Biography, Awards & Distinctions

Mary A. Papazian walking with students.

Dr. Mary A. Papazian served as President of San José State from July 2016 through December 2021. Her official biography, C.V., and impressive list of awards and distinctions offer insight into her background, priorities during her tenure, and leadership style. On this page, you can find:


How did a scholar of the 17th century metaphysical poets, including John Donne and John Milton, become the leader of a flagship public university that fuels the creativity and energy of Silicon Valley?

Perhaps the answer for Dr. Mary A. Papazian, president of San José State University from July 2016 through December 2021, is her fascination with how artists and the arts reflect, interact with and survive in turbulent times, as they certainly did the early 1600s in England, a period of great innovation in all spheres, and no less so today. Using these insights from long-ago poets gained over the past three decades, she built her academic career as a professor and as an academic and administrative leader dedicated to the enduring importance of public education to the benefit of society. 

As the leader of the oldest public university in the west, the founding campus of the California State University system, and Silicon Valley’s only public university, Dr. Papazian was firmly committed to ensuring the success of all students; maintaining an environment that honors shared governance and is defined by open, transparent, and inclusive leadership; fostering a campus culture of curiosity and discovery; and building enduring campus and community partnerships.

At San José State University

During her tenure, Dr. Papazian  remained focused on strengthening communication among campus leaders, students, faculty and staff. She worked to energize alumni, supporters and friends of the university, and elevated engagement with elected, industry and community leaders on important regional policy issues such as affordable housing, transportation and economic opportunity that are critically relevant to an urban university. 

To achieve the university’s primary mission of learning and research, she empowered people across the university to focus on student success; identify and act on opportunities to enhance operational effectiveness; and achieve a comprehensive vision for SJSU to be America’s preeminent urban public university.

Notable milestones during Dr. Papazian’s appointment included the groundbreaking for the Interdisciplinary Science Building—the first new SJSU academic building in 30 years—and approval of plans to build a Science Park. She spearheaded a series of Town Hall events hosted by SJSU’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change, launched a full renovation of the South Campus Athletics Fields, developed the East Side Promise [pdf] program to support talented local students, and, working collaboratively with the university community, launched a ten-year strategic plan, Transformation 2030, that positions SJSU for long-term excellence in the 21st century in the nation’s tenth largest city.

In January 2020, Dr. Papazian brought a group of government and civic leaders together on the SJSU campus  to announce the university’s plans to redevelop state-owned property in downtown San Jose to help meet the affordable housing needs of faculty, staff, and students, as well as to announce short and long term strategies to address the needs of SJSU’s most vulnerable students.

Previous Appointments

Before coming to San José State, Dr. Papazian served as president of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Connecticut, for nearly five years. She strengthened programs supporting the successful transition of first-year and transfer students. She established a vision for SCSU’s first-ever comprehensive philanthropic campaign and helped secure a $3 million gift and a $1.2 million bequest to establish its first endowed chair. Under her leadership the university opened its new Academic Laboratory and Science Building and expanded international education and study abroad programs. She also worked to increase research opportunities for undergraduate students and expand scholarships to support student recruitment, retention, and completion.

Previously, Papazian was provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Lehman College of The City University of New York for five years, where she managed a $70 million budget that supported 450 full-time faculty members and 200 staff members serving more than 14,000 students in the Bronx. She also served as dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and as associate dean of the College of Arts and Science at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, where she began her academic career as an assistant, associate, and full professor of English.

Academic Interests and Leadership

Of Armenian heritage and a native of southern California, Dr. Papazian holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in English literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. She and her husband Dr. Dennis R. Papazian, founding director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, have two adult daughters.

Dr. Papazian is actively engaged in national and regional volunteer leadership and, during her tenure at SJSU, served on the boards of the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS), Association of American Colleges and Universities, NCAA Division I, Business-Higher Ed Forum, California Campus Compact, Bay Area Council, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and Joint Venture Silicon Valley. She and her husband both also are actively involved in Armenian historical and cultural efforts.

According to Dr. Papazian, although John Donne and John Milton lived centuries ago, their voices, passions and warnings continue to ring true to our modern ears. Their explorations through powerful language of the moral battles between self and duty, between good and evil and between church and state informed Mary Papazian’s approach to university leadership and the essential role of San José State, Silicon Valley’s public university.

Community Awards and Distinctions

East Side Education Foundation Hall of Fame - Class of 2019
Named as First Special Honoree (Nov. 21, 2019)

Silicon Valley's "100 Woman of Influence"
Named as one of "100 Woman of Influence” by the Silicon Valley Business Journal (April 2019).

"Woman of the Year" Award
Named 2019 "Woman of the Year" for the state’s 28th Assembly District by State Assemblymember Evan Low, an SJSU alumnus (March 2019).

"Person of the Year" Award
Received the "Person of the Year" Award, bestowed by the Knights of Vartan (July 2018).

"Woman of the Year" Award
Received "Woman of the Year" Award, bestowed by the Daughters of Vartan, at their Annual Convocation, Detroit, Michigan (July 2018).

Khachatur Abovian Medal
Received the Khachatur Abovian Medal, bestowed by the Armenian State Pedagogical University after Khachatur Abovian, Yerevan, Armenia (May 2018).

Saints Sahag and Mesrob Medal
Received the Saints Sahag and Mesrob Medal, bestowed by the His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians (May 2016).

Medal of Distinction
Received Medal of Distinction from the Ministry of Diaspora, the Republic of Armenia (May 2016).

Athena Award in Leadership
Received the Athena Award in Leadership, bestowed by the Greater New Haven and Quinnipiac Chambers of Commerce (Oct 2015).

Woman of Distinction Award
Received Woman of Distinction Award, bestowed by the NJ Women’s Network, Spring Conference (April 2015).

Honorary Degree
Awarded Honory Degree, Armenian State Pedagogical University after Khachatur Abovian, Yerevan, Armenia (April 2012).