Elliot Hirshman’s starts his fourth fall at the helm of San Diego State University Monday, with big plans for the future of the school.

Hirshman and his administration are rolling into the second year of an ambitious strategic plan, including the first phase of the escalating Student Success Fee that was approved by students this spring. Somewhat controversial among the student body, the fee – $50 per student each semester this year, reaching $200 per student by 2017-2018 – will mean $13 million more in SDSU’s budget each year. That’ll largely be spent on new tenured professors, plus new equipment, software and other academic necessities.

READ MORE: A Guide to SDSU’s Big Student Fee Fight

I sat down with Hirshman to talk about the details of the strategic plan, his priorities for SDSU at large and what’s ahead for Montezuma Mesa. (Full disclosure: I’m a lecturer at SDSU.)

What have been your biggest challenges as SDSU president?

Certainly the overall upheaval of the higher education environment in California, and the adaptations that we as an innovative university have to make. It’s been a great challenge and exciting.

What are your basic priorities for the university as it moves forward?

One of the reasons we had a strategic planning process was it was an opportunity for the campus to provide input and really come together, and what we found were three themes that came up again and again: focus on our students’ success, building research and creative endeavors at the university and then being sure we both maintain and strengthen our historical connection to the San Diego community and to the broader alumni community.

Why was it so important that the Student Success Fee be approved?

As funding for higher education in California has diminished, it has been very important to identify alternative sources of funding and how we use our resources. As part of the planning process, many people suggested we should have a Student Success Fee specifically dedicated to supporting tenure-track faculty and ensure we have the appropriate course offerings and the appropriate faculty expertise.

Why does the university need more professors?

We’ve had a reduction in state support that’s been very significant, and one change associated with that is we weren’t able to hire as many faculty members. So now we really want to be sure we can hire a faculty that can be supportive of our students and similarly for our staff members who also make great contributions. We want to be sure that we have a large enough group to support our students appropriately.

In terms of budget, how much do you have to work with currently?

The budget of the university and its associated auxiliaries is about $750 million.

Given that, what would you say are the prospects for enrollment, class offerings and the growth of individual departments within the university?

Right now, the university has about 30,000 students, and we think that’s the right size for the size of the campus. We’re only about 225 acres. We don’t envision – unless we can acquire significant property – significant expansion.

In order to serve those students, we want to be sure we have enough faculty and staff and course offerings, and that’s what we’re working very diligently to support, both through the Student Success Fee but also through allocations that are strictly supportive of hiring additional faculty.

Our plan for five years is to hire 300 new tenure-track faculty members and a significant number of additional staff members. This past year, we hired 63 faculty members; our goal is to hire another 60 this year and that will set us on the path for hiring 300 new faculty members in a five-year period.

When we talk about “student success,” is that a matter of quantifying performance or does it go beyond that? If so, how?

Student success has many levels, so we certainly want to ensure that as students come to us, we do everything possible to support them and ensure they move forward in their degree program and develop personally, professionally and intellectually.

But it’s not just about ensuring students get a degree; it’s also about ensuring that they have a transformational educational experience, an experience that will prepare them for the role that they will play in the community in a broader society. We’re focused on undergraduate research opportunities, entrepreneurship opportunities, internships, [and] international experiences like studying abroad. These are all part of what we want students to experience – having mentors who will help them prepare for professional opportunities.

Within the last seven years, SDSU has been ranked the No. 1 most productive research university among schools with 14 or fewer Ph.D programs. How do you plan to develop and grow research endeavors?

We are thinking about our research and creative endeavors as being essential to addressing societal challenges, the biomedical challenges that we have, economic challenges … so what we want to do is create areas of excellence in which we bring multiple faculty together across many disciplines really focused on solving those problems. So we’ve created areas like viromics, which is studying the effects of viruses on the human body. We also have an area on climate and sustainability. We’re hiring additional faculty that will bring expertise and we’re also investing in the infrastructure that they need to be successful.

You seem pretty committed to entrepreneurship.

I became president in the middle of the greatest recession in our country’s history, so the importance of economic development and job creation is something that’s in my mind.

We want to be sure to bring together personal, professional and intellectual development for our students, and entrepreneurship is one aspect of that. It’s having the possibility of thinking about creating businesses, new social enterprises. At the same time there’s a mindset that entrepreneurs have, which is about overcoming challenges, getting it done. I think that’s a very important metaphor for a university, which is to be a place where even though challenges come up, we’re able to come together and overcome them.

What’s the strategy for reaching out to alumni in San Diego and the community at large?

Localizing the support on behalf of the university is very essential to the future of the university. We’re in a period where for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have relatively limited state support. Bringing in that alumni support to be a partner with us is going to be critical to our success. That means higher participation rates than we usually have, and it also means legacy gifts and bequests that create endowments for the university so it can have the support that it needs.

The strategic plan also talks about contributing to the advance of the San Diego region. In what ways?

Let me talk about one program that for me really crystallizes the relationship between San Diego State and both the immediate community and the broad community – the Price Community Scholars. What the program does is give full scholarships to students from the City Heights neighborhood who attend San Diego State and we hope will go on to great things both as alumni of the university but also in support of their community.

At the same time what the program asks the scholars to do is to mentor three middle-school students each year. As freshmen, they start mentoring seventh-graders, and in their four years they mentor those students through their four years. The idea is then that not only are the Price Scholars being supported by the university and going forward and hopefully going back to support their community, but at the same time preparing that next generation to come from that community to the university.

You mention City Heights. The new chancellor of UCSD, Pradeep Khosla, has been advocating equal access to education in San Diego and in higher learning in general. How do you maintain student diversity on campus and how does it enrich the university?

I think it’s important to San Diego State as an institution where we want students, and it does indeed happen that students from all backgrounds achieve academic success. That’s really our model. It’s not a model that divides people into groups. It’s a model that says: How can people from all backgrounds be supported so they can excel and achieve?

I welcome the prospect of UCSD working collaboratively with us to support the community. The other piece that I think is very important, and it’s something that we’re pursuing very aggressively at San Diego State, is that we have an interactive approach to diversity where people from different backgrounds not only succeed and advance but interact with each other [and]see themselves as members of one community. So you’re going to see a lot of discussion about the concept of one SDSU community, a community of everyone, with their different backgrounds, coming together.

David L. Coddon lives in Mission Valley. You can reach him at barrettsd@aol.com.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.