After spending her academic career outside her native California, Mary A. Papazian, president of San Jose State University, describes her arrival there as “coming home.” She talks about committing to be a long-term leader at the university — beset by challenges in recent years — and about what she’s doing to help San Jose State reach its potential.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: We're here today with Mary Papazian, the president of San Jose State University. Thank you for coming to The Chronicle today.
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: Oh, it's great be here. Thank you, Audrey.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: Obviously when you interviewed at San Jose State they were grappling with a lot of challenges — having a lot of turnover in the president's office and a racial-bullying incident in campus dorms. Graduation rates obviously needed boosting. These are all things that you knew, but you still threw your hat in the ring for the job. I want to hear a little bit about why you did that and what you thought you could pull from your prior career that would be helpful to you in this particular position.
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MARY A. PAPAZIAN: Well I was happily going forward in my role as president at Southern Connecticut, in New Haven, and things were going swimmingly. And I got a call that I'd been nominated for the position at San Jose State. I'm a native Californian, actually fourth generation, and I had been away for close to 30 years. So it had always been a thought of mine that I would end my career, I would make that final trip back home, to California.
And so I looked at it, and I understood that it was the oldest public university in California. And it was the only public university in the Silicon Valley. And I said, when you have a combination of two things like that, it's a very, very special history and a very special location.
So I looked at all of those things and I know I talked with my husband about it and we said, this has great, great potential. These are solvable problems. It takes communication, transparency, and a sense of community. And we know how to build that. We can do that. The commitment I had to make, though, was that I would be there for a while, that I would bring stability that the university deserved. And so we are there for the long haul, and so far I think it's gone very well.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: Now what kind of message did you think you needed to send when you got on campus to exhibit, like you said, I'm here for the long haul and here are the things that I would like to do to move us forward.
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: Well, I think there are several things. I think, first of all, to be very clear that I'm coming home. And I think when you're coming home it means something. I actually was announced as the president what turned out to be two weeks before my mother passed away. So I was grateful that she knew. But my entire family is out in California, so it's really great to be close to home.
But more important, it's really a sense of the mission of San Jose State and the Cal States that is deeply important to me. I think in order to address some of the issues it was clearly a question of transparency, of communication, of dealing with issues that arose. And we had plenty of them in my first months with transparency and clarity.
And I am very grateful that people have appreciated the openness of the conversation. I've said it's not about anybody taking blame, it's about what are the issues today, how can we communicate, and how can we articulate over and over again our commitment to social justice and to values.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: So when you talk about the transparency, how does that play out on your campus? Are you walking around campus talking to people? Do you have a blog? How do you get the message out so that, like you said, it's transparent, people know what's happening?
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: Yes and yes. I mean, I'm ironically in the oldest building on campus, which is called Tower Hall. But we're the only office in there, it's the president's office. And then we have a lecture hall with students. So it's really important for me actually to get out and to walk. This is San Jose. It is beautiful. We got a lot of rain this year, but it's a beautiful campus and people are out all the time.
So I've been doing things like — I actually just finished a listening tour. I went to every one of our eight colleges, met with the faculty and staff in those schools. And I've had student forums, faculty forums. I try to get to as many of the Academic Senate meetings as I can. So I try to be out.
And I'm doing the same thing actually in the broader community, where I'm at many of the community organization events, meeting with leaders in the community. And just trying to get out there to hear what people have to say and to really understand the potential of the institution and how every part of the institution can have a voice.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: And so what are some of the common things that you're hearing among the feedback? I guess students might be on a different page than faculty, and et cetera. But what are you hearing?
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: I think the most important thing is that people are really proud of San Jose State and all that it's accomplished over the years. But they also believe that it can do a great deal more. So they are very eager for me and all of us to really begin a conversation meaningfully in the broader community that really looks to San Jose State as a resource for a whole host of issues. And that's in order to ensure the excellence that we have, to ensure that it's accessible to the community, and it's in service to the community. And that is something people care a great deal about.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: Are there things that you've been able to do, and it's not even your first year — I don't think it's even ended — are there things that you've been able to do to push the university ahead, that you can point to?
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: Well, I think so. It's one small example of just engagement in the community. We have done a great deal in various parts of our community, involved in the neighborhoods and other areas. But we haven't always been at the table in the way we should be as the largest entity in the downtown.
So when the county passed a measure to try to address transportation issues, for example, and bring a BART station to San Jose, we became involved in the conversation about where that should be located.
And because of that I think we've made some good arguments. The decision is still up in the air. But whatever happens, whatever the outcome, San Jose State's interests, both as a space for students and faculty to come and go, but also as a convener for the community, will be clear. And it's just one small example of just making sure that our presence is there.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: I want to switch gears if I could, to student success, because I know that you all have gotten a huge amount of funding to put behind that. Can you talk a little bit about what's at stake when it comes to students' success there and how you hope that this funding and your initiatives will make a difference?
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: Well every decision we make has to have students at the center. And I say that with every group I talk to. When I'm looking at issues around affordable housing for faculty, it has student success at the center. Because our students need, they benefit from engagement, active engagement with faculty. So we need to be able to bring faculty close to home.
We are going through a whole host of efforts in partnerships with our K-12 partners, our community-college partners, looking at the college readiness pipeline, for example. We're experimenting and piloting two different smart planner programs to really put tools in the hands of students. So they can really look and see a graduation four years, or however close to that we can ensure that they get there.
The key is to put the data at the hands of students, at the hands of faculty. So decisions can be made at the local level. That's what we're trying to do and as I said, really keeping student success at the core.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: I want to ask one thing about your background. I know that you're a Renaissance literature scholar, and so I'm assuming that the people in the humanities there at your university are excited about that. Getting any grief at all for not having a science background? And how do you think that your humanities background really makes a difference in your position.
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: It's a great question. As the only public university in the Silicon Valley, people expect an engineer or a businessperson. But I like to say that the last great age of innovation was the Renaissance. It was a period of great scientific advancement. It's actually when the scientific method came into being. Sir Francis Bacon and the advancement of learning, for example.
It's a time when the arts, when politics, when geographical changes, when scientific developments were all happening at the same time to create what we know now as the modern world. And so I think it's that collective broad thinking, and I hope some visionary thinking, that is creating a space for genuine interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work to happen.
We have an example of an event going on right now with 16 teams of students around prototyping. This is using technology and the arts together to try to solve problems. And I hope that we can continue to be that institution that really draws on all of our disciplines to address the educational and other needs for our community at a time of tremendous transformation and acceleration.
AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: All right. Well, Ms. Papazian, thank you so much for stopping by The Chronicle. It was good to talk to you.
MARY A. PAPAZIAN: It was great to see you too. Thanks Audrey. I appreciate it. Thank you.
Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.