An undergraduate education at a public university like CSUN is better than the kind of undergraduate education a student can get from Harvard.
At least that’s what Harold Hellenbrand, CSUN provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, would wager. Hellenbrand is a Brooklyn, N.Y. native who earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard in 1975. He also earned a doctorate in modern thought and literature from Stanford in 1980.
“The classes were taught by graduates and professors who didn’t really care about undergrads,” he said, referring specifically to his time spent at Harvard. “I just don’t think that’s the case at CSUs.”
He should know. At 53, Hellenbrand’s leadership experience spans almost a quarter of a century.
Twenty of those years (and counting) have been dedicated solely to the improvement of the CSU system. Hellenbrand’s history sums up his versatility.
“I’ve worked in six different institutions as a department chair, director of liberal studies, associate dean, dean and provost,” he said.
However, since Hellenbrand took his post as provost in fall 2004, he has stopped teaching classes for the first time in his career.
Hellenbrand’s first teaching and administrative job – from 1982 to 1994 – was at CSU San Bernardino. He taught world literature, freshman composition and poetry before broadening the scope of his career as the department chair.
“I got into administration the way most people do, kind of by accident,” Hellenbrand said, adding that his work with the department’s curriculum opened the door to administrative duty. “I went to graduate school and was prepared to do research, and my first job was teaching. I took my first job teaching and ended up being an administrator.”
Hellenbrand’s early days as an educator have since evolved, including work for institutions like the University of Minnesota at Duluth and, prior to CSUN, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Now at CSUN, Hellenbrand has climbed his way to near the top. As second-in-command, he heads eight academic colleges, and is responsible for more than 1,700 faculty and staff members in Academic Affairs. Enrollment, budget issues and sitting in on at least half a dozen committees also come with the territory.
Despite his sweeping administrative duties, Hellenbrand dismissed the notion of forceful leadership.
“A job like this does not work by authority. It works by persuasion, strategy and lobbying,” he said. “It’s a very political process.”
According to him, the university operates on a basis of argument and logic.
“If you try to get things done outside of that, people lose respect for you. What you have to do is persuade people that your point of view, or the point of view that you’re defending, has merit to it,” he said, adding that writing skills are of particular importance.
Also referenced was the synthesizing, or “taking in what other people think is important to the university, and to the division, and filtering those things so the thoughts people have are merged into a coherent picture.”
Hellenbrand said synthesizing information into terms that can be understood gets things done at CSUN.
Persuasion coupled with synthesizing gives Hellenbrand the edge he needs when it comes to developing a strategy for lobbying funds or simply drawing students in.
He described it as “not lobbying like lobbying the legislature, but it’s kind of cajoling or talking with people to see your point of view.”
Hellenbrand’s passion for education shines. He elaborated on its importance, and how it ties into economic success.
“The argument we need to make is we’re not only interested in what students have learned, but we are also interested in what they’ve done ten years out,” he said.
Expanding on economic value, Hellenbrand said the CSU system is beginning to assess its worth by simply “adding up salaries” of students put on the market.
In proving CSUN’s success, Hellenbrand said he hopes to increase the overall status of the CSU system. He said the “class stratification of American society” is one reason for the CSU’s lack of prestige.
“The way to change the debate is to move it from the size of the endowment of the university – and the wealth of the alumni – and focus it more on the value that’s added by what the students bring,” Hellenbrand said.
He also spoke highly of the men and women dedicated to making the CSU system a success. “The public as a whole undervalues the wonderful things CSU faculty and staff does.”
Hellenbrand’s former co-worker, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo dean and liberal studies department chair, Linda H. Halisky, spoke highly of Hellenbrand.
“His values are in the right place,” she said. “And he has the courage to act on them.”
Prior to Halisky’s appointment to her current position, she took over Hellenbrand’s department chair after his move to Northridge.
She described Hellenbrand as not only someone who knows how to get straight to the issue at hand, but as someone who is humane and funny as well.
Jerry D. Luedders, assistant provost and vice-president of Academic Affairs at CSUN, has not worked with Hellenbrand quite as long as Halisky did.
But, as an experienced educator with 40 years in higher education and teaching, Luedders expanded on Halisky’s thoughts.
“Of all the people I have ever worked for, he is one of the most brilliant,” said Luedders. “It’s a pleasure to work with someone with such tremendous insight into any and all issues.”
Luedders said Hellenbrand is “a first among equals.” He also said the provost is up for challenges like education redesign, selecting deans of colleges, and ensuring a budget for academic affairs to meet the needs of students.
“He can see things both in the abstract and detailed levels simultaneously,” Luedders said.
And even though CSUN may never bear obvious similarities to a high-end institution like Harvard, perhaps that is a good thing.