President's First Annual Convocation

Jolene Koester
President, California State University, Northridge

August 25, 2000
Northridge Room, University Student Union, CSUN

Good morning.

I want to begin by introducing some other individuals important to our work in the university community. All of you are important, but I want to make sure that you get to know some of these individuals as well.

These individuals serve in the Vice Presidential role at the University. Some of them are new to the campus, while others have been with us some time.

Coming to us from the University of Missouri in Rolla is our new Vice President for Administration and Finance Mo Qayoumi; Dick Tyler, Interim Vice President for University Relations; and Fred Strache, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs. I also want to introduce someone that you all know: Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Louanne Kennedy. Along with the introduction, I want all of us to express our collective thanks to Louanne for the work she did on this campus during the last year. I personally am grateful, and I know from what I have seen, that everyone of us should be grateful for what it is she did for CSUN last year.

I would also like to acknowledge Phil Handler who works with us this year in a new role in academic affairs as Vice Provost. He is a CSUN veteran, but also a person who I think we ought to recognize for his continued efforts in excellence in the university community.

We are also very privileged today to have four members of important community boards who have joined us for this kick off of the academic year. I am going to ask each of the four that I know are here to stand up. I ask you to save your applause for these individuals until the end, but let me say the fact that these individuals are here today says something about the university and the commitment that we have from people in the community to the work that we do: Marge McGregor, Joe Scheer, David Fleming and Alan Meyer. Let us thank these individuals for the hours that they give to us.

About nine months ago on a November day - cloudy in Sacramento, sunny in Southern California - I got on an airplane and flew to Burbank to spend a day-and-a-half here interviewing for this job. I was in a fairly reflective mood when I got on that airplane in Sacramento. Did I want this job? Did you all want me? Would I take the job if it was offered to me? What were the reasons that I should come here? What were the reasons that I should say no if asked? As most people do when you are in that reflective mode you read things in a slightly different way. As I opened the Sacramento Bee and flipped through its pages somewhat absent-mindedly, my eyes focused and were drawn to the astrological forecast for the day. I thought perhaps there would be insight just for me and the millions of other people who are Aquarians in the world. This is what my horoscope said, and this is the truth: "You may be lucky in your career if you are willing to jump through hoops or you could retire and travel and have adventures."

Now I am not sure that the horoscope was exactly right because I clearly became lucky in my career, and I have traveled a lot from Sacramento to here. And I do think that I have the privilege to participate in what clearly could be called an adventure.

I've asked that this convocation occur today to establish a tradition a tradition in which annually, at the beginning of the academic year, we gather together to provide an assessment of the state of the university. I have asked Associated Students President Robert Hanff and Faculty Senate President Diane Schwartz to join me, and that all university staff be invited to this event, as well as community members, to indicate that in a university there is a shared process by which we sort out our major decisions and the answers to the major questions and issues that we face.

I want to take us today through four steps that will allow us a broad assessment of where CSUN is at this particular point in time. I am going to begin by talking and explicating for you the perspective that I bring to leadership. Then I am going to tell you a little bit about what it is I see in CSUN as one of the newest kids on this particular block of the San Fernando Valley. I then want to very briefly review with you the priorities that I have established that will guide my time and guide the time of many individuals, and I hope many of you, during the course of this academic year. Finally, I want to end with what I hope are some fairly provocative issues, descriptions of some provocative choices that we as a campus are going to need to make over the next coming years.

Let me begin with who it is that I am. Many of you have already begun to form impressions of me. As I was walking over here with some folks from the President's Office, one of those impressions was already discussed: for those of you who have been on campus during the summer, you know that I walk and that I walk fast. You have already begun to form additional impressions about me and over the course of the years, as I make decisions and express point of views and don't make other decisions, you will form additional impressions of who I am.

Let me describe for you what I think are the core values that I bring to this endeavor and the values that I hope shape my decision-making and stewardship of this university. I start by acknowledging that for me it is a privilege and a joy to be part of a higher educational institution. From the time that I first walked on the University of Minnesota campus as a freshman to every single place that I studied and every educational institution that I have worked in, I have found it to be a joy and a privilege to be part of an institution of higher education. My original stimulation for being involved in higher education had to do with the sheer thrill and seduction of intellectual ideas and the pursuit of knowledge. I have been motivated during my entire career by a set of intellectual questions on how human beings construct meaning and, particularly, in the latter parts my academic career, by how cultural differences affect the construction of meaning when individuals from different cultures engage in interaction.

It was later, as I became a graduate student, teaching assistant and faculty member, that I also found the sheer thrill and joy of participating with students in the teaching and learning process. All of you who are faculty know that joy: The excitement when students discover something that they did not understand before; your thrill when you are able to overcome their resistance; the recognition that in the teaching and learning process, you have the ability to make a profound difference in the life of an individual and, many times, we can see where we had a profound affect on society at large. I have a fundamental and unshakable belief in the transformative power of higher education. I stand before you as someone who has personally experienced that transformation. I stand before you as someone who has professionally seen hundreds - thousands - of other individuals experience that same transformation. I have a particular passion and commitment for the type of university that our university represents because this university has a special and unique mission. To paraphrase the words of Sandy Astin, who is one of our faculty colleagues from down the road at UCLA: This is a university that develops talent, it's not just a university that provides a forum to demonstrate talent.

Finally, in terms of the values I bring to this endeavor, it is important to acknowledge for all of you something that will be apparent, I hope, in how it is I do my work - that is the deep and abiding commitment I have to pluralism, to the recognition of differences, to the need for us to acknowledge, to nurture and to celebrate those differences - I believe that we will not build a better world by ignoring those difference but only by expressing, on a constant and daily basis, an appreciation of them.

These are the values I bring to my work at CSUN. Now what is it that I see in this university after many quick trips and brief glances during the spring supplemented by two months of intensive exposure to the university, I now know where I am when I wake up, believe me....

What is it that I see when I see this university? The first thing I see has to do with the story of the Northridge earthquake. The story of this earthquake is well known. Everywhere I have gone in the country over the last six months, when I told people that I was coming here, people's eyes would get wide; there would be comments about my sanity and moving to a place that's full of geological faults. I always explained that the earthquake was in the past and wasn't in the present, though this was not completely accurate. The devastation to the physical plant of the campus was well known, as was the remarkable feat that all of you pulled off in reopening the campus within a month. What was not known is the extraordinary investment of human energy that has gone into rebuilding this campus, and the intellect, the emotion and the time that people on this campus - all of you - have put into making CSUN work. There have been contributions from literally everyone. As I have gone around this campus in the last two months, I cannot tell you the number of times someone has talked with me with pride about some contribution he or she made. Even if they weren't here during the earthquake, they can tell me of what they have done since joining CSUN to make the institution work. The sheer amount of human energy, commitment, and creativity that has gone into keeping CSUN open, functioning, functioning well, and vibrant is impressive. It is a collective tribute to all of you, and there are no words that I can use to express to you the magnitude of investment that I have seen.

The second thing I see when I look at CSUN is an incredibly dedicated staff. You know that I have been out walking around the campus; I appear in offices and people get nervous, wondering "What have I done?" I try to calm people down and say no one has done anything and I'm just trying to find out who you are, where you work, and how you spend your work lives. Everywhere I see a very dedicated staff, people who are working side-by-side with faculty, from Admissions and Records to advisors in the satellite centers; from people who are cutting the lawn, and planting the flowers, and building the buildings, and who are fixing things like the air conditioning. All of you are working side-by-side to make the institution work. No assessment of the state of this university would be complete without a sincere acknowledgment and statement of appreciation to all of you.

The third thing I see here is a remarkable array of academic programs with a great deal of quality and a great deal of distinction. Now most of you might say, well, of course, you would say that Jolene; in truth it is not necessarily true that I would be able to stand here and say that. I want to tell you that in addition to the wide-eyed look I received when I told people that I was coming to CSUN, the next topic of conversation they came up was, "You really have a really good 'blank' department." I heard about programs in each of the colleges of this university that caused me to believe in the fundamental quality of the undergraduate and graduate programs in this university in a way that it is not axiomatic, nor necessarily true of every university. So the distinction of the programs here make me feel proud. We need to recognize as well that that distinction is sustained by faculty members who are committed to their discipline and who sustain themselves in their own intellectual curiosity over a period of years through their own scholarly activities.

The fourth thing I see when I see this university is an institution with very strong ties back to the San Fernando Valley community. In each and every college of Cal State Northridge, I see programs that give back to the community: economically, in terms of the intellectual life of the Valley, in terms of the creative life, and in terms of nurturing the human fabric of the lives of those people who live in the Valley. I see a focus on student achievement and learning.

Many of you know CSUN was visited in the spring by an accreditation team representing the Western Association of School and Colleges, our regional accrediting agency. WASC allows us to offer higher education programs and services. In the team report to the Commission and the Commission's letter to the campus, there are multiple comments that give us reasons to celebrate. I want to give you only one of those comments, but I want you to pay particular attention to this particular laudatory comment.

The commission said, "The University stands as a model to other public urban institutions of higher education who have the mission of establishing a learning center institution." Please hear those words. External accreditors - our colleagues from other institutions and from the public in general - came here and concluded that this university is a model public urban institution. What higher praise could there be for the work that all of you have done - and I get to ride in on the coat tails of this one folks! You are the ones who have done this work. So this is what I see clearly: an institution with strengths and with a strong foundation.

But I also see some unrealized promises and potential issues that we are going to have to decide whether or not we are going to treat as danger or opportunity. Let me turn to the priorities I have established for myself for the administrative team and, hopefully, for many of you, because I ask for your participation in these over the coming year.

Priority 1: Strengthen internal and external connections.
My first priority, one that will continue beyond this first year, is to strengthen connections between the university and the San Fernando Valley and within the university community. Let me start with what I plan to do in terms of those internal connections. I referred already to my walking around the campus and meeting those of you in your various offices. I am going to continue to do that. I will find every nook and cranny - it may take me a while but I will make it. I have already met with each of the deans of the colleges, and meetings are scheduled for me and the faculty and staff in each of the colleges. In fact I met with Arts, Media, and Communication on Wednesday and I will be meeting with Health and Human Development in the Matadome this afternoon (it will be the only athletic performance of my life). I also am going to be meeting with the staff in the divisions of the university, all full-time faculty over the course of the year will be invited to a coffee in the President's trailer and, yes, the hospitality policy does allow me to offer you coffee.

I have also talked with Robert Hanff, and we plan to once again hold town hall meetings for students. I have pledged to attend the open forums of the Associated Students' Senate meetings when I am on campus so that I can hear the students' perspectives. I will also attend the meetings of the Faculty Senate on those Thursdays when I am on campus. I will, as well, be trying to figure out another mechanism by which I can meet with staff in an informal setting, organized around a town hall concept. We have not worked out the details of these meetings, but I am committed to at least having had the opportunity to listen from you directly some of the major issues and concerns you may have.

Externally, I am going to tell the CSUN story in the community. This university is the San Fernando Valley's only public university, and we have a marvelous story to tell. I am going to be speaking to every group that will allow me to talk over the next several months. In fact, I have joked that I am going on the "rubber salmon" circuit; it used to be called the "rubber chicken" circuit now for some reason everyone is serving salmon. I have already eaten a lot of rubber salmon in the two months that I have been here. But I am willing and thrilled to do that to tell the story of this university to those people who live in the Valley because it is truly a remarkable story.

Priority 2: Create a more user-friendly campus.
The second priority that I have is to work with all of you to create a more user-friendly campus. Now there are multiple ways in which we can do that I would also suggest to you that this is a goal and a priority that is going extend beyond this particular year. We need to pay some attention to how it is we structure our work so that staff person-to-staff person, staff-to-faculty, to student-to-student is easier. There is on this campus a marvelous array of rules, and policies that guide the way of doing things that were developed when the campus had 400 students and when, as the CSU, we had a whole set of rules and procedures that came directly to us from the Department of Finance. You are good people who are doing good work and we want to and we need to make sure that we are using your energy and your time wisely. We are going to devise a means by which you will be able to tell us about some of our major user-friendly needs. We are not going to be able to fix them all, but we will target a number of key processes and procedures that provide the most obstacles to most of you over the course of the year. Each division of the university is going to be engaged in this particular process.

In addition, Vice President for Administration and Finance Mohammad Qayoumi and his staff are going to develop and implement a plan to improve signage on the campus. I won't tell you about the stories related to signage that I have heard, except to say that even though I am very new and I often seem confused when I am barreling across campus, I never walk across campus without someone stopping me and asking where is "such-and-such." It makes me feel good when I know where the places are; the other day someone said, Where is the FOB?" I stood there for just a little bit longer than was reassuring to the person asking me, and then I said, "Oh, it's the faculty office building; it's right over there." So I felt great that I knew where that was but I felt bad that somehow we haven't managed to provide directional indicators internal to the campus that lead people to find easily where the buildings are on the campus.

Similarly, we need to define the perimeter of the campus in such a way that people know when they are on the campus and when they are not. There may be good reason why we haven't had this directional signage; I thought it was caused by the earthquake, although someone was telling me yesterday that this has been a problem for 30 years. Nevertheless over the course of the next year/year-and-a-half, we are going to fix this particular problem.

We also need to each to look at our attitudes about how we do our own work. It's much easier to say to someone who asks us for something, "No," than it is to say "Yes." The next time someone asks you about whether or not she can do something, I would like you to think a moment and try to figure out if there is some way we can say yes. Even if it means a little more work for you in that particular point in time, and even if it means trying to figure out how to change and check out something that it is we're doing.

Priority 3: Increase graduation rates.
We have another major priority for this year that we need in all seriousness each and everyone of us to spend time and energy thinking about. Building on the goals of this institution's strategic plan, and as part of the WASC self-study process, we learned that we need to do more to ensure that our students graduate in a timely way. I will tell you quite honestly that we lag far behind comparable institutions in our graduations rates. Students who come here as first-time freshman and those who come here as transfer students do not graduate in a timely way. In fact, more than half of our entering freshman never graduate from CSUN. Likewise, our retention rate - while similar to that of comparable universities - is not what we hope for or wish. I hope you would agree with me that this is not an acceptable record. Especially given the quality of the program and the excellence of the faculty and the staff on this campus. We might want to believe that students leave us because they cannot do the work that we require of them. The facts do not support such an interpretation.

Overwhelmingly, the students who drop out are in good standing when they leave. It currently takes our freshmen, on average, 146 units with a minimum required of 124 by code. Transfer students take 142 units. During the last academic year more than 2,000 enrolled students had already completed more than 120 units, but were still not ready for graduation. Almost all of these students are in good standing and these disturbing numbers do not even include the students who dropped out, who had more than 120 units. As much as we should take pride that our students like it here, and stick around for a long time, we have to recognize that we are creating barriers that make it difficult for them to get on with their lives.

Our mission statement affirms our belief that this university exists to enable students to realize their educational goals. We need to recognize that for the vast majority of our students, one of those goals is graduation. Otherwise, we are wasting our valuable resources and, more importantly, we are not fulfilling the important moral and societal obligation we have taken on to allow our students to make the best use of their talents and energy. This is an especially appropriate moment to be doing this and to be focusing on this issue because the CSU Board of Trustees has asked each of the campuses to look at our degree programs and our requirements to allow students to graduate with 120 units from our universities. While Louanne Kennedy, our Provost and Vice Presidents for Academic Affairs, is going to have the primary responsibility for developing the strategies to improve this graduation rate, I want to be quite clear that this is a responsibility for each and every person in this room. From faculty to administrators to staff, this is something that we have to give our best thoughts to. Some remedies are on their way already and that would commence as soon as the academic year formally begins next week. The Admissions and Records staff as well as the Institutional Research staff have been asked to do some extensive data-gathering and analysis to try to tell us more about who these students are, why they are not graduating and what the obstacles are that they have experienced. We do know that our general education program and our degree programs are many times so complex that even we cannot explain the requirements. And so it is time for us to look at those requirements and to assess whether or not, in fact, we need to require our students to have all of those particular courses. It appears that some of our academic policies for courses, such as our incomplete and repeat grade policies, and our drop policies, may also contribute to some of our problems with respect to the graduation rates. Therefore, faculty and departments in the colleges and in the very important forum in the Faculty Senate will and have already been asked to look at some of these issues with the goal of improving the graduation rates of our students. Many of our students tell us that they cannot find the courses they need to take at the time that they need to take them. This suggests the imperative to rethink our scheduling habits.

There is much on the positive side as well. A lot of you have begun to consider and to develop alternative ways of scheduling to provide instruction to our students. But we must reexamine our practices and innovate in more broad and focused ways simultaneously. Financial Aid is also an important issue, and our students tell us that they drop out or stop out because of financial reasons. I have asked Vice President for Student Affairs Fred Strache and those others involved in providing financial aid to students to see what we can do to improve financial aid opportunities. Interestingly, if you read the Los Angeles Times yesterday, we and our students may have received a great boost in Sacramento. The legislature and the governor approved an increase in financial aid for the type of students who attend CSUN. I want to be clear about this; I am not suggesting to anybody that we lower standards or that we let people through the university. I am talking about raising our standards, holding them to high expectations, and allowing them to graduate in a timely way.

Now I have been in a lot of university settings like this and I know a lot of you are sitting out there saying that she does not realize that is going to take more money. I do understand that. I do understand that we may have to shift resources from one part of the university to the next. I do also understand that we may need more resources to address particular aspects of this problem and I pledge to you that we will try to move those resources to the places that will make the difference in terms of allowing our students to graduate. The university will need to be more creative in how it acquires resources in the future.

Priority 4: Fund raising.
This brings me to my fourth priority: Let me briefly talk about fund raising. You all know that the Board of Trustees has set a 10 percent goal for each of the campuses to raise in private funds. Northridge is the only large campus out of the 23-campus system that has not met that goal. More important than the Trustees setting a goal, we need to look for partners to help us sustain the quality that we need in our educational programs. We cannot look to the state any longer. We have got to recognize that this is a new day. So a great deal of my time and energy, a great deal of the time and energy of your deans, the development officers, and a great deal of time for those of you at the departmental level will need to be devoted to allowing us to get the private support that we need to give us that extra measure of excellence.

So those are the priorities for the coming year There are also a wide array of issues that are facing this institution not only 2000-2001 year but for the next decade.

There is a Chinese character that means simultaneously "danger" and "opportunity." I would like you to think about these issues in the context of that character. These issues can be for us either a danger or an opportunity, and obviously I would like you to think about them as an opportunity. The choices that we make on these opportunities are choices that we collectively will make.

One of the interesting experiences I have had over the last several months when people hear that I am going to be a president is that they say, "Oh, what is your vision for the university." I am somewhat surprised by that particular question because while there are elements of the vision for CSUN that will be mine, most of the vision for the university in the next decade is based upon those strengths that I have already described to you that is also based on a collective discussion that we have within the campus community about how it is we are going to make our choices. So let me quickly review for you the elements of my vision which I think are your vision because I have seen this in the university already for the CSUN of the future:

· We are a university committed to offering quality undergraduate and quality graduate programs, many of which bring distinction to the university because the faculty at CSUN recognize the importance of teaching, scholarship, and public service;
· We offer education grounded in the liberal arts with unwavering commitment that our students must learn from research in an instructional setting; we are an institution grounded in the San Fernando Valley and its region;
· We are an institution committed to access and to student achievement including timely graduation;
· We are a university that has and seeks partnerships with others in the community; and
· We are an institution that recognizes the need to be responsive to new ways of doing our work. Now what else are we going to be in the future.

That's where we look at the Chinese character about danger and opportunities simultaneously. In our world, there are new expectations and new developments that affect what it is we do over the years ahead. Within the San Fernando Valley community, individuals expect us to nurture and expand the many linkages that we already have. The expectations of communities and for the universities that serve them have changed. We are no longer going to be able to isolate ourselves; instead, opinion leaders, business leaders, cultural leaders, and human service agency leaders expect us to use our intellectual resources to address the human, social, cultural, and economic issues of the region that we serve.

Another challenge we have is the recognition that there is a growing financial inequality that characterizes both the larger society and certainly our local community. We need to discuss what this means for public education and, ultimately, for access to the most direct means to achieve economic upward mobility which is higher education.

Technology is another major challenge for us. There is a powerful surge of technological innovations sweeping our daily lives - sometimes undermining our daily lives, but nevertheless it is there. Which of these technological innovations are those that we are going to use to best support our goals? How are we going to afford these at the same time that we have other pressing needs? Because of technology, there is sometimes increased competition from numerous other organizations that have taken on the role of higher education. How are we going to respond to this competition? And in paving the way to how people learn, how will technology affect what we do in our classroom, especially as there is an accelerating blurring of boundaries between disciplines. How do we maintain the vibrancy in our own intellectual homes - our department and disciplines - while not letting a department become a rarefied organizational structure that impedes our organizational pursuits and our collegial interactions.

Another choice the public expects is for us to be a customer service organization. How can we be service-oriented while still maintaining the integrity and quality of our academic standards? Another challenge is in defining where secondary education ends and where baccalaureate education begins. How should this campus adapt to that new reality? Furthermore, what should be our role in the remaking of K-12 education and how much can we be involved in that remaking without harming our primary mission? Finally, how do we go about documenting that we are accomplishing what we say we are accomplishing. The public expects us to be accountable. How are we going to show them what we know and feel in our hearts. If talking to them from our hearts is unacceptable, how are we going to show that we know what we are doing? All of these are choices, and there are others that we do not know yet that we will have to consider over the next decade.

This, then is the state of the university. You have heard a little bit about who I am and you have heard about my priorities for the year. You have heard what I see are the strengths of the institution and, hopefully, I have laid out for you some of the provocative issues that we are going to have to address over the next several years. If this was any university other than Northridge, I would call these fault lines. Let us go back to the Chinese characters and use that as the metaphor instead: these are issues that we are going to need to face.

I want to say to you that I am privileged to be able to work with all of you to sustain what is so very good and so very positive here, and I feel privileged to be able to work with you on the challenges that we are going to face and there are going to be many. I want you to leave here today keeping in your minds what the WASC said about our university: "It is a model public urban institution."

I thank you for joining me this morning.

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October 2000