog from 2013 here).  This view – strongly endorsed by politicians and others outside education – heralded the end of physical campuses and face-to-face interaction, assuming that a technologically sophisticated generation would not only embrace online educational programs, but would demand them.  Another important assumption was that technologically mediated education would dramatically reduce costs.  How this would occur was not necessarily specified, but the presumption was that technology could somehow replace personnel and facilities – perhaps in the same way that factory automation has reduced manufacturing costs.

Looking at the landscape today, it is clear that online and hybrid educational programs have grown substantially at San Diego State and across the nation.  For example, this summer, there are over 5,000 students enrolled in online programs.  Similarly, we had nearly 13,000 students enrolled in hybrid courses (courses with both face-to-face and online components) this past academic year, and we now offer six fully online master’s programs.  These programs help some students advance in their academic programs and produce some cost savings. For example, hybrid classes facilitate more efficient use of our classrooms, and online summer courses permit students to make academic progress even when they are not in San Diego.  Online master’s programs create opportunities for students who might not otherwise enroll due to family or job constraints.

At the same time, predictions regarding the demand for online programs eclipsing demand for face-to-face programs have not been borne out.  This past year, SDSU again set an applications record – for enrollment in our face-to-face programs.  In the last five years, our annual applications for face-to-face programs from the most technologically advanced generation in human history have increased 31 percent to 81,080.

There have also been significant challenges to online programs.  Most notably, fully online programs were touted as programs that would enhance access to education, but repeated analyses show that students facing academic and financial challenges perform more poorly online than in face-to-face programs. The challenges of massive open online courses (so-called MOOCs) have received the most attention in the media (Chronicle of Higher Education update here) as universities and MOOC providers rethink and restructure the classes – and sometimes their business models – based on mixed results.  We also review and re-evaluate course formats and offerings at SDSU, and we have seen challenges in our own online efforts.  For example, failure rates in lower-division math courses have been significantly higher in online courses than in face-to-face courses and, for this reason, we will not be offering these courses in fully online format until these challenges are resolved.

For a variety of reasons, some of which were predictable, online cost efficiencies have also fallen far short of predictions.  For example, technology is very expensive, offsetting cost savings from more efficient use of facilities.  Similarly, and ironically, online courses require professors to handle more individual inquiries relative to face-to-face courses.  Students are more likely to form support groups in face-to-face courses through which they can assist each other. The greater reliance on the instructor has forced course sizes to be smaller in fully online lower-division courses than in comparable face-to-face courses – reducing efficiencies.

So, where does this all leave us?  We are in medias res – in the middle of things. There have been significant changes, significant progress and significant challenges in educational technology at SDSU. Embracing collaboration between our faculty, staff and administrators, continuing to experiment and changing our approaches based on the results will continue to serve our students well.

There are, of course, many implications of technology for our educational programs that go well beyond how we deliver our programs. In my next blog I will turn to some of those topics.



Filed under Academic Affairs, Uncategorized

Many Identities – One SDSU Community

Recent events at the University of Oklahoma and UCLA have highlighted something that, in our hearts, we already knew. We have a long way to go in achieving fair and equal treatment of every person on our college campuses. To the good, there has been near-universal condemnation of the blatant racism at Oklahoma and of the anti-Semitism at UCLA. Further, many students, faculty and staff have emphasized that these hateful and discriminatory actions represent the views of only a very small minority on our campuses.

Yet, these atavistic, insular hatreds persist. They are part of a powerful set of forces that are dividing Americans and our university campuses into ever smaller groups based on our race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and their intersections. Such divisions reinforce old hatreds and create new ones. For example, cultural appropriation, in which one group mocks the cultural identity of another group, and identity politics, in which groups support political positions based solely on their identity, further divide us.

In this maelstrom of separation, we all lose. We lose Dr. King’s vision that, despite the injustices of the past and present, we can all share a common future – that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former Quest for the Best winners 2015slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” We lose the benefit of our rich diversity in which we come to appreciate the value of each other’s unique identities. Perhaps most troubling, we lose the ability to act as one SDSU community – which is essential to all of our successes.

There is a way forward. We must embrace and respect each other’s identities, both individually and as groups, in all of their complexities. We must also recognize that these diverse identities can come together to support one SDSU community – a community that is defined by shared values, shared aspirations and shared experiences. This is the promise of our diversity. Our “One SDSU Community” initiative – part of the implementation of our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” – attempts to realize this promise. The initiative is a multi-faceted effort to foster shared experiences, shared values and shared aspirations in our community. Three major programs were initiated or expanded this year. The Aztec Unity Project brings together diverse student organizations to work on community service projects and reflect on their experiences. Integrative diversity workshops, conducted in partnershipAztec Unity Project participants with the National Conflict Resolution Center, help student leaders develop skills to communicate about and resolve conflicts related to diversity issues. Campus Collegiate Dialogues bring students together to discuss and reflect on the challenges facing our diverse society. Hundreds of students have participated in these experiences this year with plans to expand our efforts in the coming year.

Our campus’ rich diversity and our substantial diversity programming provide us with a special opportunity to create a distinctive new model for higher education – one in which diversity is embraced, common humanity recognized and shared experiences and values build One SDSU Community. This is the path to greatness. For, as we know from 118 years of our university’s history, we can accomplish anything when we work together as one community.

Greek Awards winners



Filed under Building on Excellence, Strategic Plan, Student Affairs, Uncategorized