Imagine the Possibilities

An interview with SJSU President Mary Papazian

By Jody Ulate

In the months since Mary Papazian joined San Jose State as its 30th president in July, she has been listening, learning and engaging. A scholar of English literature, and especially John Donne, who penned the famous lines “No man is an island,” Papazian’s people-focused approach is about building a strong community.

Her vision for San Jose State is to “make our presence known” regionally and beyond. She is helping the university understand that—as long as alumni, students, faculty and staff members and university friends work together—anything is possible.

Photo: Tom Sanders, '14 MFA Photography

Photo: Tom Sanders, ’14 MFA Photography

Why English literature?

My mom introduced me to English literature. It was what she loved, and she shared her passion with me. She and I both attended UCLA. I love to read. I love stories. But I didn’t know I’d make a career of it. I thought I might go to law school or into journalism. I even thought I might go into politics. Then I took a John Milton class in my senior year in college. While I thought it would be challenging, I wasn’t prepared for how transformative the experience was. I remember thinking: torts or Paradise Lost? For me, the answer was simple. At that moment, I took all of my applications for law school and threw them away and applied to graduate school in English instead. It is a decision I have never regretted.

You’ve studied great poets, including Donne and Milton. Do you write poetry?

Maybe when I was small, when I was a kid, I did a little of it. But I’ve never been driven to write poetry. My younger daughter, Marie, is a very good creative writer and she’s doing a capstone that’s a series of short stories in her senior year of high school. My mom wrote some poetry, but I was always too intimidated to do that. I’m in awe of people who can write.

How has being a scholar of literature helped in your career?

I’ll use the example of Sir Philip Sidney. Written in the 16th century, Sidney’s Defense of Poesy compares imaginative literature—in prose or verse—with philosophy and history, and he says that imaginative literature is most important. Through the stories of imagined characters, you can understand others’ points of view and see the world from a multitude of perspectives. Each person has her or his own personality and set of expectations. I think my experience as a student of literature has enabled me to understand people for who they are rather than who I might want them to be.

Of course, as a student, I was asked, “What are you going to do with an English degree?” I like to say “anything.”

What are your guideposts as a leader?

You have to go to bed every night and know that you did the right thing during the day. On the frontispiece of John Donne’s 80 Sermons, there’s an inscription from the Gospel According to Matthew, to which I often refer: “Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

We in public higher education have an important mission that is at the core of our values as a democracy. That mission is about students, opportunity and ensuring that our values are lived. It’s about social justice. Our decisions have to be guided by those values, by what is right, by a strong moral compass. That’s being “innocent as doves.”

When you read Renaissance literature, you often encounter a theological framework. And so, I am well versed in talking about the world after fall, a world of corruption. What is Milton’s Paradise Lost about after all? The great symbol of the fall, in Milton’s words, is Satan in the guise of the serpent. You have to “be as wise as serpents,” to understand the complexities of human nature and a political environment that is part of the world in which we live—so that you can make the right decision.

How would you describe SJSU’s potential?

My vision is that San Jose State becomes a—even the—preeminent metropolitan university.

San Jose State has contributed enormously—through alumni around the world, but especially in this region—to its community and to the advancement of our core values in our democracy. We have great resources in our alumni base and among our faculty, staff and students. We need to be putting those resources to the purpose of making a difference in our society. My vision is that San Jose State becomes a—even the—preeminent metropolitan university. To achieve this aspirational goal, we must see ourselves as an integral part of the fabric of a community that not only creates opportunity—because we know the impact of education on the quality of life of our graduates—but also that creates the transformative change in the areas of diversity and social justice.

How do we do that? By creating mentorship opportunities, by building public-private partnerships that foster innovation, by ensuring that the pathways are open to students from all communities, and by closing the achievement gap. All of these are ways that we can become a model. Everyone knows public higher education is important, but people don’t always see it lived in those ways. That’s the challenge, but also the possibility of San Jose State.

Illustration: Shannon Belardi, '15 BFA Art/Pictorial Arts

Illustration: Shannon Belardi, ’15 BFA Art/Pictorial Arts


I didn’t plan it. I loved my job serving as president of Southern Connecticut State University, which is a gem of a university with its own rich history. But when a colleague called me to tell me that San Jose State was searching for a new president, I was intrigued by the position and by the opportunity to return home to California, to an institution with a remarkable history, located in the region that is imagining the future. The more I learned, the more excited I became.

When I came for my first interview with the campus advisory committee, I was impressed with the clear commitment and affection of everyone around the table—alumni, students, faculty, staff and community members. You want people who have a bit of a sense of humor, who like each other. I really got a good feeling.

And, as I said, San Jose State is in the heart of the Silicon Valley, the heart of building the future. It has an extraordinary alumni base that has been the foundation of this entire region in all areas of community life, not just technology and engineering—but from education to healthcare to government and everything in between. Plus, it’s a major university. It has challenges, but I feel like I’ve been through a dry run of a lot of the challenges I see here at a smaller place, where I had a chance to learn about what was going to work.

It didn’t hurt that SJSU is in California, so I could move back close to home. Just about my whole family is here.

What do your Armenian roots mean to you?

You have to go to bed every night and know that you did the right thing during the day.

People don’t realize that my Armenian tradition is profound for me. As they come to know me, they’ll see more and more how that animates what I care about and, in many ways, defines who I am. It’s very much a part of my identity. I’ve been—in a loving way—remarked on as being an incurable optimist. My optimism comes from knowing that 100 years ago the Armenian people were refugees, nearly wiped out in the Armenian genocide. It’s a story of survival and triumph. My grandparents on my father’s side were survivors. My mother’s side of the family came to the United States after the massacres in the 1890s. When you’ve survived such tribulations and have thrived in many ways, you have to be optimistic because you’ve seen the darkest of things. I didn’t go through it myself but growing up in the shadow of this kind of loss gives you a real sensitivity to the struggles of others.

My husband, Dennis, and I were both active in the Armenian community when we met. Dennis was one of the significant community leaders nationally and became known as one of the founders Armenian Assembly, a public advocacy group based in Washington for Armenian issues. He is now an emeritus professor of history at University of Michigan, Dearborn, where he taught and studied Russian and eastern European history for many years. We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this past September.

Are your daughters more like you or your husband?

People say that our older daughter, Ani, is more like me, but she’s a scientist. In that regard, she’s nothing like me. But she is very social, organized and responsible. She’s a manager of a lab at Massachusetts General Hospital right now, with plans to apply to medical school next year. The little one, people say, is more like Dennis. Marie really does have his kind of energy, his sense of humor. She’s a little more impish. She’s incredibly creative. She likes political science and history like her father, but she also likes art, literature and writing. The truth of the matter is that they’re each themselves. They’re each their own personalities. We are incredibly proud of both of them.

Illustration: Shannon Belardi, '15 BFA Art/Pictorial Arts

Illustration: Shannon Belardi, ’15 BFA Art/Pictorial Arts

What would you want alumni to know about your commitment to SJSU?

My family comes from a community of roots and it’s really important to make sure those roots are strong. My kids have grown up in different places, but the Armenian community has always given them a sense of rootedness and connection. We are at a point in our lives when it’s important to have those roots—for them and for us. To be able to do it in an environment with such possibilities and with a community that so resonates with our values is a privilege. Yes, I’m keeping quiet the fact that I grew up a fan of the Lakers, Dodgers and Bruins. That’s probably never going to go away, but knowing that San Jose State was the institution that spawned UCLA by way of the University of California is something I can really celebrate. That’s a wonderful blue and gold connection.

What specifically do you want alumni to do?

First of all, I want them to connect with us. Give us their email address, read our wonderful Washington Square magazine and say, “How can I help?” I’m not even talking money here. We have students who need mentoring because they don’t have a natural network of professionals. We need alumni to help students aspire because when they see what alumni have accomplished, then they believe they can accomplish it, too.

There is no other public university in the country that can claim to be in the heart of the innovative space that is creating the future. That’s a gift to SJSU. And we have to respect the gift we’ve been given through our history and our potential. We need alumni to help us think about how we can enrich communities where Spartans work and live—to move beyond what’s practical toward what’s possible. We have to aspire to excellence and work together to make our collective dreams come true.

Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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