Mohammad Qayoumi is new president of San José State University
Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News on March 23, 2011.
By Lisa M. Krieger
Three times a week as a youngster, Mohammed Qayoumi walked several miles across a rural suburb of Kabul Afghanistan just to learn English. Now, four decades later, the son of a carpenter, whose mother never learned to read or write, has been selected as the new president of San Jose State University
On Wednesday the California State University board of trustees introduced the financial expert and engineer who gained a reputation during his presidency of CSU-East Bay in Hayward for his cost-cutting, global perspective and shifting the school’s academic emphasis to the sciences, engineering and math. He holds four engineering degrees and an MBA.
That portfolio could serve him well at a culturally diverse campus that cherishes technology — yet faces significant budget reductions due to CSU’s projected $500 million shortfall. The San Jose-based school of 30,000 students is the number one supplier of engineering, education, computer science and business graduates in Silicon Valley.
“San Jose State University has always had a strong tradition of excellence, and has played a vital role building the human capital of the region. It has a great community. All of these will make it thrive even further, despite the financial challenges,” said the 59-year-old Qayoumi, who graduated from college in Beirut, Lebanon, just as it erupted into civil war. He came to the United States, supported by a modest scholarship, and worked his way through graduate school, eventually earning a PhD in electrical engineering.
His appointment represents a return to SJSU for Qayoumi, who between 1986 and 1995 served as SJSU’s vice president for administration. He ran the operational side of the campus, from staff training and energy sustainability, to the closing of San Carlos Street. He also oversaw development of a Master Plan for the physical design of the campus while working for Kassing, who was said to favor his appointment.
Qayoumi’s 26-year-long commitment to CSU is seen as a major asset for a university that has experienced great turnover in the president’s office, with four leaders in eight years.
At CSU East Bay, “He is generally held as a transparent leader — he lets the faculty know what is on his mind and where the money is going or not going,”said statistics professor Mitchell Watnik.
With an MBA and world-world engineering experience, “his background is in finance,” added Watnik. “Most of the time, university presidents come through the academic side. He’s never been a provost, for example. The perception is that he is a ‘bottom-line’ guy, interested in the budget. He’s been able to balance the budget here, unlike his predecessors.”
While at CSU East Bay, he not only improved financial stability and transparency but also increased the number of tenure-track faculty, enhanced physical facilities and adopted a new long-range academic with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
Walking to English lessons
Qayoumi, (pronounced kigh-YO-me) grew up in a rural suburb of Kabul, Afghanistan, the eldest of six children. His parents valued education, seeing as a way to break class barriers. So he learned English as a child and his skills solidified in high school, where he studied technical coursework at a U.S.-funded campus. And his neighborhood turned prosperous as foreigners and diplomatic families moved in, offering him exposure to many different cultures.
He earned a degree in electrical engineering from American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, where he said he experienced first hand the power of higher education to transform a person’s fate. It was there he met his future wife, Najia Karim, a fellow Afghan student.
Civil war erupted during their graduation year, and they listened to the radio each morning to learn which roads were free of sniper attacks.
“It had a deep impact on me how a nice comfortable calm and serene area turn into a major site of carnage. So quickly things can change in one’s life,” he once said. “The thinness of that veneer of calm and serenity that we live in can be so fragile. Many times we don’t appreciate, as fully as we should, that the balance of a situation can be so delicate.”
During the oil boom of the mid-1970s, he worked on engineering projects in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At the age of 25, he supervised crews of 50-100 people, from a dozen countries, speaking many languages.
Working Through Grad School
Then a scholarship offer from the University of Cincinnati brought him to the United States.
Like many CSU students, he worked and studied full time — while also teaching.
“My advice is to set audacious goals. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’ And after you set those goals, work systematically to achieve them — recognizing that you’ll have setbacks and disappointments.”
On an urban campus with a substantial number of working students he added: “Recognize that there is not one particular road to get to where you’re going. But you need mental fortitude…and passion. And time management is critical. It’s the most precious asset we have.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, when traveling in Europe, Qayoumi was sometimes set aside for additional searching and questioning, “but I did not feel it was intrusive or extraordinary,” he said. A bigger disappointment, he said, was the “short-lived” interest in learning about Islam, “a culture that constitutes more than one-fifth the world’s population.”
Upon arriving in the Bay Area with its strong Afghan community, “I felt like I was coming home.” His father is buried in a Hayward cemetery and many members of his wife’s family live nearby.
At CSU East Bay, “In these budget times, he has put the ax down on quite a few things, even in academics,” said Watnik. “Some faculty members don’t like the ways he has chopped — reducing lecturers on non-tenure track faculty in departments that were reliant on them, which hit pretty hard” he said. But in other departments, “he made a concerted effort to increase tenured faculty.”
“He also pushed this idea of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. A lot of folks in the liberal arts or social science disciplines felt alienated by that.”
Arrives in early July
He came to Cal State East Bay from Cal State Northridge, where he served as vice president for administration and finance and chief financial officer from 2000 until 2006, and was also a tenured professor of engineering management. Previously, Qayoumi served as vice chancellor for administration at SJSU.
A tenured professor of engineering at CSU-East Bay, he has published eight books and more than 85 articles. In addition to a B.S. in electrical engineering, he holds a Master of Science in nuclear engineering, a Master of Science in electrical and computer engineering, and MBA, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering
Qayoumi will assume the San José presidency in early July, and succeeds interim President Kassing who retired in 2008, and returned last September to serve in an interim capacity until a new president is selected. The Board of Trustees will set Qayoumi’s compensation during its May board meeting.
“Dr. Qayoumi’s proven leadership abilities, commitment to students and administrative experience will be a tremendous asset to the campus and the community,” said CSU Trustee Debra Farar, chair of the presidential search committee. “His energy, innovation, progressive vision and ability to connect with students provide a strong foundation to lead San José State moving forward.”
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at (408) 920-5565.
Born: Kabul, Afghanistan, the eldest son of a carpenter.
Education: B.S. in electrical engineering, American University of Beirut, and four degrees from the University of Cincinnati: a Master of Science in nuclear engineering, a Master of Science in electrical and computer engineering, and MBA, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
Wife: Najia Karim, Persian poet and clinical dietician at Eden Medical Center.
Languages: English, Persian Dari, Pashto, Arabic, with some Italian, German and French.
Hobbies: Travel, reading philosophy and religion and listening to classical music. While he favors Stravinsky, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, “there a Persian saying,” he added, “that every flower has its own fragrance.”