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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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Sally F. Roush Sally F. Roush

SDSU President Emerita Sally Roush, 1947-2022

Roush returned in 2017 to lead the university as interim president after more than 30 years as a senior administrator.
By Jeff Ristine

Sally Roush, who helped to fashion a sweeping expansion of San Diego State University now underway in Mission Valley during a year as interim president, has died.

With its looks both to the past and future, Roush’s term as interim president was an unexpected capstone to a career that carried a significant impact on the university’s growth and policies. During her one-year appointment as the university’s first female chief executive, Roush also introduced a more culturally sensitive representation of the university’s historic Aztec identity.

Proudly calling herself “an Aztec for life,” she served in senior administrative positions at SDSU for more than 30 years under three previous presidents and co-chaired an influential strategic planning committee.

Roush died of cancer early Friday under hospice care, her family announced. She was 75.

In honor of Roush, The Sally Roush Endowed Scholarship for Guardian Scholars has been established. The scholarships will support former foster youth, wards of the court and homeless individuals, a cause selected by Roush herself.

“Sally Roush was truly one of SDSU's visionary leaders who always led with deep compassion, courage, and wisdom,” said SDSU President Adela de la Torre. "Sally's legacy will live on through the many projects she championed, including our beautiful Student Union and the future SDSU Mission Valley. As a true servant leader who embraced every dimension of our campus and our broader community, her impact will live in the hearts of many of us for years to come."

Legacy of service

In 1994 Roush became senior vice president for Business and Financial Affairs at SDSU, giving her a role in the planning for building and capital projects that included the SDSU Transit Center and the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union, as well as a major role in making fiscal ends meet during repeated and severe budget shortfalls from the state. Prudent planning by Roush ahead of time, including a “rainy day” fund of money carried over from previous years, spared SDSU from potentially more severe cuts.

Prior to taking over SDSU’s top job, Roush was an adviser to three SDSU presidents: Thomas Day, Stephen Weber and Elliot Hirshman. In her senior vice president position, Roush had oversight over the university’s budget and financial operations, intercollegiate athletics, real estate management and development, human resources, public safety and information technology.

Weber, president from 1996 to 2011, said he felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Roush, “a great colleague and friend.”

“I used to always refer to Sally as ‘the adult in the room,’" Weber wrote in an e-mail message. “She was a consummate professional: balanced, constructive, always did her homework.”

Roush was “especially valuable in a crisis,” Weber recalled. “As our chief financial officer, she knew where the money was and worked diligently with our campus budget advisory committee to allocate it wisely.”

Change of plans

She served in the vice president position until June 30, 2013, the first of what would prove to be two premature retirements.

The first ended in 2014 when she returned to work as an interim executive vice chancellor and chief financial officer for The California State University.

And when Hirshman resigned in 2017, then-CSU Chancellor Timothy White called and asked her to serve as interim president for the year it would take to complete a search for and install his replacement.

“It was one of those moments when the world just comes to a halt,” Roush recalled in an oral history recorded in February 2019. “And I think I blurted out something like, ‘I have this wonderful, peaceful life! I have to think about this.’”

Her term began July 1, 2017, filling the president’s office during a search that ended with the appointment of de la Torre as the first permanent female president of SDSU. Traditionally a seat-warming job, it turned out to be anything but, and Roush tacitly dropped the word “interim” from her nominal job title.

Ironically, for a person so instrumental in building today’s physical campus, Roush was a “people person,” who began her career in human resources and credited the university’s success to its people.

“SDSU is the result of 120 years of people’s efforts,” Roush said in an interview with SDSU’s alumni magazine upon her appointment. “The people make this university what it is. Students are the reason we are here; faculty help them achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves, and staff create and maintain the environment in which this remarkable experience occurs.”

SDSU Mission Valley

Roush’s biggest legacy as interim president was leading the plan for SDSU Mission Valley, whose first component, a 35,000-capacity football stadium for the SDSU Aztecs, held its first game on Sept. 3.

Frequently characterized by Roush as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the SDSU Mission Valley plan for the former site of San Diego’s NFL football stadium and parking lot, the biggest expansion of the university since its move from Normal Heights in 1931, emerged after a much different partnership proposed by private developers was scuttled during Hirshman’s final semester as president.

As unveiled by Roush and other university leaders on Nov. 29, 2017, the plan promised a stadium, a 34-acre park alongside the San Diego River to remain under the city’s ownership, an innovation and research district, shops, a hotel, open space and up to 4,600 residential units. The river park is now in development and scheduled for completion next year.

In a letter to Voice of San Diego, Roush described the proposal as “a visionary plan for a vibrant campus expansion on the Mission Valley stadium property, dedicated to the future success of our student body and the region.” Carried to the ballot by a private organization, Friends of SDSU, the plan ultimately prevailed over the competing private proposal in November 2018.

“We are so fortunate that Sally was appointed interim president for so many reasons, but I believe the top of the list was her bravery in pursuing the SDSU Mission Valley acquisition,” said Tom McCarron, who retired in 2020 as senior vice president for SDSU Mission Valley development.

“The sheer size of the acquisition and associated risks would have had anyone else defer a decision until the appointment of the next president,” McCarron continued. “Sally knew such a delay would have doomed our chances for succeeding with this opportunity and it’s highly likely developers would have prevailed in acquiring the site, forever lost to SDSU. We are eternally in her debt for SDSU Mission Valley becoming a reality.”

Aztec identity

As interim president, Roush also responded to a University Senate resolution calling on SDSU to retire its Aztec mascot and reconsider continued use of the Aztec moniker, issues resurfacing from time to time amid the growing sentiment that they had become offensive to some San Diego Indigenous community members and others in the university community.

In February 2018, Roush appointed a 17-member task force of faculty, students, staff and alumni to consider the issues and accepted a recommendation to retain the Aztec nickname, overwhelmingly popular with alumni, but to transform the Aztec Warrior from a mascot to a Spirit Leader. Gone were end zone pushups, high-fives with fans and similar demeanor. (It proved to be a transition, with the spirit leader also abolished in 2021 under de la Torre.)

“My intent was to move away from the caricature to a dignified representative,” Roush later explained, “because in the end, the strongest message that came through from almost everyone was, ’Be respectful, be respectful, be respectful.’”

Roush’s decision also dropped “Monty” and “Zuma” from the names of annual awards bestowed on SDSU faculty and staff, respectively. (Roush herself received the faculty award in 2010 for distinguished university service.)

First-generation student

Sally F. Roush was born March 28, 1947, in Denver, Colorado, the oldest of four girls. An ophthalmological quirk — one brown eye and one green eye — left her sensitive to light and she habitually wore sunglasses when outdoors.

She was the first in her family to attend college, spending her first year far from home on a scholarship at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She moved back to complete her education at the University of Denver.

Her career in education and human resources began immediately, as an assistant personnel director in Colorado’s Department of Education. After the birth of her first daughter, she joined the University of Colorado at Denver as a human resources officer; she spent seven years at that institution before joining SDSU in January 1982 as director of personnel services.

In her oral history, Roush said her move was prompted by a transition in the Colorado university chancellor’s office.

“I found myself quite unhappy, and happened to be sitting in my office on a snowy day in March, and I saw a notice about an HR director for San Diego State. So what do I have to lose? I sent in my application, and quite a few months later they called and (asked) would I come for an interview.” She moved to San Diego with two daughters, ages 3 and 5.

An SDSU legacy

Roush served on the negotiating team for CSU’s first collective bargaining agreement with faculty, something she called “an eye-opening experience.”

Much later, she was co-chair of a steering committee guiding the development of a strategic plan for 2013-18, “Building on Excellence,” which focused on initiatives to promote student success, enhance research and creative endeavors, and strengthen community engagement and communication.

Nancy Marlin, an SDSU professor and provost emerita, remembered Roush’s personal touch as a high-ranking administrator. In one staff meeting that was attended by a newcomer, Marlin said, Roush dispensed with the usual practice of asking for self-introductions.

“Sally went around the table and introduced each person, indicating their responsibilities and saying something specific about the importance of their work or something that they had recently done,” Marlin recalled. “They appeared a bit stunned, and at the same time very proud, that the Business VP actually knew their names and their responsibilities.   

“Sally was constantly deflecting the praise from herself and explaining it wasn't her work alone but the work of the many people with whom she was fortunate to work,” Marlin added. “The truth, of course, was that it was the rest of us who were so fortunate to work with her.”

Among many recognitions for her time at SDSU were CSU’s Wang Family Excellence Award for administrators and the CFO of the Year Award from the San Diego Business Journal.

The Mountain West Conference gave Roush its Dr. Albert C. Yates Distinguished Service Award for 2012-13, recognizing accomplishments in her responsibilities over athletics as senior vice president. She also received the Dr. James Kitchen Award for Distinguished Service in 2013 from SDSU Athletics.

During that time SDSU’s athletics program added women's soccer, water polo, crew, indoor track and field, and lacrosse, allowing the university to exceed its obligations under Title IX. for more than a decade. Roush also played a role in securing gifts and funding for the construction of new athletics facilities as well as improvements to existing ones, including Fowler Athletics Center, Viejas Arena, Tony Gwynn Stadium, SDSU Softball Stadium, The Sports Deck, Aztec Aquaplex, Aztec Tennis Center, Aztec Lacrosse Field and football practice fields.

She received an honorary doctorate from SDSU in 2019.

Roush was a longtime volunteer for Project Wildlife and, after leaving SDSU, Roush joined the board of the Monarch School Project, a K-12 school for homeless youth.

Reflecting on her career, Roush said: “My best advice to anyone and everything about almost any topic is be prepared to take advantage of the unexpected thing that might come your way. Never, never put yourself in a box that you’re afraid to get out of.”

Survivors include two daughters, Claire Bennett (Marc), Beth Roush (Vick Germany) and two granddaughters, Lucy and Veda Bennett.

A memorial service is scheduled for 1-3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, at the Cox Business Club in Snapdragon Stadium. with the program beginning at 1:30 p.m. Reservations may be submitted online. Space is limited

To share a photograph of yourself and Sally Roush, email Tammy Blackburn:

Contributions to The Sally Roush Endowed Scholarship for Guardian Scholars may be made online.