Meet Mr. Fix-It
CSUS President Alexander Gonzalez is adept with a wrench and with running a university
Alexander Gonzalez seems a reluctant occupant of the ivory tower. Sitting in his office on the second floor of Sacramento Hall, the oldest building on campus, the CSUS president is impeccably dressed, clean cut and ceremonial, yet you get the sense that he’d much rather forgo the formality, doff the jacket and tie, and pour you a drink. Then he opens his mouth and emits an articulate, enlightening, candid treatise on the state of higher education—issues you’ve read about for months and some you weren’t even aware of—and you’re hooked. This guy really knows his stuff.
Gonzalez is, in his own words, “an everyman.” “I think I’m sensitive to all kinds of people. I feel comfortable with them,” he says. “I can talk to the janitor just as well as I can talk to a millionaire.”
That’s good, because Gonzalez will be talking to lots of millionaires.
He has big plans for his new domain, plans too bold for the dwindling state dollars coming his way. So Gonzalez intends to do something alien to this campus—he’ll raise the money himself.
“The culture of the California State University, until very recently, was that we didn’t raise funds outside, was that everything was supported by the state,” he says. “It hasn’t been until relatively recently that we’re not getting the support we need and … it’s going to get worse.”
Gonzalez believes the opportunities for fund-raising exist. “We have a large alumni base, and because of our role in the economic and social and political life of this area … I think the potential is there to get some help,” he says.
Private support should augment, not replace, state funding, he adds, helping the university reach a higher level of quality not possible with limited state funds.
With ease, Gonzalez enumerates the reasons why you, I and the millionaires should donate to the university. It generates $744 million and 16,000 jobs for the region. Its alumni include some of the city’s highest-ranking public servants, such as the police chief, fire chief and district attorney. Its faculty and scientists produce research vital to public policy, industry and government. \
“We are one of the largest employers in this city, and I don’t think people realize that,” Gonzalez says. “We’re a regional university and a regional asset that pumps a lot into the economy but, more importantly, into the number of people that are going to be productive members of the state.”
But CSUS raised just $12.5 million in private funds last year—probably sufficient to furnish a few classrooms and build a nook to accommodate a Starbucks kiosk, but hardly enough to reinvent an entire campus.
Gonzalez is undeterred. He’ll tantalize you with his bold, beautiful campus in the sky, where 5,000 students live in new residence halls and attend classes in sparkling, multi-storied academic buildings. They exercise and socialize in a massive new recreation center and watch basketball games in an arena that’s actually big enough to accommodate every fan. An idyllic swath of flora bisects campus. Miraculously, there is parking.
It’s compelling enough to make any alumna, or any writer who just spent 45 minutes searching for a parking space, reach for her checkbook.
At first glance, Gonzalez’s master plan appears focused on simply putting newer and better buildings on campus. Indeed, construction is already underway on the new Academic Information Resource Center, and in April, students approved a new $110-per-semester fee to pay for nearly $50 million in construction bonds for the new recreation center and arena. (Gonzalez has promised to raise the rest of what’s needed, about $25 million, through private donations.)
But the president says the crux of his vision is giving students “authentic access, which means they can get the courses they need and the quality of education that we’ve been able to provide them up to now.”
“You can let somebody in, but if they can’t get the courses, what are you doing to them?” he says. “You’re keeping them in school longer, they’re going to get frustrated, the chances of them dropping out are going to be high. We have to ensure that they’re going to be able to get the courses they need so they can finish the program.”
Gonzalez anticipates that CSUS will turn away several hundred qualified students this fall, quite simply because the university hasn’t kept pace with growth in California’s college-bound population. This troubles him—a lot.
“There is a demand going on, this is the Baby Boom echo,” Gonzalez explains. “For the first time since the Master Plan [of Higher Education] was developed, we may find ourselves turning away students who are going to be qualified and otherwise admissible, and to me, that is the travesty of all of this. I mean, that is a terrible situation.”
Gonzalez knows about the importance of accessibility. One of seven children, he attended Garfield High School in East Los Angeles (the inner-city high school portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver). He spoke Spanish at home and, like many “first-generation” college students in California today, often interpreted for his mother. He joined the Air Force immediately after high school; at 17, he needed a parent’s signature to enlist. He attended Pomona College on the GI Bill, then went to Harvard Law School, where he realized in his second year that he was following the wrong career path. So instead he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in social psychology from UC Santa Cruz, where he discovered that he loved “investigating the phenomena of human beings.”
He held faculty and administrative positions at CSU Fresno for 18 years and was president of CSU San Marcos for six years before coming to CSUS in July 2003.
“I’m a Vietnam-era veteran, but I’m also a veteran of the streets of L.A.,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to have the great set of opportunities that have been put in front of me.”
A good place to be
It’s not surprising, then, that Gonzalez laments the shrinking access to the state universities. He thinks CSUS is a special place, and he wants California’s students to benefit from the programs, faculty and internship opportunities available there.
“Our greatest asset, and we have more than one asset, is our academic programs,” he says. “We have a great bunch of faculty, they take their jobs seriously, and there is a longevity here.” Many of the new faculty hires, he adds, are “coming here as experienced faculty members. They’ve already taught other places, and they’re coming here because it’s a good place to be.”
Gonzalez sees CSUS as the prototype of the CSU system, largely because of the region’s tremendous growth and the university’s location in the Capitol’s backyard. CSUS houses more than 30 research centers—such as the Institute for Social Research and the California Institute for County Government—that conduct research in the public interest and for industry and government.
“We have a full array of programs and the capacity to do all of the research that they [government and state agencies] need,” he says. “I think that’s what sets this campus apart from the others—the proximity to the Capitol, the work that goes on here, and the number of internship programs we have.”
To accommodate the rapid growth in the eastern suburbs, Gonzalez expects to open a satellite campus on a 246-acre site near Roseville in the next few years. He envisions the new site filling a demand in that area for courses in business, computer technology and education. Ironically, Gonzalez’s previous university, CSU San Marcos, began as a satellite campus of CSU San Diego.
The Roseville site reminds Gonzalez that the region’s current growth spurt is entwined with the university and his vision for its future.
“I think in many ways the fact that we are going to need assistance is going to work to the region’s advantage, because as people focus on the university, hopefully they will see that it really is an asset that they need to support.”
Gonzalez is relying on his everyman persona to coax money from the fists of alumni, area residents and businesspeople and into specific building and educational projects and, eventually, a campus endowment for education that would “tide us over during some of these big, steep downtrends of the economy.”
Gonzalez, to steal a phrase from poet Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, “contains multitudes.” He speaks plainly and simply, but his mind is an elaborate machine of knowledge and intellectual precision. His idea of relaxing involves a movie, a peanut-butter sandwich and a glass of wine. He attended prestigious universities, yet many of his life experiences are atypical of the well-heeled academics who populate the highest posts at universities across the country.
Rumor has it that Gloria, his wife of 30 years, calls him “Mr. Fix-It” because, whether it’s under the sink or on campus, he can set it right. It’s clear that when he’s talking about implementing his plan for CSUS, Gonzalez is confident he can do just that.
“We have a plan. We’re going to achieve it,” he says. “We are destined to be…the example of what a first-rate state university can be.”