President Papazian’s November Blog

Thanksgiving—a uniquely American tradition—affords us the opportunity briefly to pause and reflect on the many things in our lives for which we are grateful.

I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to lead a venerated university, its remarkable students and dedicated faculty and staff members; for my own family and dear friends; and for an engaged, supportive regional community that is eager to see San Jose State fulfill its enormous potential.

This month’s blog reports on several strategic initiatives and celebrates the achievements and contributions of students, faculty and staff members, and friends of our university.

Remembering a life very well-lived

I want to begin with some words about the recent passing of Don Lucas ’57 Marketing, a dedicated Spartan for whom there simply are not adequate superlatives.

Don passed away on October 30 at age 83. A highly successful owner of retail automobile dealerships and the former chair and a long-time member of the Tower Foundation board of directors, Don and his wife Sally have been extraordinarily generous with their time and resources.

Their $10 million gift in 2006 put SJSU “on the map” from a philanthropic standpoint; at the time, it was the single largest private gift ever received by SJSU. In recognition, the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business bears their name.

In addition to supporting many SJSU academic and athletic programs, the Lucas’s also have generously supported other Silicon Valley causes, two of which bear their name: the Lucas Artist Residency Program and Lucas Fellows at Montalvo.

The true impact of their generosity simply is incalculable.

I have been grateful for the opportunity to get to know Don and Sally during my initial 17 months at SJSU. My personal impression—clearly shared by others—is that Don epitomized what it means to be a gentleman. Quiet, gracious—often unassuming—he neither sought credit nor attention, preferring to let his actions speak for themselves.

Most notably, Don saw himself in our students. Like so many others, he and Sally financially supported themselves during college through hard work; they launched their first car sales business out of an apartment garage. The Lucas Dealership Group eventually became one of America’s 25 largest automobile companies.

In a 2006 Washington Square magazine profile, Don and Sally each expressed gratitude for the role that their SJSU experiences played in their professional and personal lives. Both cast their choice to give so generously to SJSU out of a desire to spur others to help the university fulfill its potential. “All they need is support from alumni who care,” Don said. 

Don Lucas deeply cared for his alma mater. My heartfelt thoughts are with Sally, their two sons, extended family members and friends.

Honoring a retiring Spartan

Ed Mosher ’52 Drama, announced last month that he is closing the last of his venerable men’s clothing shops. Aptly called a “downtown institution” by Mercury News columnist Sal Pizarro, Ed opened his first store in 1955. He subsequently added several more stores throughout the south Bay, bringing what he called an “East Coast style” to San Jose and Silicon Valley for 62 years.

This milestone deserves note for several reasons. Ed Mosher is a Spartan through and through; for decades, he has been a staunch supporter of SJSU arts and athletic programs. He has for decades been a major presence in our downtown. And, during National Veterans and Military Families Month, it especially is fitting to thank Ed for his post-college service as a United States Marine.

I congratulate Ed on an exemplary career and look forward to his continued involvement with SJSU.

Redefining student success

Over the last several years, considerable time and attention has been devoted to studying and addressing chronic issues that have compromised students’ ability to complete their degrees in a timely fashion.

The importance and benefits of shortening the time to a degree cannot be overstated. Students incur less debt and move more quickly to the next step in their lives; employers have access to a larger supply of talented, career-ready graduates; colleges and universities have greater capacity to admit the next wave of prospective students.

SJSU convenes legislative dialogue

Policymakers deservedly are giving these issues heightened attention. SJSU on November 1 hosted a hearing of the State Assembly’s Select Committee on California’s Higher Education Master Plan. The committee heard insights from experts on the importance of ensuring a steady supply of talented graduates to meet future workforce needs.

We were privileged to serve as hosts to this important dialogue; I was invited to offer introductory remarks to the committee.

Immediate action steps taken

In attempting to remediate obstacles to student achievement, there have been four areas of short-term focus, all requiring immediate attention: the readiness of incoming students to handle the rigors of college; the level of advising support available to help students navigate course selection and other choices; our ability to keep students engaged and at less risk of leaving without their degrees; and the prevalence of so-called “bottleneck” courses in which demand exceeds enrollment capacity.

These factors and proposed solutions ultimately were embodied in a plan that has been implemented by leaders and staff in student affairs and academic affairs. There has been considerable progress across several priority areas; in advising alone, we have added 20 professional staff and launched an online application helping students navigate their paths toward graduation.

More to do

I am grateful for all that many of you have done in support of this immensely important endeavor.  The work has laid a foundation for all that we must do going forward. Much work remains if we are to meet or exceed all of the CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025 goals. And while we have made progress, our four and six-year graduation rates continue to lag behind the goals we have set for ourselves.

EAB collaboration

Toward this end, I am pleased to report that San Jose State has joined forces with EAB’s (Education Advisory Board) Student Success Collaborative, a consortium of more than 1,000 like-minded colleges and universities—including several of our CSU peers—collaboratively working to develop student success best practices.

Among other things, EAB provides predictive analytics tools and easy-to-understand graphics that both will help us better understand the needs of our students while also helping faculty, staff advisors and others connect students to resources that best meet their unique needs.

This EAB initiative truly is a collaboration; we have meaningful insights of our own to share with other institutions, and there is much we can learn from them. Our EAB partnership and related student success efforts will be guided by AVP for Student and Faculty Success Stacy Gleixner and AVP for Transition and Retention Services Debra Griffith.

Elevating our sights

In the meantime, we also must elevate our sights and transition from operational tactics toward reimagining how we define and support student success. The answers, I am confident, lie in more than statistical measures.

There are many areas and opportunities to explore, including an integrated first-year student experience combining classroom instruction and co-curricular programming; greater focus on student health and wellness; meta-majors, combining practical disciplines and critical thinking skills imbued by the liberal arts; and the increasingly important role of specialized resource centers in ensuring that our highest-risk students are fully equipped to succeed.

Ensuring that every student is prepared for success in work and in life demands that we explore all of these ideas, and others. This is a vital conversation that must involve our entire campus community, and we have an opportunity to ensure broad engagement within the framework of our strategic planning initiative. This work further will be enhanced by soliciting and listening to input from our workforce partners and other community leaders.

I look forward to your participation!

WASC Special Visit Team

Our campus in September hosted a Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) Special Visit Team as a follow up to our 2015 re-accreditation.

I am happy to share their summary report, which highlights the strides we have taken to reaffirm our commitment to shared governance; attain stability in leadership; and ensure that we meaningfully honor and support the goals of inclusivity, equity and diversity in pursuit of a healthier campus climate.  The report also notes isolated areas for continued focus, which especially can inform and enrich our strategic planning process.

The report affirms that many who met with the visiting team—students, staff, faculty and administrators—expressed optimism and enthusiasm in the wake of enhanced internal communication and increased transparency over the last two years.

The visiting team especially was impressed with progress made in fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion, including our investment in an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and appointment of a cabinet-level chief diversity officer, and establishing African American/Black and Chicanx/Latinx student success centers, UndocuSpartan and related student resources and services.

The summary report notes several areas for continued focus: improving communication with staff; attending to workplace quality-of-life issues; and investing in additional advising resources for students (a key area of progress we have made in student success efforts).

I want to acknowledge the work of our Accreditation Review Committee and its chair, AVP of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs Thalia Anagnos, for guiding this process to a positive outcome in which we all can take pride.

Commencement: ensuring it is all it should be

If we truly are committed to nurturing “student success” as a holistic experience that begins with admission to SJSU and culminates in the conferral of a degree, then the commencement experience deserves the same thoughtful analysis and attention that we are devoting to other steps along each student’s journey.

No perfect model

Colleges and universities approach commencement in different ways, ranging from single large-scale ceremonies in arenas or stadiums to multiple events over several days organized by college or discipline.

SJSU for many years has held its official commencement—the only ceremony at which degrees officially are conferred—in our football stadium on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. It has been preceded by dozens of smaller events sponsored by colleges, departments or affinity groups.

Campus insights: can we do better?

Based on preliminary conversations with students, faculty and staff members and a review of last spring’s commencement, it seemed timely thoughtfully to review our current commencement programming.

From that review, several key insights have emerged:

  • Many students and others confuse unofficial celebrations (some of which are called convocations) with our official commencement.
  • The official stadium commencement attracts a small percentage of eligible participants (fewer than 25 percent last May). Scheduling the ceremony over Memorial Day weekend likely is partly to blame; its lack of intimacy also may be a consideration. But it also appears that some students who attend smaller celebratory ceremonies skip commencement because they incorrectly believe that they already have “graduated.”
  • Many of the college, department and affinity ceremonies are scheduled close to or during final exams—a clear and problematic distraction for many students and faculty members.
  • These smaller events vary significantly in scope—some are more elaborate than others; some charge special fees to students while others do not—resulting in an inequitable experience for graduates that wholly is contrary to SJSU’s values of inclusion, equity and access.

I realize that contemplating changes to long-standing traditions is hard—especially when it involves important events that have followed a fairly fixed pattern for many years.

Yet the inherent importance of this moment in our student’s lives makes it imperative that we strive properly and equitably to honor every graduate, officially confer their degrees, and ensure that they receive appropriate personal recognition.

Other intervening factors necessitate a new approach

 Meeting all of these goals and ensuring that the commencement experience is meaningful for all concerned is a tall order. It initially was our intent to consider only modest adjustments in 2018 while continuing to imagine more substantive changes in future years.

However, accelerated progress on renovations to our South Campus facilities have forced our hand, rendering it unrealistic to use CEFCU stadium next spring.

Ongoing dialogue with students, staff, and members of our academic community—including thoughtful conversations with deans and Senate executive committee members—helped us reach general consensus on a model to test in 2018:

New framework

  • This framework involves staging several college-based commencement ceremonies over two days (Thursday, May 24 and Friday, May 25) at Avaya Stadium and the SJSU Events Center. Colleges would join together where appropriate to balance the number of graduates and guests at each ceremony.
  • Every graduate would be individually recognized and personally congratulated on the platform by the President, Provost and appropriate Dean.
  • Individual departments and affinity groups would continue to be empowered to organize their own informal celebratory events after the official University commencement ceremonies.
  • We will discuss next spring adding a winter commencement ceremony in December 2018, thereby enabling mid-year graduates similarly to be honored upon completing all degree requirements.

Potential benefits

This approach promises to enhance the commencement experience in several respects:

  • Every graduate would be personally recognized.
  • Graduate students would enjoy a better, more personalized hooding experience.
  • Every graduate would enjoy an equitable experience with event costs absorbed by the university. (Individual celebratory events would continue to be funded by colleges, departments and affinity groups as they have in the past.)
  • The formality of university commencement would be preserved and enhanced; departmental and affinity celebrations would continue at the discretion of individual organizers.

More dialogue, details to come

As I have noted, the prospect of change brings questions and prompts understandable uncertainty. I intend in coming days to continue to solicit and listen carefully to input from campus stakeholders.

I also know that additional details for next spring soon must be finalized so that students, families and others can make personal plans. Those details will be forthcoming soon.

By placing student’s interests and needs first, I am confident that we will create a memorable, meaningful commencement experience that honors our most cherished traditions.

Spartan Athletics

As fall sports unwind, winter programs are heating up. Men’s basketball will be on the road for much of the holiday season; I hope you will get to the Events Center to see first-year head coach Jean Prioleau’s squad during one of their few upcoming home contests. Meantime, women’s hoops will be home for several games during late November and December. Other highlights:

  • Three members of our women’s swimming and diving team already are qualified for the 2018 NCAA Zone Championships. Congratulations!
  • Several sports teams deserve mention. I want to extend one more “kudo” to our women’s soccer team for winning the Mountain West Conference regular-season championship. Men’s soccer deserves congratulations for reaching the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship match by defeating twelfth-ranked Air Force. Meanwhile, men’s water polo entered its conference tournament ranked eleventh in the country, and women’s volleyball is wrapping up its best regular season since 2006. And women’s cross country placed an all-time best eighth in a 35-team field at the NCAA Regional Championships.

Congratulations to all of our student-athletes and coaches for such stellar competitive efforts!

Finally, we officially will dedicate our new tennis complex, the latest phase in a comprehensive renovation of our South Campus, on December 1. I look forward to participating in the ribbon-cutting for this beautiful facility.

Quick takes

Campus Safety

An array of tools is being installed to enhance campus safety and aid efforts by campus police to detect and respond to security threats that may arise. This includes a network of remote cameras in parking garages and other locations that have the capability to detect and pinpoint the location of gunshots. Although we hope never to have to take advantage of this feature, it will help university police more swiftly respond, as needed, if a shooting incident does occur.

Environmental Leadership

SJSU instructors Bettina Brockmann, Costanza Rampini and Tasha Reddy, who collaboratively teach a Global Climate Change course, recently arranged for their students to view An Inconvenient Sequel, a follow up documentary to the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth.

During a post-screening live webcast, SJSU student Akash Patel engaged in a brief 1:1 dialogue with former Vice President Al Gore.

Tower endowment tops $150 million

A healthy, growing endowment is essential to making our institutional aspirations and dreams a reality. I am proud to report that the endowment maintained by our Tower Foundation has, for the first time, topped $150 million. Endowment growth will be an important component of SJSU’s next comprehensive campaign.  Kudos to VP for University Advancement and Tower CEO Paul Lanning and his team for hitting this threshold!

Academic excellence recognized

Professor of Computer Science Cay Horstmann has been named by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) as one of a small group of Pioneering Innovators… Advancing the Digital Age.” Professor Horstmann was among five society members recognized for educational contributions to computing. Congratulations!

Spartan Shops board approves issuing RFP

The Spartan Shops Board of Directors last week unanimously approved a resolution to establish a dining master plan aligned with our institutional mission.
The resolution authorizes the board to issue a request for proposals (RFP) from outside entities to oversee food services at campus eateries, and to provide a performance improvement plan for our existing vendor with input from various campus stakeholders.

This performance improvement plan will be presented to the Spartan Shops board at its next scheduled meeting on December 8.

“Tide turning”

A recent article posted on San Jose Metro’s website lauded two recent programs sponsored by SJSU’s Center for Literary Arts—visits by Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, and William Finnegan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

This particularly observation from writer Gary Singh caught my eye:

“…it was great to see literature taking its rightful place in conversations about how the university needs to better connect with the local landscape… I departed the Nguyen gig thinking that SJSU was finally on a path toward becoming an urban university.” 

This is further affirmation that we are on the way to becoming a fully engaged urban public university touching all aspects of life in our city and valley. I am grateful for all that you are doing to help fulfill this vision.

Happy Thanksgiving!