Q&A with President Harrison on the future of CSUN

Ashley Soley-Cerro

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President Dianne Harrison sits down for an interview with the Daily Sundial. Charlie Kaijo/Assistant Photo Editor

Q. One of your stated goals before you started CSUN was to start an ad hoc group (a focus group), did that ever come to fruition and have you had any meetings?

A. We have our first meeting today and it includes faculty, staff, faculty from the senate, some department chairs and a student. It’s really a cross sectional, not necessarily by position but rather someone who was interested and knows the university, from their perspective at least, what our traditions are and had been around long enough to know what’s important and what isn’t. It’s a built in focus group for me.

Q. The office of the chancellor says the role of the president has changed throughout the years, do you agree with that and what you view as your role now compared to when you first became a campus president over 30 years ago?

A. It has changed and that has to do with the need to think strategically about resources, to spend time in the community and in the area for multiple reasons – the obvious reason is to develop friends and supporters who will contribute to the university, that’s a huge part of the role. But the other part is to be the visible face, if you will, of the institution. When I was hired there was a comment made by one of the community members on the committee that we, the university, needed to be out in the community more, I have taken that to heart and have been out a lot, I have been appointed to several boards already I will be attending meetings, becoming involved in the business community, the local community college, partners we have – such as K-12 partners, elected officials, those individuals who can help us at times when we need it, or we can help them. It’s mostly to build strong bridges between this institution and the community so that they appreciate what an asset we are. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve been (where they say) “we’ve have so many CSUN graduates,” it’s a good partnering that needs to take place in many different elements of the community.

Q. You sometimes say “friendraising,” did you coin that term and how has that been going over the summer?

A. No, I didn’t coin it, but I like it. It is true, that the university does have friends and supporters but we do need to continue to “friendraise” as often as possible. It’s not a question of meeting someone once and then they don’t hear back from you or they don’t see you, that visible presence is really important and while the president can’t be at every single meeting that goes on you need to be regular enough so that it is a sincere partnership and visibility that we have. So that I think is one of the changes around not just fundraising but friend or partnerraising.

Q. Any other changes that you’ve made or plan on making?

A. No, I’ve really been involved, so far, in a lot of listening, learning, getting to know who the players are, what the issues are, drilling down to the extent that I have already – what are the current challenges right now, what happened last year, how can we improve this year? I know there was a huge problem with students getting classes and I’d like to avoid that. That is one of my priorities, and we are going to be doing and have been doing, at Academic Affairs, everything to make sure that does not happen. We’re using, and making great use, of the electronic wait list, which has been working great, the department chairs are raving about it, it prevents a student from having to go camp out of a faculty members door and beg them to add them to the class. When chairs can look online and see there are these many students needing a class, there’s pent up demand, they know to open another section – and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that everything is working well, but I will tell you and hopefully you can help encourage students, if something isn’t, they need to go and let the department chair or their dean know. If you’re telling me, I don’t open the section, the department chairs and deans open the sections.

Q. What comments would you make to those opposed to the salary raise you received at the last board of trustees meeting?

A. I would say that I would defer my own comments to the trustees and chancellor who make the decision about it.

Q. I don’t think very many students fully understand your role on a day to day basis on this campus, how would you describe that?

A. The way a university is organized, the president is more or less the general manager of a very large and complicated organization and there are different layers of management, the vice presidents being the next layer, and they each have their own divisions and managers under them with different functions they do. The president’s job is to make sure all of those various divisions and parts of the organizations are functioning well. The president also needs to be thinking about the future functioning of the institution, three, five, 10 years from now. If you’re only looking straight down at today that is probably not going to be your best leadership quality, because you have to think out into the future and ask, what it is that we need to do today to plan and be ready for new students, new jobs that we don’t even know exist yet, how do we truly prepare our students to be twenty-first century graduates that are innovative, creative, can be the leaders of the next generation and keep on. Right now the big job of the presidents is to not only think out into the future but to think out into the future with respect to our revenue sources because it is probably the case that we won’t be able to depend in the near future on the state of California to come and rescue us and make us whole again. We have to think a lot smarter, a lot more strategically about how are we managing, how do we continue educating students for the work force for the state of California when the state of California is electing not to invest so much. So, we are asking – what is it that we can do? We’re doing that on our campus, we’re doing that at the system level and getting all the presidents together with the chancellor. There’s a lot of problem solving going on and planning for whatever the case turns out to be. Right now I think one of the bigger challenges is all the uncertainty. If uncertainty makes you uncomfortable, you don’t want this job because there’s so much of it. You have to plan, have backup plans, you have to be nimble to be able to one day switch if that’s what it takes. Sometimes, in the last three years for example, we have been told, cap your enrollment then hold your enrollment then, oh, now admit more students, so you have to be able to adjust pretty quickly and significantly and it isn’t always the easiest thing in the world. If you think of this as a giant cruise ship spinning around quickly, it doesn’t’ happen, so, those are some of the areas that a president has to be involved with. All the constituencies that I need to be attentive to, obviously first and foremost are our students – what is a student experiencing here, is this a quality education that they are receiving in and out of the classroom, that’s what I’m interested in. After that, what about our staff, we will be doing some things as far as employee engagement because our staff need to be taken care of,  supported and recognized as well. Then, obviously our faculty, so now we have three, the community – that’s one word that is really a huge box of things inside, from business to education to elected officials, federal, state, local, all of those areas, our alumni. I had a great meeting a few weeks back with the executive board of our alumni association, there were some 23 people there, and they all had issues, interests, and things they would like us to do, things they want me to do. And you just keep going, there’s parents, we have obviously our donors, we have a 30-member foundation board, an auxiliary board, all kinds of things that a student doesn’t necessarily think about but that if it wasn’t working then they would start thinking about it, but these are all people and places that a president has to make sure that he or she is aware of, involved with and understands and is mindful of all at the same time, and at any given day you have no idea what could go on.

Q. Do you see any problems with a university, like CSUN or the other CSU’s moving away from the public model to a more private model, as we’re losing revenue from the state in the future?

A. If I thought that we could return to the days of the cherished master plan of higher education that was outlined in an era where we had a different economy, when we had a different set of players and really a different environment in many ways and we could go back and make education free for anybody in California who wanted it, that would be great, no question, if I spent my time wishing for that it probably would not be the best use of my time. I think you have to be realistic that that was then and this is now, as long as the citizens and the state government do not want to tax themselves. People want higher education to be affordable, I would love for it to be affordable, as affordable as possible, I would like for it to be as accessible as possible to any student who is eligible to attend the university, a CSU, and CSUN for that matter, but is that going to happen in the way that this kind of wishful thinking in the past thought? It’s a different day, and unless we do something dramatically different, which it doesn’t look like we are, then we have to think of new ways to do business, and the business of higher education means that we are going to be more efficient, we already are, we’re already one of the most efficient systems in the United States when you talk about how much it costs to educate a student or how much we spend, we are lean and mean, we do a great job with efficiencies, the concern is, how do we maintain that kind of efficiency and still maintain the quality of the education that the students are receiving and that’s where we have to continue to think creatively, continue to expect that we are not going to do business as we did it in the past because the state is not there, they’re just not. I mean, if you look at our economy, we’re looking at several years into the future until this thing turns around, if that, so what do we do? Sorry, it’s depressing but it’s true, you have to be realistic.

Q. With that note, what would you suggest to students, student activists, people that are frustrated on campus to focus their frustrations into more productive manners?

A. My typical advice is, let’s work on those who are making the decisions about what is happening in higher education in California. I didn’t cut our budget, our trustees didn’t cut our budget, the chancellor didn’t cut our budget, the legislature did, the governor did. So, like I was saying earlier, who has the ability technically to open a new section for a class, not me, it’s the department chairs, so you go to where that decision is being made and it is in Sacramento. We all need to work, and I think we all have worked – our students have been incredibly active state wide, our faculty have been active state wide, our administrators have been active state wide to try to make this case. We have our business community behind us, they don’t believe we should be cut any more. But look at what we’re facing, if that tax initiative doesn’t pass, we get another reduction. This is the piece I don’t think most people understand, even if it passes, which who knows what the odds are because they keep changing, even if it passes we don’t get one extra dime, not one dime, we avoid a cut, so that’s where we are. Someone who wants to be an activist, you have to think about state government. At our Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA) meeting where we did a board vote on this proposition and which one would be in the best interest of the state, it was a very heated but passionate discussion on both sides – no we don’t need more taxes you’re going to run businesses out of the state, people aren’t going to put up with this anymore, and then you had those of us who were saying it’s going to be really difficult to withstand yet another fairly significant budget reduction. Everyone in the room agreed that our state government is dysfunctional right now, it’s not operating in a way that makes sense, that is helpful, and we have to fix that, California has to fix that, and there are multiple groups working on that, and that’s where I really think we have to spend our time and attention. It’s dysfunctional.

Q. Looking back on the first year of your presidency a year from now, what would make you proud?

A. Wow. What would make me proud is if I hear from students that they had a great experience this year, that everything worked well for them, they enjoyed their classes, they got their classes, that they had become involved out of class with organizations and clubs or athletic events or whatever it was, things that turned them on that enhanced their experience here. What would make me happy are lots of multimillion dollar gifts to the university, people coming out of the woodworks to write checks for us, that would make me incredibly happy. And I think the faculty and staff continuing to feel incredible pride and loyalty to this institution, which is in every office and every academic area, place that I’ve visited, I hear constantly how much they love CSUN, how much they love this area, the students, what they’re doing, it’s great, all of that is really good and I think the other thing that would make me very happy is if we could in fact find a way to reward and help our faculty and staff with their salaries.

Q. A lot of people that enter into a position like this think about what kind of mark they make, have you thought about what kind of mark you want to leave ten years from now, what would make you proud then?

A. The way I put it and the way I look at it is, we’re probably beyond making a mark by building new buildings, because those days are gone or at least they have slowed down considerably. We may have some additional student housing, something will come up for needed classroom space, but really, I think the best way to leave a mark is by having our students and faculty succeed, because I will tell every graduating student when you succeed, I succeed. Your successes will take credit for me. Also, I think that for an institution that has been around as long as CSUN, that has over 200,000 alumni, I’d like to see many many more actively involved with this institution. That would be a mark.