When I sat down with San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman for this Q&A session on Wednesday, he tossed a question my way before I even had my notes out.
“Tell me about your SDSU experience,” he said.
I walked him through my history with the university, from my admission in 2002, through my work at The Daily Aztec and to my involvement today as an instructor in the College of Extended Studies.
He listened earnestly. It’s the type of question he’s been asking all around town lately as he learns about the university he took the helm of in July 2011, coming from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
I listened earnestly, then, as he answered questions about the state budget, the school’s neighborhood relations and his predictions for the Aztecs in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
You decided to become a university president in California at a time of quite a lot of dysfunction in state government. And, you seem like a sane person. So, I want to know what compelled you to make that decision.
In thinking about this issue it’s very, very important to make a distinction between the short term and the long term. So, in the short term, obviously, all the California universities face challenges associated with our budgetary situations. But in the long term when you look at San Diego State University, what you see is an institution with enormous strength.
And so if you look at, for example, student success, we’ve had the highest increase in graduation rates in the country.
And it’s not just about graduation rates. Many of our students are achieving at the highest level. So, we had 10 Fulbright scholars this year. If you look at our research, it’s now at about $150 million a year.
Now of course, there are short-term challenges, which we’re addressing. But I think the long-term picture is why someone takes a university presidency.
You touted that research. Some people question whether that’s the right direction for the university. It’s not necessarily the mandate for a CSU school.
The educational mission always has been and always will be the core of the institution. As the institution has developed, what the faculty, staff and students have recognized is that research brings so much more to the educational program. Students get to engage with faculty and staff members who have cutting-edge knowledge, who have access to cutting-edge technologies.
One of our students who came from Chula Vista, she has worked in an immunology lab here at San Diego State. She’s now going on to a Ph.D program at Harvard. That’s an example of student success that has really fueled our research initiatives and our research endeavors.
Now that’s one student who has a great story, right. But as this school becomes a better university and academic standards get higher, is this still a place that average Joe Student can come and gain that basic knowledge to go into the world and get a good job?
This year, we have 70,000 applications for 4,000 slots. We of course want to be sensitive to the needs of students in our local area. We also want to be sensitive and fair to high-achieving students all over California who want to attend SDSU.
Even if we doubled the size of our freshman class, there still would be many, many, many students who couldn’t necessarily attend San Diego State.
So we really have a broader public policy issue about how we’re going to facilitate access. San Diego State has to be a part of the solution but simply can’t be the whole solution because the numbers are so daunting.
This university has classically had challenges with its neighbors with the student body being drunk, rowdy, causing problems. Do you still hear those concerns from neighbors and what do you tell them?
I just met yesterday with a group of local neighbors and they’re actually quite happy with the relationship. There have been a number of steps taken by the university, most notably the enforcement of the student code of conduct off campus as well as on campus.
We want to be a good neighbor. What is good for this local area is good for this university.
What more can be done than what you’re doing right now?
One of the ideas that we talked about was seeing if we could encourage our faculty and staff who might be interested to consider living in the nearby area. Some already do and they enjoy it quite a bit. That would in some ways help anchor the neighborhoods.
Do you mean encouraging them by some sort of financial incentive?
We haven’t worked on the details, it was an idea that came up in the meeting and we’ll see.
How involved have you been in discussions about a new football stadium in San Diego?
I have not been personally involved in any depth in those discussions. There of course are a variety of groups that have been talking about it, but it’s still very, very early in the process.
So when you say “any depth” …
So of course people talk to me about this all the time, but I haven’t been involved for example in discussions with the Chargers, with the principals and others in any great depth.
Is it safe to say you would like to see a new football stadium in San Diego?
We want to be sure that there’s an appropriate place for the football team to play and that would be the guiding values as we go forward.
So when you got here, you received a somewhat cold reception in San Diego over your salary.
I don’t think that’s true. I think people have been really, really supportive. There are of course always bumps in the road in the presidential transition. But I can’t say enough about how supportive people on campus have been, people in the community.
Do you feel it in any way distracted from your entrance into San Diego?
No, we’re focused on the things we need to do as an institution. And I think people in the community are very supportive of the institution. So we’ve been moving forward.
SDSU’s just now in the last couple of years been able to get back into bowl games for college football. It makes me wonder your stance on the BCS system in general.
The way I think about all of these systems is are they structured so that we can reward excellence and bring forth the best teams while supporting students in their educational programs and as student athletes. I think the system we have right now is probably as good as we’re going to get on some of these issues.
I know there have been discussions about a playoff system and would that be better. I don’t know if it necessarily would be. I think the system we have right now works well in a number of ways. I do foresee it continuing for quite a while.
I’m cautious of the playoff system because of the burden extra games place on players.
Can you give me a score prediction for the men’s basketball game on Friday?
I’m gonna say San Diego State 66, North Carolina State will put up 54.
And how deep into the tournament do you think these Aztecs can go?
I’m looking for a Final Four.
Interview conducted and edited by Sam Hodgson, who is a freelance photojournalist and contributor to voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him at email@example.com and check out his work on his website.