The word “transition” is usually a good description for this time of year, when seasons change and the University prepares for the fall quarter with feelings of expectation and renewal. But this year we are facing transitions on a large and unfamiliar scale. Uncertainty about the future threatens to distract us from the opportunity to find new ways to accomplish our mission.
In some ways, California State University, East Bay finds itself dealing with apprehension similar to what was expressed at its beginning, 50 years ago this month, when the first classes for the State College of Alameda County were offered in a handful of high school classrooms and a county office building in Hayward.
The challenge then was to create a college for trailblazers who, on the first day of instruction on Sept. 25, 1959, amounted to just 293 juniors and seniors. Funding for a campus for those first “pioneers” was uncertain and a number of proposed sites for the permanent campus had been rejected by the state. Yet, by all reports, that fall there was an air of optimism and excitement among students, faculty, and staff, and a determination by community leaders to bring accessible higher education to the East Bay.
When we first opened our doors a half-century ago, Alameda and Contra Costa counties had together grown by 268,000 people in the 10 years since the census in 1950, but still had no state university to help generate the intellectual capital that would make the region an economic powerhouse. And as the East Bay population of 1.3 million in 1960 leaped by more than a million by the 2000 census, the development of an acclaimed University generated more than 100,000 alumni – 85 percent of whom still live here and today have an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion to the local economy.
How strange it is then, that state budget support for higher education has fallen so far behind, despite indicators that universities dynamically stimulate the economy. But we are still the inheritors of our founders’ vision, and have recognized that to maintain our momentum into the 21st century alongside these unprecedented challenges we must make the concept of agility one of our survival skills.
It is important that we use this transition period to develop those survival skills that allow us to manage transformational change and see this time as a chance to reinvent ourselves and find new ways of doing things. This is absolutely necessary if we are to improve and meet the shared vision we devised almost three years ago as our seven mandates.
For example, we know that we need to prepare students so they can step into, and even invent, fields of endeavor that don’t exist today. I have to admit that in my own field of engineering there have been developments in recent years I could not have dreamed of when I was a university student. The adaptability we show in facing our fiscal crisis may also allow us to lead students into considering what their degree fields will be like generations from now.
For the last six summers we have given a book to students who have been accepted to attend Cal State East Bay as freshmen in the fall quarter. We ask them to read the book before September, join in online discussions, and share what they’ve learned at our annual freshman convocation in September.
The book chosen for this year’s incoming freshman class is similar to those chosen previously, dealing with a young person’s search for family history and a meaning to their life. This year’s book is about what the author calls “the fluid state of identity” and was written in 1995 by an obscure law school graduate by the name of Barack Obama.
Like many of our students, the future president of the United States wrestled with roadblocks and challenges to achieve his goals, detailed in the book “Dreams from My Father, A Story of Race and Inheritance.”
One of the elements of the book that is most interesting to me is when the man who eventually became leader of the free world decided in 1983 that his life’s fulfillment would be to become “a community organizer.” There certainly was no college degree in community organizing at that time, although he did major in political science at Columbia University and graduated from Harvard Law School.
“When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly,” he wrote. “Instead I’d pronounce on the need for change.”
One thing he was certain of, however, and that was that “communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men.”
In a sense, for Cal State East Bay to fulfill the mission set by its founders we must acknowledge that we’re also in the dream business, with a sense of duty to our community that would make President Obama smile. I would like him to know that last year Cal State East Bay students contributed more than 37,000 hours of community service, helping tend those “gardens” that serve the neighborhoods, families and neediest individuals of our region.
And as we fulfill the dreams of a better life for tens of thousands of students, it remains our responsibility to think about the future. To maintain our commitment to regional stewardship we must continue our emphasis on community service as well as creating advances in teaching and research in our academic disciplines, and improving the ways we support our students. I will be sharing additional thoughts on this subject at the annual Fall Convocation on Sept. 21.
This time of transition is a period for building on the optimism we feel despite the challenges facing higher education throughout California. It is a time for recalling the excitement of those first students 50 years ago, enjoying the expectations for a new fall quarter and anticipating a brighter future for the University and those we serve.