When Jane Close Conoley officially took office on July 15 as the newest president of Cal State Long Beach, she began a 100-day search for aspirations that has taken her around the campus and community. “I’ve been busy,” she said. “I’ve met with many faculty and student groups on campus and every combination of chairs and deans. I’ve heard the aspirations of many. A few of those aspirations are very clear.” Upon listening to the diverse voices of The Beach community, a few presidential priorities are beginning to emerge.
High on her list is engaging others in a dialogue on what it means to be an “elite” university. “To be elite in the 21st century, a university must transform the educational, social, professional and civic possibilities for its students,” Conoley said. “You’re not elite just because you get affluent students who come in with many advantages and graduate with a few more. We offer an education that leads to many career opportunities and respected graduate schools for students from all walks of life. I’m especially proud that about 40 percent of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Faculty members who offer those kinds of transformational opportunities are elite faculty. The university that commits itself to that vision represents the new elite university for the 21st century. The majority of children under 18 in California now live in poverty. What will we do about that? The best pathway from poverty to economic stability is education.”
In addition to her bold notion for shifting the conversation on what it really means to be elite, Conoley frequently speaks to the need for building a robust faculty that responds well to today’s student. “We need more full-time, tenure-track faculty and we’ll be looking at that as a top priority as we budget for next year. The provost’s initiative to ensure that our candidates have some record of success with diverse learners before we hire them is right on. I’m extremely supportive of that.” Not only is the president proud of faculty, she’s spent countless hours visiting with staff, complimenting them on their efforts.
Conoley’s admiration and support of CSULB’s partnerships with the community is highly evident. “I’ve met with industry partners of the Colleges of Continuing and Professional Education, Engineering, Business Administration, Education and the School of Nursing,” she said. “These are win-win relationships. I want to find out more about the unique partnerships, such as the proposed AltaSea Marine Biology Center in San Pedro where we hope to turn the Port of Los Angeles’ former City Dock No. 1 into a world class science research and business facility. We are trying to put together a financial package that will make it happen. What we are doing now with this project will be the more common way of getting our work done in the future. It will be in-kind support from industry, such as building new labs to help our students learn and public-private partnerships.”
The president views the university’s first comprehensive fund-raising campaign, DECLARE, as an opportunity to bolster support for fully achieving the university’s collective aspirations for transforming student’s lives and serving our greater community. “We must extend limited state support through philanthropy, for example, our DECLARE campaign and many mutually rewarding partnerships throughout our region. We will be holding hands with a lot of people in the community to offer a distinctive education to our students and scholarly and creative opportunities to our faculty,” she added.
There have been surprises. As far as the bad ones go, Conoley’s first eye-opener concerned faculty office spaces. “I was taken aback by how many faculty have to share offices or stagger their office hours so there is enough room for a student to come in. That was a bad surprise,” she said. “But there were many more good surprises, such as Dr. Carl Lipo’s taking students to Easter Island and the student internships coordinated by all our colleges. These are effective ways of connecting our students to the community. Faculty here are committed to student success.”
Parking was a mild shock. “We try to be a more sustainable campus, yet there seem to be too many cars,” Conoley said. “Nearly 60 percent of the university’s carbon footprint comes from commuting. We have a goal of becoming carbon neutral. It would be wonderful if we could handle the car challenge.”
The campus’ charm was a standout in the president’s first 100 days. “When I first got here, part of my plan was to learn where all the buildings are located. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the campus. There are little spots around campus that are just perfect. The Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden is spectacular, but so are the little courtyards and alcoves I’ve found,” she said.
Conoley has found friendly faces, too. “I have met many community groups and elected officials in my first 100 days. Naturally, that includes Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia,” she said. “I’ve tried to talk to the whole range of people who have some stake in the university. They are proud and positive about their university and their aspiration is for whatever we do, to do it better. It’s rather daunting. I hear them urging Cal State Long Beach to be an even better university in every way. The good news is that our university stakeholders are hopeful about our future success. They want that. To be continuously improving is in line with our own aspirations.
Conoley feels she is beginning to settle in at CSULB. “There are small clues, like not getting lost all the time,” she laughed. “I’m finding my way around campus and around Long Beach. I’ve even had a few successful trips to downtown Los Angeles. Hassles go away with experience.”