Lessons Learned at the Family Table

Earlier this month, my family gathered to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday – a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived.  To engage in understatement, my mother was not a typical mother.  Unlike some of her contemporaries, she was not vain nor did she have a focus on a particular domestic art.  Her focus was on justice.  Having grown up as a poor, Jewish woman in the southern United States of the 1940s and 1950s, she had, and has, a singular daily focus on rooting out bigotry and prejudice.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Golda Meir and Cesar Chavez were as present in my childhood as if they were sitting in our living room.  When the UFW boycotted, there were no grapes in our house.  My mother argued vehemently for a women’s right to choose long before widespread adoption of this view, and racial and ethnic disparities in health care, wealth, education, and incarceration rates were a constant focus of her concern. Unlike many, her approach was not intellectual or philosophical.  It was about action.

Looking back from the perspective of today’s challenges and turbulent environment, some might see the efforts of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s as not going far enough – as somehow honoring civility of dialogue above moral imperatives. This was most assuredly not the case.  In the context of the times, my mother’s views and those of many others were extraordinarily disruptive.  They were tornados that caused people, values and social conventions to crash into each other, leaving behind a changed landscape.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but after a “sharing of perspectives,” we sometimes left social gatherings quickly – and we were not always invited back.

So why is all this on a university president’s blog?

At California’s public universities, we have lived in a culture of protest for over 50 years, since the beginnings of the Free Speech Movement at UC-Berkeley. There are, literally, protests every day somewhere on California’s campuses. Moreover, some of the classic techniques of protesting – the reflexive reliance on Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – don’t always seem relevant given the complexity of many of our current fiscal and organizational challenges.  For some members of our community, the omnipresence of complaints has numbed them to the substance of the concerns.  Others have reacted by emphasizing that we must put a focus on civility in our public discourse.  (See my prior blog post on the importance of university communities protecting freedom of expression, even at the expense of civility.)

Yet, disruptive action and protest remain critical to progress.  Many members of our community are focused on the complex analysis, planning and implementation that must occur for us to address social, economic, political and environmental challenges.  Nonetheless, there must often be a moment – a moment of protest – that helps us recognize our societal challenges and begin to address them.  This spring, as we move through the semester and the voices of protest are raised, let’s all listen carefully to discern the substance of our challenges and to find ways to become a better community.

Thanks, Mom, for teaching me this lesson, and Happy Birthday!


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Spring Brings New Initiatives in Research and Creative Endeavors

Detail from a visual art piece depicting a bacteriophage.The arts and sciences present complementary ways of understanding and engaging the world, but both enhance our quality of life and the meaning of our lives – from the powerful insights and emotional experiences produced by great works of art to the profound impact of scientific theories and discoveries in applied disciplines like engineering and medicine.

SDSU has strong traditions in both the arts and sciences, and an innovative group of artists and scientists is taking important steps by exploring the synergies between the two.  A great example of these efforts was the recent Phage-Infused Evening of Art.  Spearheaded by our distinguished Professor of Biology, Forest Rohwer, this event brought together renowned researchers and artists for a showcase of students’ music and art inspired by the molecular structure of bacteriophages (viruses that kill bacteria).  In a scene reminiscent of a SoHo opening – seen in the video here – the University Art Gallery displayed multimedia visual art inspired by phages’ molecular structure, and Professor Joe Waters Two musicians perform music inspired by bacteriorphages' molecular structure at the University Art Gallery at SDSU.conducted an original composition based on the fractal patterns in phages’ DNA.  The visual art and musical compositions were innovative, dramatic and provocative.

The evening was a fitting start to a spring semester in which we will pursue significant new initiatives in research and creative endeavors.  These efforts, part of the implementation of our strategic plan, reflect our community’s ethos that vibrant programs in the arts and sciences are essential elements of the exploration, both of knowledge and ourselves, that characterize a great public university.

These efforts are truly “Building on Excellence.”  In the last year alone, Rob Edwards and his colleagues discovered a virus that affects digestion in half the human population, Robert Quimby received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for work demonstrating that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and Ralph Axel-Mueller and Inna Fishman discovered brain pathways implicated in autism.  Similarly, our efforts in the creative arts advanced with a visually stunning performance of “Les Misérables in Concert,” starring Broadway legend Ivan Rutherford, and our Arts Alive SDSU initiative is on track to present visual art, poetry and pop-up concerts to an audience of over 100,000 by the end of the academic year. (In the fall semester alone, more than 50,000 faculty, staff, and students engaged in the arts at SDSU.)

This spring, we take the next steps.  We are recruiting a significant cohort of new faculty in the arts and the sciences.  These efforts include the Conrad Prebys Chair in Bio-Medical Research, faculty in our areas of research excellence – viromics, clinical and cognitive neuroscience, climate and sustainability, and human dynamics in a mobile age – and artists in musical theater, music, dance and visual art.  These new faculty will bring energy and cutting-edge ideas – the lifeblood of the university – to advance our academic and co-curricular programs.

We are also pursuing program innovations and enhancements.  These include expanded opportunities for undergraduate students’ research and creative endeavors, new support for faculty in securing grants, enhancement of research facilities and many additional opportunities to highlight our creative work.  The Phage-related art at the University Art Gallery through Feb. 5.phage exhibit runs through Feb. 5 at the University Art Gallery.  The Thousand Plates exhibit of food-related art and design will be at the SDSU Downtown Gallery from Feb. 19 through March 30, and our Arts Alive SDSU initiative will bring creative work to the entire campus throughout the semester.

Further, we continue with planning and fundraising for our most ambitious project – the construction of our new Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex.  The construction process will begin in July.  This project will transform our campus by creating facilities to advance our research, as well as the Thomas B. Day Quad/Courtyard – a central gathering place for our community.

While it is common to highlight the methodological and epistemological differences between the arts and sciences, the deeper commonality that makes both essential is more important. (SDSU artists and scientists discuss that concept in this video.) The arts and the sciences stem from the same fundamental desire to understand and characterize the world, to unlock its mysteries and to capture truths about ourselves and our environment.  It is this powerful spirit that guides our efforts in the arts and sciences.  I look forward to the excitement and achievement this spring will bring to our campus.

Phage-Infused Evening of Art at the University Art Gallery at SDSU.

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Holidays Build SDSU Community Ready to Conquer Challenges

During the holiday season, the days are a little shorter, the light a little less brilliant and, even in San Diego, the temperatures are a little bit colder.  So, as people have done for thousands of years, we gather together to share our warmth, light and generosity.  The last several weeks have been a time for communal gatherings, large and small.  Our Department of Geography celebrated its 100th anniversary.  We came together for our “Get Together, Give Back” event in support of our military and the Monarch School community.Les Miserables production at SDSU in December 2014.Our School of Theatre, Television and Film and our School of Music and Dance collaborated on an extraordinary concert production of “Les Misérables,” and our athletic teams inspired us with a conference title in women’s soccer, a fifth consecutive bowl game in football and a national ranking in men’s basketball.  Add countless department and office celebrations across campus and you appreciate the flurry of activities that accompany the holiday season.

These gatherings illustrate the essential role of community at San Diego State. During the formulation of our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” the theme of community and its many meanings arose again and again.  People recognized the benefits of strengthening our campus community, the necessity of building relationships with our alumni community and the importance of supporting our regional community.  As we have moved forward with implementing “Building Get Together, Give Back event at SDSU in December 2014.on Excellence,” we have initiated the “Get Together, Give Back” program to support faculty and staff morale, the Aztec Mentor Program to bring alumni and current students together, and the Sage Project in National City, in which over a thousand students, faculty and staff work on community projects.

Each of these programs – and others like them – is an important effort in its own right, but each also serves a larger purpose in building our community. Through community, we bring a diversity of perspectivesAztec Mentor Program participants at SDSU. and talents to address our challenges. Equally important, each of our individual efforts takes on a deeper meaning and purpose when it is tied to the common efforts of friends and colleagues in our community. This shared purpose is essential to the Aztec spirit – resolute and indefatigable – with which we meet our challenges, large and small.

The three central themes of “Building on Excellence” are Student Success, Research and Creative Endeavors, and Community and Communication. While we have critical goals in all three areas, our ability to achieve all of our goals rests on our ability to work together as a community.  In fact, given the strength and scope of the Aztec family, no aspiration and no goal is beyond our reach when we concentrate our efforts and work together.  While life presents many challenges, both to individuals and to universities, this fundamental truth, the power of community, is always essential to addressing them.  I look forward to working with all members of our community to continue to make progress and move our university forward in the spring semester.

Best wishes to all for the holiday season and the New Year.

SDSU football team singing the fight song after a victory in 2014.                          SDSU women's soccer team celebrates their conference championship in 2014.


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Global View Strengthens SDSU

In prior blogs, I described some of the experiences of international students at our university and more about our international partners, and here I would like to talk more about why international programs are essential to our students and to SDSU’s future. Xiamen University Day at SDSU 2014

If there were any doubts, today’s global health crises, political upheavals and interconnected economy make it clear that a quality education is one with a global focus and international opportunities.

At San Diego State, our goals and aspirations for international programs are articulated in our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.”  They build upon foundations created by President Emeritus Stephen Weber and Provost Emeritus Nancy Marlin, who recognized the strategic advantage of our location at the gateway to Latin America and the Pacific Rim, as well as the fundamental role that international efforts play in the success of our educational and research programs.

The international initiatives in “Building on Excellence” have three facets.  First, reflecting our belief that we must prepare students for professional and civic responsibilities in a global future, we have set an ambitious goal that 30 percent of our graduating students have international experiences – 2,100 students studied abroad last year.  We already rank in the top 25 in the nation, and reaching our SDSU student in Veniceambitious goal will place us in the top 10.  More important, our students grow intellectually and personally from these experiences.

Second, we are focusing our research on international challenges.  A broad range of areas, including climate change, economic prosperity, national security and public health, must be addressed from a global perspective.  Our researchers work with colleagues around the world to solve society’s pressing problems.

Third, we are recruiting additional international students, who now constitute 6 percent of our undergraduate population.  These students bring perspectives and knowledge that broaden the education of all our students and help build the bridges of friendship that tie nations together.

These international efforts are already gathering philanthropic support.  Alumni Keith Behner and Cathy Stiefel recently created a $2.5 million endowment to support our international programs with Brazil, a nation with the world’s seventh-largest economy.  This funding will support student exchanges, joint faculty research and strengthened relations between our two nations — advancing all three of our international initiatives. SDSU student in Brazil Alumni Jack McGrory and Terry Atkinson – both members of The Campanile Foundation Board – are among those supporting study-abroad scholarships for students who need financial support. Chinyeh Hostler and her late husband, Ambassador Charles W. Hostler, have made significant contributions to our international programs and to the Charles W. Hostler Institute on World Affairs.

In our 117- year history, SDSU has continually evolved with the times.  Today, carrying out our educational, research and service missions requires us to take an international perspective.  This perspective, in turn, will convey benefits closer to home for our region, state and nation and further our goal to become a top-50 public research university.

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Free Speech at SDSU

Over the last six months, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment has emerged as an extraordinarily contentious issue on many university campuses.  Last spring, several speakers at commencements across the nation (e.g., former Secretary of State and Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Bob Birgeneau at Haverford College) decided not to speak following protests.  This fall, significant controversies arose when a hiring decision at one university may have been influenced by a prospective professor’s tweets and when several university leaders articulated views on the relationship between free speech and civil discourse.  Given these circumstances, it is a fitting moment to review our traditions of freedom of expression at San Diego State and in the American academy, more generally.  They provide important context for understanding these controversies and appropriate responses to them.

Our policy on free expression articulates two essential principles. First, it emphasizes (section 1.1) that freedom of expression is not only protected by the First Amendment, it is essential to our educational and research missions.  It is critical to present a range of perspectives so students can understand issues and develop frameworks for thinking about these issues.  Likewise, researchers and creative artists must be able to consider a range of possible approaches in highlighting and addressing challenges and problems.  In short, freedom of expression has privileged status on a university campus.  It is “integral to the mission of the university” and an “inviolate freedom.”  This view is consistent with judicial interpretations of the U.S. Constitution (e.g., Brandenburg v. Ohio) that provide extensive protections for free expression.

Second, our policy indicates (sections 2.0 and 3.0) that even though freedom of expression is not an absolute right (e.g., “Reasonable regulations may be designed to avoid disruption of the mission of the university.”), any regulation should “maximize opportunities, in terms of time, place and manner, for free expression.”  Our policy emphasizes that regulation should be “content neutral” and “all legal speech, even offensive speech, is permitted.”  This second principle is consistent with a long judicial tradition in which speech and expression may be restricted (e.g., restrictions on speech that incites imminent violence), but such restrictions should be limited and narrow.

These principles provide an important framework for understanding regulation of free expression on campus.  For example, consider the case of proposed speakers and those who wish to protest those speakers.  In our tradition, speakers have a right to speak, even if they present controversial materials, and protesters have a right to protest, even if the motivation for their protest is controversial.

Rainbow Flag-Raising 2014

Jenna Mackey/The Daily Aztec

The principles also clarify how the university should respond to protesters who ask that the university ban invited speakers – which happens in highly publicized cases like spring commencement and in a myriad of lesser-known instances. While many protesters claim that a speaker’s appearance implies that the university endorses the speaker’s views, this is not the case.  We endorse the speaker’s right to express his or her views and the audience’s right to hear these views.  Under the “endorsement” framework, we could never invite speakers the university does not specifically endorse, and this approach would severely restrict potential speakers and our academic discourse.  The claim that we endorse the views of all who speak at the university and its corollary that we should rescind invitations to those whose views the university does not endorse are an immediate threat to our core missions of education, research and service.

There are, of course, many complications.  For example, if a controversial speaker comes to campus, can a group of protesters “shout down” the speaker? While one might claim that one is simply expressing a viewpoint, shouting down a speaker restricts the speaker’s right to free expression and is addressed in the SDSU student code of conduct.  Protesters can ask questions, hold up signs, present alternative speakers and express their own views.  They might even shout out a phrase or two during a speaker’s presentation, but completely preventing an invited speaker from speaking at our university is not within our traditions or policies.

A related question concerns whether a group who invites a controversial speaker can be forced to invite another speaker who presents a contrasting view.  This is often requested and presented as a compromise position designed to foster open discussion.  Forcing someone to invite someone to campus that they do not wish to invite is a restriction of their free expression and inconsistent with our traditions – even if the invitation might accomplish other beneficial objectives.

Important considerations also arise when one considers the relationship between freedom of expression and civil discourse or politeness.  This topic is frequently raised by university leaders concerned with campus climate.  While there is no question that civility or politeness is very important, it is equally important to recognize that, in our American tradition, the right to freedom of expression is unrelated to civility or politeness.  Our university’s protections of expression are “content neutral” and “even offensive speech is permitted.”  There are, as discussed above, regulations and constraints on expression, but a requirement for politeness is not one of them.

Even if one grants that impolite speech cannot be a basis for restricting expression, questions regarding when one person’s expression creates an immediate or pervasive threat to another person (e.g., when speech incites imminent violence) are likely to be continuing sources of disagreement on our campuses. In adjudicating such circumstances, we should follow the principle that, if any restriction of expression is necessary, restrictions should be as limited and narrow in scope as possible.

It is likely that some of what I have said will make some happy and anger others. Similarly, it may clarify some issues but not others.  In all of these cases, it will continue our powerful tradition of free expression – one that we must protect and nurture so our academic community can continue its important work.


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Special Moment to Establish SDSU as Leading Public University

As I have shared in a number of blogs, the academic year has its own unique seasons.  The year kicks off with our All-University and New Student and Family convocations and the first day of classes.  It is a time filled with excitement, “welcomes,” promise – and some measure of anxiety. SDSU band marches through campus to collect students for New Student and Family Convocation.

This year brings special opportunities to our university. Universities are not fixed in their missions or identities. They are dynamic institutions, evolving and changing over time.  In the last 117 years, and especially in the past 40 or so when Brage Golding, Tom Day and Steve Weber served as our presidents, we have developed an extraordinary tradition of achievement.  At All-University Convocation, I described many of our achievements in the past year in SDSU student at the Great Wall of China.international programs, entrepreneurship, student success, community engagement, research and creative endeavors, and athletics, among other areas.

More recently, our campus has undergone another fundamental change, beginning with the Great Recession in 2007.  As I described in a prior blog, we have gone from being a state-supported university to being a university that is a public-private partnership.  In this latter model, our funding is dependent on multiple public and private sources.  The combination of our tradition of achievement and our recent transition to a public-private partnership funding model – one that includes philanthropy – creates a unique moment in our history.

As envisioned in our strategic plan “Building on Excellence,” the resources provided by our new funding model create powerful opportunities to support the communal aspirations of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and community supporters.  To capture it in a sentence:  This special moment allows us to establish ourselves as one of our nation’s leading public universities.

This fall, we will pursue 42 initiatives as part of the second year of the implementation of our SDSU strategic plan.  These initiatives will support student success, provide our students with transformational educationalLab, laserborder experiences, advance research and creative endeavors, enhance our campus facilities and bring us together as one SDSU community.  In short, they will move us forward as a leading public university.  At the same time, we will continue to build the infrastructure to support the revenue initiatives in our new financial model – initiatives that, in turn, will support further efforts to enhance our programs and our campus.  Our success in these critical areas will lay the foundation for SDSU’s future and determine our progress as a leading public university.

While there are many ways to measure our progress (e.g., our goal of ranking in the top 50 of public universities by U.S. News & World Report), the foundational issue is who we can be and what we can accomplish as a leading public university.  We can continue to establish ourselves as a university of the highest quality where all students achieve success, where faculty, staff and student researchers address pressing societal challenges, where we come together to experience the beauty and power of the arts, and where we harness our knowledge and our talents to serve our community and the broader society.

Thank you to our entire community for supporting our university and our aspirations.  I look forward to a great year.

SDSU campus with Hepner Hall in the background.

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New Model: Public-Private Partnership

At a recent reception, an elderly gentleman approached me.  With some urgency, he grabbed my arm and told me a story similar to one I have heard thousands of times since arriving at SDSU three years ago.  Each of these stories is unique and powerful, and they generally begin with a proud memory of San Diego State.  In this case, the retired faculty member told me how proud he had been to teach at a university where attendance was free (or close to free) and open to students from many different backgrounds. Students climb a canyon path to Hepner Hall at SDSU in 1934. He told me about a time when his department, in a spirit of grassroots activism, came together to build a community garden.  I could see him and his smiling colleagues tilling the soil on a sun-drenched afternoon.

The story then shifted, becoming darker.  The man recounted how, over the years, a series of state budget reductions led to fewer faculty members in his department, a bigger workload and fewer program opportunities for students.  At this point, many of those recounting similar stories share suggestions regarding how the university should move forward given reduced support from the state.  These suggestions are very helpful – and many have already been implemented. In this case, however, the former professor simply asked plaintively, “What are we going to do?”

The answer is simple:  We are adapting and evolving.  We will control our own destiny so we can continue our traditions of excellence, diversity and grassroots engagement.  We will create new generations of proud memories.Hepner Hall at SDSU in 1957 included parking in front.

We are creating a new model, and this process of adaptation and evolution has moved dramatically forward in the last three years.  The need began with decades of reduced state support – the early 1990s, the 2007-13 period and the recent changes in capital funding – but it cannot end with our simple acceptance of the negative effects of lower state support.

Rather, we must move from being a university that depends solely on substantially reduced state support to being a university that is a public-private partnership.  There is simply no other option:  Our state appropriation is now less than 20 percent of the total budget of the university and its auxiliaries.  If we relied only on state support, we would close.

So, what does it mean for San Diego State University to be a public-private partnership?  This concept is well-understood for individual projects, such as a mixed residential and retail development in which a public university might provide land and a private entity constructs the development with the two parties sharing in the responsibilities and revenues.

Moving the entire university to a public-private partnership model goes far beyond this project-based approach.  It means that the core financial model of the university is based on funds from both public and private sources.  A university that is a public-private partnership affirms its relationship with the state and its public mission.  It works collaboratively with elected officials to increase funding support for the university, as well as funding for need-based scholarships like Cal Grants.  The university also recognizes and embraces the critical role of the federal government, both in funding research and in supporting student access through the Pell Grant program.

This type of university, however, differs from most traditional state-supported universities in California.  Funds from private sources are combined with public funds to create a financial model that can support our academic and communal aspirations.  These private sources include philanthropic support from alumni, community supporters and corporate partners.  They also include tuition and fees paid by individual students and their families, from California and beyond. Revenues from auxiliary organizations, such as Aztec Shops, that provide services to students and community members also support the university’s academic mission, as do revenues from continuing education programs that operate without state support.

Our public-private partnership model has made dramatic progress, succeeding in two important ways.  First, our private revenue initiatives have grown significantly.  For example, our fundraising Campaign for SDSU raised a record $90 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Other revenue initiatives have also been successful, and combining these funds with public support has allowed us to make major investments in the academic and co-curricular programs identified in our strategic plan “Building on Excellence.”Students study at the SDSU Commuter Center, opened in 2013-14.

We have hired faculty and staff and launched initiatives to support student success, such as the Commuter Center, the Pride Center, the Writing Center and the Honors College.

Second, and equally important, the public-private partnership model has allowed us to build on our campus traditions.  While a commonly voiced fear is that reductions in state support and a movement to a public-private partnership model reduce our commitment to the socio-economic diversity of our students, this has not occurred.  Financial aid allocations have increased by 67 percent in the five years from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and the proportion of enrolled students who face significant financial challenges (as measured by Pell Grant eligibility) was higher in 2013-14 than in 2009-10.  Similarly, one might fear that the impact of reduced state support would reduce access to a degree.  In fact, our six-year graduation rate in 2013 was more than 10 percent higher than our six-year graduation rate in 2007.

None of this is to say that the transition is complete or that a public-private model raises no quandaries.  There are complex issues of policy and planning that must be resolved.  Foremost among them are the complicated relationships that arise between the exercise of authority by the state, the CSU system and the university and the implicit and explicit accountability requirements of our private partners.  Similarly, our reliance on multiple revenue streams substantially complicates all of our financial planning and risk mitigation efforts. There are many issues to be resolved, but we are on our way.  We are already investing revenue from our new public-private financial model to support the excellence of our programs and the success of our students, faculty, staff and community.

No, things will never be the same.  But if we do it right, we will, like prior generations, create proud memories that our community shares for decades to come.

Today's students in front of Hepner Hall at SDSU.

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