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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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Elliot Hirshman, Ph.D., SDSU's eighth president, gets acquainted with students in the Educational Opportunity Program. Elliot Hirshman, Ph.D., SDSU's eighth president, gets acquainted with students in the Educational Opportunity Program.

Conversations with the President

Elliot Hirshman, Ph.D., takes the ball for San Diego State University.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

Elliot Hirshman, Ph.D., the eighth president of San Diego State, has been preparing to lead a university for most of his adult life.

Not that he harbored that particular ambition in 1989, when he joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as assistant professor of psychology. But over the years, a series of mentors encouraged him to aspire to administrative roles in academia.

“Through working with many different mentors, I saw the kind of impact a university leader could have,” Hirshman said during an interview shortly after taking the reins at SDSU.

“Some of them showed me how a leader could work with people to craft a strategy for advancing the university. From others, I learned how leaders create a vision to inspire a community. This mentoring, plus the fact that I had some success in leadership positions, tended to move me toward becoming a university president.”

A scientific puzzle

Hirshman’s path to the corner office in Manchester Hall took him through public and private institutions. From UNC Chapel Hill, he became chair of the psychology department at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Two years later, he took on a similar role at George Washington University and rose to Chief Research Officer there. His previous position before SDSU was provost and senior vice president at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Early in his career, Hirshman participated in a year-long fellowship with the American Council on Education, the nation’s premier development program in higher education.

He was assigned to the Office of the President at Arizona State University and participated in high level planning related to budgeting, strategic planning, enrollment management and fundraising.

“I’ve always been interested in large complex systems,” Hirshman explained. “As an undergraduate at Yale, I studied how economies come to equilibrium. As a cognitive psychologist, I have studied the brain. Universities are also large complex systems. We can’t always predict how something that happens in one part will affect the entire system. It’s an interesting scientific puzzle.”

Collective decision-making

The breadth of Hirshman’s experience clearly impressed the selection committee that chose him from a national pool of candidates to succeed Stephen L. Weber at SDSU.

Their choice did not surprise Bernadette Gray-Little, University of Kansas chancellor, who chaired the psychology department at UNC during Hirshman’s time there.

“He is thoughtful and organized, and he knows how to get things done,” she said. “Even then Elliot understood the importance of bringing others in to the decision-making process.  The maturity of his approach to departmental organization was unusual for someone so young. I have long expected he would become a university president.”

Recognized researcher

Hirshman has been as successful in his research endeavors as in his administrative roles, according to Neil Mulligan, whose first year as a UNC graduate student coincided with Hirshman’s first year as assistant professor.

Currently director of cognitive psychology at UNC, Mulligan described his mentor as an internationally recognized scholar who has published in the most prestigious journals in the field. Their work together involved computational and mathematical modeling of the cognitive processes through which the mind stores and retrieves memory.

“Elliot is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Mulligan said. “He is even-keeled but highly driven when working on a project. As a mentor, he allowed his students to struggle with certain problems because he was guiding them to develop their own research ideas. The guidance emerged naturally from the questions he asked and the advice he provided.”

The family business

Elliot Hirshman grew up in a modest middle class neighborhood in suburban New Jersey. He likes to say he went into the family business—his father held management positions with the offices of the registrar and financial aid at Rutgers University. His mother was a medical technologist.

New York City attorney Michele Hirshman, the president’s sister, recalled that sports was a frequent topic of conversation around the dinner table.

“Both Elliot and our brother, Ken, played football, and Elliot was a quarterback,” she said. “Our parents always attended their games to cheer them on.

“The three of us were expected to work hard at school, but our parents emphasized doing good above doing well (academically). Their articulated position—their philosophy of life—was to leave the world a better place. And that is Elliot’s philosophy. He has this very special ability to look at the external situation and see opportunities. He sees what people share rather than what keeps them apart.”

Hirshman acknowledges the fundamental influence of family support in his life.

“The most important thing to know about me as a person,” he said, “is that I come from a very strong and supportive family. It is the key to understanding me. My wife and I have tried to recreate that approach with our children.”

A time of change

Hirshman and his wife, Jeri, come to SDSU at a time of change in their personal lives. Both children are now college students—their daughter a junior at Muhlenberg College, a private institution in Pennsylvania; and their son a freshman at the University of Virginia.

“Learning has always been an important part of their lives,” Mrs. Hirshman said. “Our emphasis was not on the grade, but on doing your best. It’s fortunate that we didn’t have to push our children. They were always motivated to please their father.”

She recalled the family’s time in Tempe, when Hirshman was working at Arizona State University and enrolled in Toastmasters, a non-profit organization that improves public speaking skills.

He created a game that involved lobbing questions at his children as they stood on their beds, hairbrush “microphones” in hand. Both have grown to be poised public speakers, Mrs. Hirshman said.

Now that his children are college students, Hirshman takes a different approach to parenting—one that reflects his unique situation as father and university president.

“I want my children to make the most of their time at university, and that means making the least of my presence,” he said. “When you’re a provost or a president trying to counsel your children about higher education, your words may be weighted in ways that don’t reflect the average parent’s perspective.  I encourage my kids to find their own compass, their own approach.”

Every student should flourish

Creating stability and support in the larger academic framework is one of Hirshman’s goals as SDSU president. While San Diego State’s size, scope and impact are “tremendous advantages,” people also need to find affiliations within smaller groups on campus, he said.

“Throughout my professional life,” Hirshman noted, “I have tried to bring together groups of people who support each other and focus on important goals, but are also moving toward very specific accomplishments. SDSU has done this very well, and I am interested in building on it.”

Inclusive excellence is another goal Hirshman has discussed in early meetings with faculty, staff and the San Diego community. He defines it as “the core idea” that all students, regardless of background, can and should achieve excellence.

“I recognize that SDSU is an extraordinarily diverse community. My goal is that every student who comes here should flourish, should see the university as a supportive home for personal, professional and intellectual development.”