Tuesday, July 12, 2005 | Philosophy books and bird watching have made Steve Weber a patient man. Facing budget cuts and population pressures in his sixth year as President of San Diego State University, the distinguished Doctor of Philosophy reflects serenely upon the intellectual progress of the human race in the past 400 years with the conviction that great minds will triumph over passing tribulations. His words paint the university as a warrior of public education, carrying a long and vital legacy into an uncertain future. Weber talks of castle moats, tidal waves and trusting the young.
How would you describe today’s generation of young people?
I like to think of today’s young people as opportunity seeking missiles. They understand and resonate with the 21st century. They are very comfortable with diversity, with technology, with internationalism and globalization.
They also have a changed sense of the world in which they are going to assume positions of leadership. For example, we have a student body that is devoting more of its studies to languages and international studies than every before. And that’s not because I told them to, it’s because they know that they’re preparing themselves to compete with people from Korea, Japan, Germany.
What is your educational philosophy?
Well I’m a philosopher by trade, so I’ve got more to say than you’ll want to hear.
I believe the human experiment is ongoing and that we have learned and grown as a human community over time. There was a time that growth, around the capitals of China or Alexandria, or Athens or Rome, wasn’t led by universities. But within the last 300 or 400 years, the cutting edge of human experience, more than in any other institution, has resided in universities. That’s why I wanted to make my life part of universities – because I think the most interesting life is to be where the action is.
The thing that makes American universities so extraordinary is that we have the capacity to make educational opportunities open to a very wide segment of our society. Because of that, a lot of people develop ideas and capacities that never would have been imagined. A lot of societies start to weed kids out when they’re like 10 years old, and pass over a huge amount of human talent. Not to make a negative comparison with other countries – it’s a function of our wealth.
Have rising admissions standards at SDSU made it harder to reach a broad segment of San Diego’s population?
It used to be the case that any student that met the minimum qualifications for admission to the California State University system could come to SDSU. But over time, so many people wanted to come that the state wasn’t in the position to fund them. This past fall, we had 49,000 applications for only 8,400 spots, so the university has become very competitive.
From a societal point of view, we have just as diverse a student body as before, so that hasn’t changed. But we do have a far more productive collegiate experience – we have more of them proceeding along to get degrees and education credentials that California is investing in to lead to positions of responsibility and leadership.
What, beyond the books, should universities be offering their students?
A lot of people think our job is to teach classes or to confer degrees, but it’s not true. Our real job is human growth and development – providing leadership skills and social opportunities. Students learn as much from one another as they do from faculty and staff.
What challenges lie ahead for the university?
The biggest challenge, I would say, is how to accommodate California’s increasing need for well-educated workers. We are in the midst of what’s called “Tidal Wave II” now – a rapid increase of college-age students which is to continue until at least 2015. Gearing up for all those students and making access available for them – California is having a hard time doing that right now.
Secondly, the greatness of California is that it has had the same kind of integration of talent which drove cities like New York a hundred years ago. How do we realize the potential of that talent? If you look at the future of San Diego, it lies with new immigrants. And if those new immigrants don’t have the educational experiences that they need, then frankly it won’t be possible for our city to prosper.
How is SDSU meeting those challenges?
It comes down to walking the talk. Two examples: We [SDSU] run three schools in City Heights. That’s 5,500 students from San Diego’s poorest community. Another example is that we are partnered with the Sweetwater District in the South Bay, with grades 7-12, the second largest and most diverse secondary school system in the state of California. We worked with them to completely transform their curriculum and in return we guaranteed that every student that goes through the curriculum admission to San Diego State. We gave that guarantee to 35,000 students, many, many, many of whom are first-generation students, sons and daughters of immigrants who had a dream but who don’t know how to make the dream real.
Is the new trolley stop making the “walk” any easier?
It used to be, 100 years ago, that great universities preserved their greatness by building moats around them. Great universities now build bridges. The trolley is one more bridge – a very important bridge that goes all the way down to San Ysidro and East County, making it possible for almost two-thirds of San Diego’s population to get here.
What book should be read by every university student?
I am 63 years old – what 63-year-old would be presumptuous enough to tell a 20-year-old what book to read? They’ve got to find the way themselves. We can help them – we can teach them how to read and how to ask the right questions, but they’ve got to find the books that will speak to a world that’s completely different than my world.
And I trust that they’ll find the right ones.
– JESSICA L. HORTON, Voice Contributing Writer
Please contact Jessica L. Horton directly at