Fall Welcome Address 2008

President Jon Whitmore

President Jon Whitmore
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Noon - 1 pm

Watch the 2008 Fall Welcome Address with RealPlayer.

San José State University is a dynamic, diverse and forward-looking university. I applaud you for where you have come and, more importantly, for where you want to go. Jennifer and I were drawn here by the wonderful, dedicated people we met all across this campus during the interview process.

I have always believed that the only competitive advantage any university has is the quality, dedication and drive of its people -- its faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community and corporate supporters. This cohort of committed people, striving for excellence, should be our guiding theme over the next several years. I'm delivering this message this afternoon because that is what I heard you say during the interview process and during my first 21 days at San José State.

We all must take pride in the excellence that already pervades San José State. We must promote these pinnacles of excellence. And, we must strive, every day, to build greater excellence throughout the university. If we do that together, what a bright future we all have!

Now let me step back and answer, briefly, a question that's buzzing around campus. What's this Whitmore like? What's his background? First, I'm nothing without my life partner Jennifer. Please stand up.

We work side by side. A major role of the presidency is making friends, inside and outside the university, and Jennifer's really good at that. I know she's looking forward to meeting all of you. Our immediate family includes two children attending the University of Iowa, where they grew up when I served as provost there. So we bring the perspective of being parents of current college students to our work.

Also by way of introduction, I've been told you might like to know a bit about me, where I started out and a few things that shaped my early thinking. So let me ask how many of you have ever visited North Dakota?

Well, I was born in Seattle. But I grew up in Stanley, North Dakota, a small town of about a thousand people. My family operated the movie theatre in town and my brother and I saw lots of movies in the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, as you can imagine -- most of them made in California, by the way. In North Dakota, there was no TV back then. Anyway, I've wondered if all those black-and-white movies might have been an early influence toward my decision to major in theatre in college. It was tough country around Stanley. The weather could be 30 degrees below zero. The town was surrounded by farms and cattle ranches. The land was rocky, the wind fierce, but the sky was vast and blue.

Growing up there, we learned the mid-western farm work ethic, and the understanding that, in remote, harsh country like that, people have to work together -- pitch in to help each other out. I have held that belief my entire life.

When TV did come to North Dakota in the mid-1950s, my father sold the moviehouse and we moved back to Washington. That's how I ended up attending Washington State University. I was a first-generation college graduate, like many of our students here. My parents' support, and the fact that tuition was then $300 were what made college possible for me. Without affordable public higher education I would not be standing before you today. Public universities, like San José State, continue to serve that noble mission. Your hard work and dedication makes people's dreams for a better future come true. That's probably more than enough history, so let's fast-forward to the present.

Jennifer and I are both very happy to be part of the San José State family. We're delighted to be in this urban setting in Silicon Valley, in a growing state, on the Pacific Rim. What a fabulous location for a university! San José State itself impressed me, with its heritage, its diversity, and its national reputation for high quality bachelor's and master's programs. Collectively, you have made remarkable progress in the past few years, positioning the university to rise to a new level of statewide and national recognition.

My conversations with President Don Kassing left no doubt about how proud he was of all the progress that has been made. I salute President Kassing and his leadership team and all of you for your accomplishments. I'd like to take a moment now to introduce the president's senior colleagues:

  • Carmen Sigler, provost and VP for Academic Affairs
  • Tom Bowen, Intercollegiate Athletics director
  • Zaynna Fakhreddine, president's aide
  • Rona Halualani, assistant to the president, director of Institutional Planning and Inclusive Excellence
  • Rose Lee, VP for Administration and Finance
  • Fred Najjar, VP for University Advancement
  • Veril Phillips, VP for Student Affairs
  • Gerry Selter, executive assistant

Thank you all. Or should I say, coming from Texas, "Y'all."

I've also learned that people beyond the campus are saying good things about San José State. I read the public opinion surveys showing that the university has strengthened its name recognition and reputation, with a favorable opinion of SJSU rising four percentage points in a single year, from 71% in 2006 to 75% in 2007. The survey also revealed that people now list San José State third among top universities in the region, up from fourth the previous year. So -- given all these positive factors, I'm glad the chancellor and search committee agreed to give me this opportunity.

The CSU system is a powerful force in California. Chancellor Reed and our dedicated trustees have developed a dynamic strategic plan for the future based on what the people of California will need from the CSU in the next decade. San José State University must be a leader in this important work.

Let me state this clearly, San José State University is central to the economic health of San José, Silicon Valley, and California, and it must have a positive effect on the quality of life of all its citizens.

Here and now, my first job is to get to know you and the university. I've started what I'm calling my 100-day deep-learning period. Of course this period will include many meetings. But I'm also interested in getting a first-hand look at the operations of this campus. I've decided to work shoulder-to-shoulder for an hour with different staff in various departments and around campus, to experience first-hand how this university functions, and to absorb the collective wisdom I know I'll find there.

I'm thinking of this as a "Day in the Life of SJSU," and I'll tell you about my experiences in a presidential blog that you can link to from our home page or the president's page. The blog will run Monday through Thursday from now to Homecoming. It will also allow me to give you brief updates on events I attend and people I talk with. You may occasionally see entries from Jennifer. So do check out the blog when you get back to the office. Your feedback may become a blog entry as well.

One of my quests during this time is to discover how San José State is unique and different from other universities in California and in the nation. We need to build on those things that make us special. I ask all of you who would like to advise me on the uniqueness of San José State to check the home page or visit my Web page. You'll also be receiving an e-mail invitation to participate in a brief survey that Rona has put together. It's an opportunity for you to tell me what you think is important for San José State's future, and I'm very eager to hear your thoughts on that topic.

To further boost my learning curve, I'm eager to meet as many of you in person as possible. Last week, I attended a student government retreat and met some of our remarkable students. I'm meeting with each dean individually. I've visited with the mayor of San José, the editorial board of the Mercury News, and I've even met our dynamic governor. My schedule also includes meeting with alumni and community members who are key to the university's progress, working with the Academic Senate, and of course I will be rooting for the Spartans at our home opener against UC Davis on Aug. 30.

Tom, we're looking forward to a great season for our Spartan teams!

My philosophy is to put people first. You can expect me to support hiring and retaining the best people and to uphold San José State's strong commitment to diversity. I also strongly believe in offering opportunities for faculty and staff development, personal learning and advancement. As I stated earlier, it is the talent and drive of a university's people that make the university. So the care and tending of people -- all of you -- will be a priority as we move forward.

I'd also like to tell you briefly about four areas of interest I would like to learn more about:

1. A very exciting area of development I see for San José State -- an area to which I'd like to add my influence as your president -- is to deepen our engagement with Silicon Valley and the city of San José as both learning and research environments. San José State is blessed to be in a great location, and I believe there are many more positive connections we can make as an anchor institution in this vibrant region. We should be making the very best use of Silicon Valley as a classroom, a lab, and a place where our students can gain experience in research, and social and civic engagement. You have many connections now, I know, but I see this as an area we can expand with very profitable results.

2. I was also delighted to learn of the city of San José's "Green Vision," with its ambitious goals for environmental protection and economic development. Here at San José State, we can boost that initiative by advancing the eco-friendliness and sustainability of the campus in all dimensions. We can look at curriculum development for core student learning, as well as expanding research and service learning. We can be a premiere school for combining high tech, biotech, info tech and environmental education. Campus-wide, we can conserve energy and develop a "lighter" carbon footprint. The city's goal is to become the world center for clean tech innovation. We are uniquely situated to be a partner and be a university leader in achieving that goal, while reaping benefits for our faculty and students, as well as our physical campus.

3. I know you have been working from a strategic plan to take us to Vision 2010. I understand that there will be a concentrated focus this year on three strategic objectives:

  • Improving retention-graduation rates,
  • looking at the faculty teaching load,
  • and working to internationalize the university.

All of these are important and I look forward to hearing more from you about all three.

That first objective -- improving the retention and graduation rates of our undergraduate students -- is one that resonates strongly with me. First, because it is doing right by our students to help more of them graduate, and in a timely way. Second, it is central to our mission of service and thus quite appropriately part of our strategic planning. Third, improving graduation and retention rates reflects good stewardship of our state and private funding. And fourth, graduating a higher percentage of our students is critical to the economic success of our region and state. I understand that there is now an important fusion of interest and resources needed to significantly improve our retention and graduation rates. I will be eager to hear your thinking on this topic and hope to add to the dialogue based on my experiences at other universities.

4. When I arrived on campus early this month, one of the first things waiting for me was a comprehensive report commissioned by Vice President Rose Lee on the state of information technology at San José State. I strongly believe, along with 80 percent of you who were surveyed, that information technology should be a key defining attribute of SJSU. The report analyzes the challenges and obstacles this campus continues to face in fully realizing that vision, and provides an outline for strategic planning. I consider information technology critical to our mission, and its importance will only increase moving forward. So know that I will be giving close attention to this area. When we say that we are powering Silicon Valley, I want it to ring true for every understanding of that phrase.

As we begin this semester, I thought you might want to have brief updates on three major topics: our enrollments; our Inclusive Excellence/Diversity planning; and the status of the budget.


San José State is entering a new era with respect to enrollment. Vice President Veril Phillips tells me that historically, we kept the admission doors open very late to ensure that the university met or exceeded our budgeted targets. That is no longer the case. Today, the progression from application to admission to enrollment by record numbers of students, earlier than ever, provides evidence that students are making San José State their university of choice. In particular, we have a record number of first-time freshmen -- about 3,800 of them -- enrolled this semester, in spite of the earliest deadline that we have ever imposed for applications. This is exciting and a great position for us to be in over the long term. But rapid growth is not without its temporary pain. The provost, deans, department chairs and many others have worked throughout the summer to make preparations for this bumper crop of students.

Thanks to all of you for your tremendous efforts in this regard.

For next spring and fall and beyond, we've already notified our feeder high schools and colleges about our undergraduate application deadlines -- August 31 for spring and November 30 for next fall. When you talk with prospective students and families, please keep these very early deadlines in mind.

Diversity/Inclusive Excellence

San José State's diversity continues to be one of its distinctions. In the 2008 survey in U.S. News & World Report, our diversity profile is third highest in the CSU, and we are the fifth most diverse campus in California. An inclusive excellence and diversity initiative is being undertaken to ensure the success of each student that attends San José State. This Master Plan is a first among California universities. This fall, a 38-member team, led by Rona, will design action plans and strategies to implement diversity programs and enhance efforts across the university.


What about the non-existent budget? As you know, we are still watching and waiting for what will happen with the California state budget. When it comes to state funding, I want you to know that I will be this university's No.1 budget advocate. I have worked with four different state legislatures, most recently in Texas, and I'll advocate strongly for higher education in California, within the CSU system, and most particularly, for San José State. You can count on me for that.

Today's reality is that public universities must be more entrepreneurial. I am impressed with the university's recent success in private fundraising. I know our vice president for advancement Fred Najjar has led us to record-breaking fundraising. Last year we lead the CSU system in giving, and we totaled $100 million for San José State in the last three years. He and his team are well along in preparing for a comprehensive campaign. Friend-raising and fund-raising will be an important priority for Jennifer and me.

This private support is especially important for San José State, if we are to move ahead despite the uncertainties of state funding. The great news is that our university has many loyal alumni and they are stepping up. Our donors are helping us move toward excellence.

So, let me summarize here: I am in a learning/listening mode. I will be pleased to hear from you. Let me know if you share my enthusiasm for strengthening our city and Silicon Valley contacts, emphasizing sustainability, getting more of our students graduated, and advancing information technology. Count on me to put people first and take a leading role in bringing financial resources to this university.

Consider all this a preliminary assessment. Priorities may change as I learn more from all of you.

Now some of you, especially a few there in the back rows, still may be asking yourself: But what's this guy really like to work with? What's a theatre guy doing leading a major university?

My response is that leading a university is like directing a play. The director must have a vision of what the play could be like. He then needs to "people" the production with experts in sound, sets, costumes, lighting, and of course, cast a talent-laden group of actors.

A good director draws all of these people together, gets them to share a vision of what is possible, motivates each participant to use his or her talents to the fullest, and lets them be creative.
The director's ongoing role is getting the right people in the right places and steering things in the right direction. I suppose you could even say that running a university is like producing and directing a grand opera -- with a full orchestra, with dramatic exits and entrances, occasionally a parade of elephants, and of course a bevy of talented divas. Before we leave the theatre imagery, I'll just add that I think we have all the components at San José State for an award-winning and very long-running and highly creative production.

Let me close by sharing a quote from poet, playwright, and politician, Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, a man who knew something about the dynamics of change. A theme that appears in his writings is this:

He said, "We cannot have community without generosity of spirit."

"We cannot have community without generosity of spirit."

What we do this semester and in the coming years at San José State -- our success in transforming the lives of our students -- will depend on our ability to function as a strong and thriving community. The strength of our community depends on each of us stepping forward to do our part, while recognizing, understanding and respecting the contributions of others.

We are all needed.

You have shown exceptional solidarity in the past few years.

Let's strengthen and build on our community, with a generosity of spirit, as we move forward. Together I'm confident we'll achieve great things for San José State!