Chico State’s popular President Esteban will retire at end of school year
Manuel Esteban took a drink of water. Then he paused, a beat too long, and the theater full of Chico State University faculty and staff members gathered for the annual President’s Convocation fell silent. When they saw the crumpled tissue and heard the break in his voice, they knew: He’s retiring.
Esteban made the announcement toward the end of the Aug. 23 speech, normally a routine affair held as a welcome-back at the start of the school year.
“All journeys must come to an end,” he choked. “When I was asked how long I planned to stay at this university, I said I planned to stay eight to 10 years, a period in which one should accomplish his goals.”
The several hundred people in the audience gave a collective gasp. “Oh, no!” and even a muffled “Oh, shit!” shot out. Whispers overheard included, “I thought it would be next year,” and, “It’s hard to find a good president. They don’t just grow off of trees.”
Later, community members were hard-pressed to figure out why many of them were so surprised: After all, Esteban is 62 and has been on the job the planned 10 years.
Esteban said he and his wife, Gloria, decided “that I should step down at the end of this year. [But] we’re not going anywhere. This is our home.”
He got a standing ovation.
“All through the speech I was thinking about the end and how I was going to lose it,” Esteban said.
Esteban, as he always does, opened the floor to questions, but there were none. “Then let’s go party!” he said, inviting attendees to a snack reception outside the Harlen Adams Theater.
Esteban got laughs and applause throughout the speech. In fact, his personal style and ease at communicating with a range of people—from faculty members to the media—is much of what has made him so popular.
Bob Persons, a Chico attorney who is chairman-elect of the Greater Chico Chamber of Commerce, credited Esteban with building a relationship between the university and the community. In contrast to his predecessor, Robin Wilson, Esteban never saw Chico State as an ivory tower separate from the town. “There was no interaction [under Wilson] between the college and the business community. Manuel came on board and changed all that.” As for a new president, Persons said, “We’d hope for someone with the same intelligence and community mindfulness.”
Persons said he was surprised at the announcement, mainly because “[Esteban’s] so young and energetic. No one thought of him as retirement age.”
Professor Jim Postma also praised Esteban’s community relations, as well as how he’s reached out to faculty—an example being casual meetings where he has coffee with half a dozen professors. “He gave faculty the perspective that he cared about them.”
Joe Wills, director of public affairs for the university, said Esteban’s style is refreshingly different from that of a typical president. “He seems like he fits in so easily with other faculty and with staff. It doesn’t hurt that he’s witty and charming,” Wills said, mentioning Esteban’s self-effacing sense of humor. “Many college presidents put more of a distance between themselves and other people, and Manuel doesn’t do that.”
Esteban has suffered only a handful of criticisms over the years, perhaps the most vocal being at the beginning of his tenure, when he made a statement to the effect that he was taking the Chico job even though it didn’t pay as much—$116,000—as he’d hoped, a remark that bombed in low-wage Butte County. That gaffe was soon overlooked, however. Recently, he has faced complaints about the cost of implementing CMS, a CSU directive.
After the post-convocation reception, Esteban said he gave a year’s notice so there would be plenty of time to find a new president.
Postma is currently interim chairman of the Academic Senate, and if he is elected chairman Sept. 10 he will serve on the presidential search committee. He said that, although Esteban will be a hard act to follow, he’s actually made the job of replacing him easier. "He’s made Chico State a very desirable place to be the president of, so I think we’ll get some pretty good candidates."