Q&A with President Qayoumi

President Qayoumi leaning against his desk in his office at Tower Hall.

President Mohammad Qayoumi.

During his Fall Welcome Address, President Qayoumi outlined an ambitious strategic planning process that will begin with 40 town hall meetings this fall. In a recent interview, we asked San Jose State’s new president to tell us about himself and his vision for the university.

In your Fall Welcome Address, you told us how important it is to expect to realize our potential. Did you expect to realize your own potential? Where do you get your drive and ambition?

I got my ambition and drive, first, from my family. My father had only an elementary school education, and my mother had no schooling. But they really wanted my siblings and me to have an opportunity to go to college. As I became part of the educational system, their nurturing and my own personal drive really became the force that pushed me. You get to a certain stage where the quest for learning, the quest for knowledge becomes analogous to drinking salt water to quench your thirst. The more you drink it, the thirstier you get.

You have a wide skill set and five degrees. You could have followed many paths. Why did you choose university administration?

There are a number of reasons I chose university administration. Number one: as a value set. And in what place can one be close to such a fountain of knowledge and creativity? The joy and the pleasure of working with so many distinguished faculty members from all the different disciplines. The joy of working with so many students who are not only our future, but who also bring great ideas and enthusiasm. That was really what attracted me. Because I think, first and foremost, that universities are cradles of optimism. In addition to that, universities have always been microcosms of our democracy. We look at the basic structure and the value system of our universities, and what has really strengthened our democracy has been our education system.

People have been saying that you only take off one day a month. Is that true?

Let me start this way: I think a university president’s job is 24-7. You’re expected to be on duty. At the same time, everyone needs time to refresh and rejuvenate.

How do you get so much done while maintaining a work-life balance?

Part of it is how we manage our time. We must recognize that time is the most precious asset that we have. You cannot lend some. You cannot give some. Any minute that is wasted is a lost opportunity. We keep balanced by managing our time.

Do you have any hobbies?

Certainly. I like to read a lot. I like to write and listen to classical music, and my wife and I both enjoy traveling. We also do community service—which makes a contribution, but is also personally rewarding and gives a sense of self-fulfillment.

What do you read regularly? What is your favorite book?

I don’t have a regular reading list. I can put what I read in categories. There’s reading on what is happening in education and technology as it impacts education, policies and world issues. I also have an interest in literature. I read a lot of classics. I don’t have a favorite book; I have many books that have been favorites. There’s a saying in Persian that “every flower has its own fragrance.” I think it’s hard to say that one book is one’s favorite because each book enriches us in its own special way. Some make a stronger impact on us than others.

What is your advice to the campus for keeping up with your pace?

All of us have the same capacity and pace. I don’t think it’s an issue of my pace. It is the pace we have to collectively maintain to be able to stay on par with the rest of the region, the state and the nation. Especially if we want to excel, we have to be able to move at the pace that will sustain our excellence. Part of what keeps us motivated to keep the pace is seeing the positive impact that we’re making.

What is the one thing the San Jose State community should know about you?

I’ll give you a comment that was made about me at my former campus: I say what I’m going to do and I do what I say.

What should the campus expect from the strategic planning process?

The strategic planning process is an opportunity for us to collectively determine our future. That’s why the questions at each of the 40 town hall meetings will be very general, without any preconceived direction of where the discussions will go. Getting input from everyone on campus is critical. I want everyone to participate and to share what goals, aspirations and dreams they have for the university. And I hope that our students, faculty and staff will think of audacious goals.

How will the budget impact the formulation and the implementation of the strategic plan?

The budget should not dampen our imagination and aspirations. To me, the budget is tactical. It gives an indication of how fast we can accomplish our goals. Budget ups and downs have always been a reality. Given the fact that state support has continuously dropped for the last 50 years, we should expect that it will drop further. We must look at other revenue streams, and find innovative ways to accomplish our goals. We can also be more efficient in how we accomplish our tasks.

What are your views on increasing research, scholarship and creative activity here at SJSU?

They are an important part of what universities do. It’s hard to separate those elements from the whole learning process. It’s that joy of discovery that makes universities the exciting places that they are. Learning and teaching are very much connected to the research and discovery. That’s why we should look at other ways to attract more resources—through philanthropic activities and research grant activity. We can also reduce our cost structure to give us more resources to put toward these activities.

Reduce our cost structure?

In other words: enhance our efficiencies. That does not mean reducing staff, but we can reduce costs by better utilization of technologies and fostering innovation. Can we improve the campus’s energy efficiency? That will mean cost savings. How can virtualize more of our IT system as a whole? That will be something that can reduce cost. These two are merely examples.  The key is  how can we use technology in ways that will enhance our efficiencies?

How do you intend to engage our students and show them that we’re putting their needs first?

I have already met with the Associated Students president and student leadership. We will have monthly meetings with the AS president and vice president, as well as the entire board. This will be a way to hear their issues.

We’ve heard that you reached out to 200 Silicon Valley CEOs on your first day as president. In your Fall Welcome Address, you talked about outgrowing old boundaries. Why is connecting with the community important for SJSU’s future?

We’re part of the community and we have to be part of the fabric of the community. Our future and the community’s future are very much intertwined. We need to see how we can support them. As we support them, the value that we bring will be a way to engage all the stakeholders of the university. Everybody wants to support entities that benefit them. Whether that’s public support through the legislative process for more resources, or engaging in philanthropic activity, both with individuals and with corporations, people would like to put their resources where they feel they make a difference. No organization can sustain itself in isolation. We are connected in a multitude of ways with the communities that we serve.

What is San Jose State’s potential?

San Jose State uses the phrase “powering Silicon Valley.” But powering Silicon Valley in the sense of building the human capital, which is the most valuable asset of the Valley. If you really reflect on the last 50 years and the collective impact that Silicon Valley has had on the quality of life all around the world, it’s tremendous. The breadth and depth of it is astounding. We need to recognize our role in that success. We need to use our distinguished past as we move forward because, as the saying goes, it’s only the best that want to get better.

Anything to add?

When we have audacious dreams, we have to have the discipline and the mental fortitude to execute them systematically. Having dreams is great. But if you do not implement them, they are just dreams. It becomes a vision when you take systematic steps to realize them in a very consistent way, with a set of measures, metrics, goals and benchmarks.

We are a large and complex institution. It’s natural that even with the best of intentions that we could have different areas that end up in their own silos—and unintentionally end up without proper alignment with the direction of the university. For us, the more we can align our efforts toward the betterment of the institution, toward the vision of the university, the more we can increase our effectiveness. Our degree of effectiveness will be something that increases our chance of attaining our goals. That’s why it is important for everyone to understand what the vision of the institution is and how the goals and roles that they have really affect the overall direction of the university.

Read more about President Qayoumi in a San Jose Mercury News story.