President’s Circle

Sacramento State's Alex Gonzalez

Back Q&A Nov 1, 2010 By Rich Ehisen

Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez’s tenure has been one of the most tumultuous in the university’s history.

Since coming to the campus in 2003, he has faced historic budget challenges and constant conflict with faculty and staff, much of it in regard to the Destination 2010 program, his signature effort to transform Sacramento State into a marquee metropolitan university. For all the struggle, Gonzalez has also been remarkably successful, most notably in getting students to sign off on raising their own fees to help fund the school’s makeover.

We sat down with him recently to discuss that effort and the university’s future.

Comstock’s: In your fall address to the university staff and faculty, you said you were approaching the future with “cautious optimism.” What do you mean by that?
The environment for higher education has more questions than answers. I think we’re at a point where the public has to recommit to public higher education. The reductions in budget and the lack of support over the past several years really does raise the question: Is a public higher education going to be affordable, accessible and still provide that level of quality that we’ve had in the past, or is it going to be driven by demand and cost and who can afford it? I’m optimistic that, in California, we still have the best system, especially the CSU, but this is the first year in the 32 years that I’ve been in the system where we’ve actually turned away students who were qualified because we had a cap on enrollment. If you look at the history of the CSU, that’s pretty scary. So that’s why I say I’m cautiously optimistic.

Comstock’s: You came to the university in 2003 with ambitious goals, notably the Destination 2010 effort. How would you assess that effort today?
Anyone who lives here knows the impact and influence of politics on everything that goes on in Sacramento. Destination 2010 to me was a very simple initiative and, in a sense, its simplicity was kind of valiant. Four cornerstones: having excellent academics and student programs, making a welcoming campus, creating a dynamic physical environment and having community interaction and support. Looking back on it now, I think we’ve achieved each one of those goals to some extent. Academically, all students who enter Sacramento State now have to go through mandatory orientation and advising, and we’ve added one doctoral program, the EDD in education leadership, with the potential for adding a couple more. Our nursing program is hopefully going to double in size, and we’ve added our executive MBA program, which has been very successful. The campus is also very different now, with the electronic sign out on Highway 50 and banners all over the place so you can see where you are. We also just opened up our fantastic recreation and wellness center. Last year, we opened up our new student housing (certified gold in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program), a new bookstore and parking structures. We have more upgrades planned, especially our science building. It’s an old science building with old equipment. You walk through there and wonder if some of the stuff should be in a museum.

Comstock’s: The ride has not always been smooth, and you’ve certainly had your share of issues with faculty and staff. For instance, your critics say the science building upgrade should have been done before the campus signage. Is that a fair assessment?
No, and it really is indicative of people on the campus having no idea how the budget works. You can’t take from one pot and put into another. Everything has to remain very segregated between nonstate and state funding. What we’ve been able to do here on the campus is all nonstate funding. The state hasn’t had any capital program in years. The science building would have been my No. 1 priority, but you have to use money from the state for a capital project like that. You cannot use student fees to build a classroom building. 

Comstock’s: How would you assess your relationship with faculty and staff now?
I think it’s much improved. I think everybody understands now everyone else’s role much more clearly. When the faculty put up so much resistance, I think a lot of it was based on, No. 1, a lack of information, and No. 2, propaganda on the part of a relatively small group of faculty. Once I was able to open the books and present that information, they realized what I was telling them was exactly what was happening.

Comstock’s: There has been a growing push to add doctoral programs to the California State University’s mission statement. There has been concern that the approach has been too piecemeal, focusing on specific programs one at a time rather than taking a broad approach. What is the benefit of offering doctorate programs, and what is the risk?
The kind of doctoral programs we’re developing in the [California State University system] are really the applied programs, the kind the University of California really hasn’t been supplying. The doctorate in educational leadership is not research based; it’s an applied program. Before we developed ours, most places that you could get an EDD were really expensive private institutions. Our two additional programs are also applied programs, the doctorate of applied nursing and the doctorate of physical therapy. That’s being driven by the industry. When I started teaching, a bachelor’s degree was all you needed in physical therapy. Then it moved up to master’s. Now it’s up to the doctorate.

Comstock’s: It sounds like you’re OK with these targeted programs as opposed to the broad approach. What is the problem with being broader?
Let’s take the sciences. Most of those are going to be based out of research institutions, like the University of California system, that have the infrastructure, the grants, the resources and the faculty that are engaged in research so they can take on graduate students that will work with them. That’s part of the training. For those reasons, I don’t think the state university system, and this campus in particular, has the resources and money coming in to reach that threshold. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t in the future, but I don’t see the University of California relinquishing those at all. That’s why the state system has focused on programs that are applied and have a very specific target.

Comstock’s: So, do you have plans for another major campus campaign, say a Destination 2020?
We are engaged in something we call the Futures Initiative, which began a year and a half ago. The first phase was academic affairs and student affairs engaged together with the university community in developing a strategic plan that looks at our academic programs and what we’re going to do and how we’re going to get there. We’ve also had some outside assessment, and we’re now conducting a series of additional meetings to identify what we want to do. I’m hoping that by the end of this fall semester, or at the latest early spring, we’ll launch the next initiative. So the answer in a long way is, stay tuned.



Recommended For You

Head of the Class

A tenure of influence has run its course

For more than 40 years, Brice Harris has sat front row in the nation’s community college system. First as a part-time faculty member at a small campus in Kansas City, later as president of Fresno City College and since 1996 as chancellor of Los Rios Community College District. He has spent his career working within multi-college systems. This month, he retires.

Aug 1, 2012 Douglas Curley