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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

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SDSU President Elliot Hirshman speaks with students. (Photo: Jeneene Chatowsky) SDSU President Elliot Hirshman speaks with students. (Photo: Jeneene Chatowsky)

An Incredible Complexity

Elliot Hirshman's last day as president of SDSU is June 30. Before leaving he sat down for an interview with 360 magazine and reflected on his six-year tenure.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

This story appears in the summer 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

Do you recall the goals you had when you arrived and how they evolved over time?

My goal was to build on the momentum that President Emeritus Stephen Weber and his team had established and then to understand what would be the next steps in moving forward. The [early] budget challenges dramatically overshadowed those good intentions, however, and led to the planning process for our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.” During this process, we had significant discussion on how, in a moment of financial challenge, we could continue to improve the university and evolve our concept of excellence.

Summer 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Summer 2017 Cover of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
I think over the last six years there has been a broadening and an evolution of the notion of excellence on the campus. Some of that reflects the programmatic developments in research, creative and performing arts, academic support, financial support and social engagement.

In the creative arts, for example, the campus has always been focused on excellence, but maybe not on integrating the artistic excellence of our faculty, staff and students into the daily experience of students. It’s a slight change in thinking—an immersive model that touches more people.

When we talk about areas of research excellence, we understand there is individual excellence in each faculty member who is carrying out research, but there is a change when you see seven faculty members come together to make an impact in an area of societal need.

Was there a moment when you realized that “Building on Excellence” had been successful?

Yes, that moment was the approval of the Student Success Fee. As we came out of a most challenging budget period, the university was in a box. It was imperative that we add more full-time faculty because they play core roles, not just in the academic program, but also across the university. Adding full-time faculty is very expensive, so we asked: How do we find the resources to support that and still be able to pursue all the other issues, challenges and programs that are necessary to be successful?

The Student Success Fee created the dedicated source to contribute to the renewal of our faculty. We’ve been able to hire about 240 new tenure-track faculty, and we project even more hiring in the coming year. Secondly, the Student Success Fee provided the opportunity to fund co-curricular academic programs, including guest speakers and academic conferences that students have organized on our campus in addition to attendance at academic conferences in other cities. These are experiences that create a broadening of ideas. Approving the Student Success Fee was a difficult process, but I do feel very deeply that it provided the resources necessary to help us move forward.

What are some of the most consequential changes at SDSU over the last six years?

Programmatic changes have been significant, as I mentioned. Secondly, the look of the campus has changed with significant renovation and new construction, such as the Zura Hall renovation; the Jeff Jacobs JAM Center construction; and on the academic side, the Page Pavilion and other renovation in the Fowler College of Business. The mixed-use development at South Campus Plaza is a different approach to student housing and the Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex, which is nearly completed, will advance our research.

Other areas of growth give students significant opportunities, such as undergraduate research and internships. These are indicative of a model in which the university is trying—with diligence and dedication—to help students not just earn academic degrees, but also prepare for their roles in what is a challenging and changing society.

Certainly one of the most exciting developments has been seeing the impact of The Campaign for SDSU and how it has engaged people, bringing them closer to the university. I think that will continue well beyond my tenure here in that people have formed bonds and renewed their bonds with the university through financial support, their engagement in the life of the university and their participation and attendance at events.

This kind of support from our alumni and community members is going to continue to be critical as the university moves forward. Also further growth and development of the planned giving program will continue to engage people and build our endowment for years to come. We really have built a culture of philanthropy here with great stewardship and gifts that have impact. I have always been very impressed with student philanthropy on our campus. The students themselves have created an endowment to support scholarships for their peers.

What have you learned about San Diego State University and about San Diego?

I had an inkling, but I think I’ve learned in a deeper way just how complex a university is. There are so many different facets, subcultures and perspectives across the divisions and departments and also different business models. There is an incredible complexity to the size and breadth of San Diego State. Experiencing that was very enriching.

I had not spent a lot of time in San Diego before coming here. I learned some things about the complexity of the border region and the vibrancy and confluence of different cultures in a border region. I learned about how a town can be pretty large and still friendly and, in some ways, still small. San Diego is a very interconnected town in a way that many big cities are not, and it has aspirations to continue to make progress and move forward, aspirations that San Diego State embodies.

I will miss the people of San Diego. My wife, Jeri, and I had rich experiences getting to know people very well. Many are great supporters of the university, but they also became personal friends.

Do you have any advice for the next SDSU president?

Always keep in mind that this is a very, very large place. Always understand that because it’s so large, there will be good and bad things happening at the same time. When good things happen, try to find ways to shine a spotlight on them so that in a very complex environment, people can become aware of them. And when bad things happen, try to understand them in the context of the massive size of the institution.

If I could leave a last will and testament to the next president, I would leave stable budgets, good relations with the University Senate, winning athletics teams, good relations with the unions and the opportunity to help the university continue on a positive trajectory.