Mitchell reviews past decade as university president

By Steven Barker

News Editor

In July 2004, Horace Mitchell became the President of California State University, Bakersfield. The conclusion of the 2013-2014 school year marked his tenth full year in office.

The following entry is a question-and-answer article in which Mitchell reflects on the progression of his career, some of his highlights during his presidency, the current state of CSUB and his future plans for the university.

Steven Barker: Before you became CSUB’s president in 2004, you worked in higher education for 36 years. How did your career unfold in those 36 years, and what were those years like for you?

Horace Mitchell: I actually started my career very young. I graduated from Washington University in Saint Louis with my bachelor’s degree, and to my surprise, when I started to work on my master’s degree, I was offered the position of Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences there when I was 23 years old, which was a surprise to me and fairly unusual.

When I finished the master’s degree, I continued at Washington University to earn a Ph.D., and I continued to work as Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences that whole time on a full-time basis while I was a full-time graduate student. That worked out well. Then, when I finished my degree, I was looking to move into a faculty position, so I looked at positions at various universities, and it turns out that my alma mater, Washington University, offered me the kind of position I wanted, which was as an assistant professor in counseling psychology and African-American studies. My interests at that point centered largely around what was called at-the-time ‘minority mental health.’

I stayed in that role for five years after being assistant dean for five years there, so that was 10 years at Washington U, and again, the first five in administration, the last five as a tenure-track faculty member.

Then I left Washington University in 1978 to go to UC Irvine, where I spent a total of 17 years, from 1978-1995. My first role at Irvine was as an adjunct assistant professor in a program called ‘social ecology,’ which is the department that has psychologists primarily but other social scientists as well. Also, I served as Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at Irvine.

One of the assignments that the Vice Chancellor asked me to take on was to work with the dean of the medical school who was having some issues with the student affairs organization. I went over and worked with the dean and made some recommendations to him about how student affairs ought to be organized, funded, staffed, etc. After that, he asked me if I would be willing to come over and implement what I had just outlined for him, so I did that. On an interim basis, while they did a national search for an assistant dean in that area, and at the end of the national search, I was selected, so I served as Assistant Dean of the medical school at Irvine for Student and Curricular Affairs from early 1980 until 1984, when I was selected to be the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at Irvine following a national search. I was in that role from 1984 until I went to UC Berkeley in 1995, so 11 years as Vice Chancellor.

I went to Berkeley in what was a different position for me given my background, in that Chancellor Tien, who was the Chancellor at the time, was recruiting for a Vice Chancellor for Administration to head up all of the business operations at the Berkeley campus. When he had someone approach me about that, I wasn’t jumping for that, and people thought there was something wrong with me about not jumping at maybe a possibility to go to Berkeley. It was all about the nature of the work.

The only time that Chancellor Tien had not been at Berkeley in his full professional career was the two years that he spent at Irvine as the Executive Vice Chancellor. So he and I worked together while he was at Irvine, and he left after two years to become Chancellor at Berkeley. It was five years later that he then inquired about my interest in looking at this position.

My initial response to him was, ‘Berkeley is already number one. I can’t imagine what my being there could do to increase that.’ And what he said to me was, ‘Well Berkeley is number one academically,’ but he said ‘I fear that we’re losing the administrative capacity to support Berkeley’s academic mission.’ Okay, so that resonated with me a little bit more. If I could do something to help strengthen the capacity of the administrative side of campus to support Berkeley’s academic mission, that would be something worth doing, so after further discussions, he offered me that position, and I became the Chancellor for Business and Administrative Services for Berkeley in April of 1995. I stayed in that role until I came to CSUB in July of 2004. All of a sudden that’s 36 years.

SB: At what point in that process did you realize that you wanted to become President of a university? And what drew you to CSUB specifically?

HM: As I had spent more and more time in higher education and – beginning at Irvine I was a member of the President’s Cabinet for the 11 years that I was Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs there. Obviously you see what the President – in this case, Chancellor – does and how all of that works, and I sort of got the feeling at some point that I could probably do this, but I wasn’t in any hurry to do it, so the idea was that, at some point, this is something that I might do. So when I went to Berkeley, there were many challenges administratively, and I discovered early on that the Chancellor was right – that there was a lot of work to be done, and so I committed to doing that. My thought was, ‘Okay, maybe in three or four years we’ll get that pretty well in shape,’ except Berkeley at that point was well over 100 years old, and things weren’t changing as fast as what I had in mind. It took me probably about seven years before it got to the point where I felt that my leaving might be okay. In a sense, I wanted to make a certain amount of progress.

About that time, I started thinking, ‘Okay, if the right opportunity comes along, I’d be open to becoming a university president.’ But I was clear in that I didn’t want to rush it. I didn’t want to go out-of state, for example; my family and I enjoy living in California, so if the right opportunity came up in California, then I’d look at it etc.

So while I was at Berkeley, I got a call from the search consultant who was working on the Presidential search for CSUB, and they said they were inquiring about my possible interest in the Presidency at CSU Bakersfield. And, well what I told them quite honestly was, ‘Well, it wasn’t on the radar screen; I hadn’t seen that, so I couldn’t answer the question until my wife and I had an opportunity to come down and visit the university, visit the community, do some research, get some background to see whether or not it’s something that I might want to do,” because I wasn’t interested in simply being a college president. I was interested in being at a place that I would enjoy spending time and recognize that it was very much about relationships and goals and priorities and progress and all that.

After we visited the campus and community, I said to the search consultant, ‘Okay, I’m willing to have my hat in the ring on this.’ About a month later, when I was announced as one of three finalists, I said to my wife, ‘This could happen; we better go back down to Bakersfield, do some more research and make sure this is something that we would want to do.’ It was really important that this was something she wanted to do as well as something that I wanted to do.

We did that, and that affirmed for me, not only the idea of ‘Put my hat in the ring’; it became a situation where I decided ‘I want to do this; I want to be appointed to this position.’ Part of that was because I had looked at the university, I had a sense of where it was, but because I had 36 years in higher education before that – 10 years at a private university (Washington University in Saint Louis) and 17 years at Irvine and just under 10 years at Berkeley – it was a pretty good sampling of how universities work and what might be possible. So my sense was that this was a place where my being here could make a difference, which was a criterion for me in any decision that I would make.

Fortunately, the Board of Trustees selected me for the position, and as you pointed out, it’s 10 years later. The time has gone very, very quickly; I’ve enjoyed being here; my wife has enjoyed being here. We have outstanding faculty and staff in the university who are very dedicated to our students and our community, and together, with the students, we’ve all worked very hard to keep the university moving forward in a number of things.

SB: So we just mentioned that this last school year concluded your tenth full school year here. What have been some of the highlights for you during your 10 years here as President of the university?

HM: Interesting that you should ask that, because next Monday I will have my annual university day address, and part of it centers around the successes that we have had as a campus working together over those 10 years, and there are quite a number of htem.

During the 10 eyars, about seven of those years we had consistent budget reductions, which was just a major, major challenge for us. But at the same time, we made a decision early on that we wanted to see more students who are in high school here in Greater Bakersfield go straight to a four-year institution. The year I started, there was roughly about 750 or so first-time freshman coming straight to CSUB from high school. I can’t remember what the exact percentage was, but among the students who are eligible, this was a minority of students coming to CSUB and, in fact, going on to college at all. Our college-going rate at that point was about half of the state college going-rate.

We set up some goals to increase the freshman enrollment from that 750 to, initially, 800, then 900, then 1000, then 1100, 1200 and last year it was over 1300 first-time freshman. We expect that again this year as well.

We did that without reducing our commitment to the enrollment of community-college students or returning students. It was just an added emphasis to get more students prepared to go to college, so we worked with our partners in K-12 education, community colleges and community-based groups to help get students prepared. Then, what was interesting relative to the budget is that we reached a point where our budget, as part of the CSU overall budget, continued to get reduced, so it caused there to be a limit on how many students we could enroll. Our sense was that we didn’t want to tell students who had worked hard to be prepared to come to the university that there wasn’t any room for them. So we continued to generate resources to help students be able to enroll here.

To this point, we’ve never denied admission to any eligible student from this region. That’s been very important to us, and that’s consistent with the goals that we have about educational attainment.

In addition to increasing freshman enrollment and enrollment generally in the university, we have also had an emphasis on adding new academic programs, particularly new academic programs that are responsive to the workforce and economic development needs of our community and the industries that are in our community. For years we tried to get some state support to start some engineering programs and also to start some programs in agriculture. There were no funds; in fact, there were reductions.

We decided to meet with some of these industry executives and say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to be able to have, in the case of engineering, a full-blown engineering program with mechanical and civil and these other large resource-intensive programs, so what would be helpful?’ The answer we got back was ‘Computer engineering.’ Our sense was that [computer engineering] was certainly something that we might be able to do, so when we built Science III, we intended to have that building be one where computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering would be housed there. But the state, when they provide money for computers, give you the run-of-the-mill, everyday desktop, and we needed something that would be state-of-the-art because it would be for computer and electrical engineering and computer science.

We did a fundraising campaign for about a million dollars to be able to generate the resources to put high-end computers in the Science III building, which we were successful in doing.

There were still no state funds to start any programs, so our faculty and the Dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics wrote grants to several different federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and others. We coddled together out of all of that more than 6 million dollars or so, the biggest grant being $4 million from the U.S. Department of Education over five years to start our computer engineering program. Since we knew we would add electrical engineering, when the recruitments were going on for professors of computer engineering, we also wanted to look for people who had a background in both areas. We found that, and we started computer engineering probably four years ago. A year-and-a-half later, we started electrical engineering. This past year, we started engineering sciences with a concentration in petroleum engineering as one of those. That was a way of responding, and we had good support for that – and not from the state, but from our local community. Then, for agriculture, when we met with the agricultural executives, we said, ‘We’re not going to have major farms and livestock and these kinds of programs, so what can we do to be helpful to your industry?’ They said: ‘We don’t need that; We’ve got that at Fresno State, we’ve got that at Cal Poly.’ They said, ‘What we need is agribusiness.’ They said because their operations were increasingly larger and more complex, and they were not able to get at that point enough managers or enough managers who would stay long enough to meet their needs. We said okay.

We created a concentration in agribusiness within our bachelor’s of business administration program. The agricultural firms supported that. We have an advisory board for that program that is chaired by Jeff Green from Grimmway Farms and representatives from the various agricultural companies. That program is moving very well, and they’re taking up students as fast as we can produce them.

Doubling back to engineering for a moment, the actual enrollment in our engineering programs are well ahead of our projections at this point. We see both of those areas as being areas of continued growth.

Another area that people saw as being a problem was, initially in the oil fields (but in other business operations as well), there’s a need for people with backgrounds in health and safety management – again, especially in the oil fields, because people were trying to be committed to reducing accidents and such that everybody gets home safely. Aera Energy gave us a major endownment to start a program in health and safety management within our environmental resource management program, and the money they put forward was then added to by other companies who also identified that – because, just as was true for the agriculture firms, many firms found that they could not keep health and safety officers. They would have to recruit somebody from the outside and then they would stay for a while and they would leave and they leave and then you have to find somebody else, so they were excited about the possibility of there being such a program here, where local students could get that kind of training, and the likelihood being that they would stay, and that certainly has been the case.

Those have just been some examples. Certainly another milestone I say would be the decision we made to transition from NCAA Division II to Division I. That has gone well. We have not been able to put as many resources into that as I had planned because of the budget cuts. The original plan was that we would build it up by adding additional funding each year but instead we’ve been reducing all of the budgets on the campus. And, one of the things that made the move to Division I happen is that, in the Spring of 2005, students held a student fee referendum and decided to provide funding to help move us to Division I. That referendum also provided funding to build the Student Recreation Center and to also provide more funding for more student clubs and organizations.

That was an example where ASI in particular but students in general really identified with that portion of the university’s vision having to do with enhancing the quality of the student experience. In addition to the move to Division I and more money for student clubs and organizations and the Rec Center, we also had determined at that point that we would build more student housing, except that we didn’t have any money to do it, and the small amount of money we had was used up. It is only now that we, in the last couple of years, have been able to get back to the point of being able to fund the student housing projects. As you know, it is under construction and will probably be finished in November, maybe end of October. Students will move in in January. That was an example of a casualty of the budgets because we were able to do that five years later than what we had planned, but we’re doing it, it’s working, and it’s there. A

Also important in this regard is that we made some decisions to change the structure of our academic schools. We had, when I started, a School of Education, and we decided to combine the departments in the School of education with the social sciences departments, which were in what was a School of Humanities and Social Sciences, to create a School of Social Sciences and Education. We recruited a new dean for that. That allowed us to create a school of Arts & Humanities, which allowed us to make more visible the great strengths that we have in the arts and humanities. We recruited a new dean for that.

The two schools that remained relatively the same – Business and Public Administration, we didn’t do anything with that school except to keep pushing them to do the things that they needed to be doing (as they were) – and we didn’t do anything in terms of reorganization of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics except that, with the addition of all of these engineering programs, we changed the name of the school to Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering, which is its current name. We’ve recruited a new dean for that one as well.

Those are some of the highlights. And then the most recent highlight, which I think will have far-reaching benefits, is the decision that we made to change our academic calendar from quarters to semesters. The faculty has been fully engaged in that; all of the relevant administrative units have been engaged in that. I was very excited to see that, for 67-percent of our academic programs, our faculty decided that, not only would they convert courses from a quarter format to a semester format, but they decided this would be a once-in-a-career opportunity to really re-conceptualize the nature of their academic programs. They moved beyond course conversion to curriculum transformation, which is really excellent. Those curriculum transformations should be done in the next month or so. They’ve been moving along well, and everything for the semester conversion has to be done essentially a year ahead of time because we have to tell people what that year’s going to be like, having done it [and] having organized it.

Next year will actually be our last year on quarters, and after that we will be on a semester academic calendar.

I think that’s important because all of our students – well, virtually all of our students – come into CSUB having gone to school either in a community college or high school that was on a semester system, and many of htem just are not ready to handle quarters. Not everybody – some students find that a good way to go, but for many students, being in college is a new thing by itself, and not having the daily homework assignments that you have in a lot of other situations, they have fallen way behind without knowing it. All of a sudden there’s a midterm, and they’re not where they need to be, and there’s no time to catch up because it’s only 10 weeks. But in a semester system, there’s recovery time, there’s time for faculty to get feedback from the students about how things are going with them in terms of what they’re learning and how they’re perceiving and accepting the instruction and what would be additions to the instruction to increase their understanding etc. I think it’s a good idea and we’re moving very far on it, and it took a long period of time in terms of discussions about whether or not we should do this, and we made this decision about roughly three years ago. The timing of it was dependent on when we would get the resources.

The [CSU] Chancellor made the decision in the Spring of 2012 to cover 100-percent of the I.T. costs and 75-percent of all other costs, and that made it easily doable, where it could not have been doable had we relied on the resources that we had, because they were not enough to do the things we were needing to do.

SB: There are two parts that you touched on that coincide with questions I have here. You mentioned one of the big changes being the transition from Division II to Division I athletics, now with CSUB being in the WAC. What benefits has CSUB seem from being in Division I, and why Division I instead of remaining in Division II?

HM: We had a multi-faceted plan with some interlocking parts. There’s that part of the vision [statement] that talked about enhancing the quality of the student experience. At that point in time, when we made the decision to do that, we were still getting new resources from the state, but those new resources were based on enrollment growth. It was clear that the only way we could get new resources to add new academic programs was to grow our enrollment. By enhancing the quality of the student experience, it would make this a more attractive campus particularly to students right out of high school. By being a more attractive campus, more students would come, not only from our immediate region, but from other parts of the state, and that has happened: from other states, and that has happened, as well as more international students.

The move to Division I wasn’t an end in itself, it was a means to a broader end, namely getting more resources to add more academic programs. Now, as it turned out, we didn’t get new resources and academic programs; we had to be very entrepreneurial to gather together non-state funds to start the programs that I mentioned earlier.

SB: Also, you talked about the seven years of budget cuts. Last year, when we talked about a number of stats like graduation rates and retention rates, you said the budget cuts really set behind some of the goals CSUB wanted to put in place. How does a university go about navigating around budget reductions? What did CSUB do to help cushion itself?

HM: Yeah, it’s a real problem. We had to lay off a number of staff as a result of this. We didn’t reappoint some part-time faculty. A number of faculty retired and we didn’t replace them, all as a way of adjusting the operations of the university to the size of the budget. And at the worst of the budget reductions, which was two years ago, we had lost 40-percent of our state funding. You just can’t do with 40-percent less what you’re doing.

One of the places where we suffered because we’re trying to have primary emphasis on our academic programs is that we did not put enough money into academic support services for students, and in fact, historically most of our academic support services were on grant funds from various sources. That continued to be the case, and we relied on that even more as the budget reductions grew really bad. Now that, over the last year and upcoming year now, things have gotten a little bit better, we have put a major priority on student success and graduation rates. We’ve hired more academic counselors and we’ve hired counselor-coordinators, and we’ve pushed responsibility for providing academic support to students to the schools so that the deans and their staff would see that they have some responsibility for making sure that their students would get the academic support that they need. Again, we assigned advisors and coordinators to each of the schools.

We just finished that hiring this summer. We expect to see some very positive results from that this year and beyond. We also implemented two software programs that support students in the areas of writing and math. One is called MyWritingLab and the other is called MyMathLab. All of our students, graduates as well as undergraduates, have access to those throughout their tenure here at CSUB to get whatever help students need with writing and math.

SB: Let’s take a moment to talk about where CSUB is now. What do you think the state of CSUB is now in its present form?

HM: Well, I think we’re doing well. We’re not quite where I want us to be, understandably. We certainly need to continue to work on graduation rates for our students, and the metric is always six-year graduation rates. But, a lot of our students come not thinking, ‘I’m going to be done in four, five, or six years,’ but ‘I’m going to work at it, and over the next whatever-the-number-of-years-might-be, I’ll get it done.’ That’s not to excuse our graduation rates, which, at this point, six-year graduation rates, for the last couple [of] cohorts, is right at 40-percent. System-wide, it’s at about 54-percent. We want to be there too, but what’s interesting is, probably, if we had not increased our enrollment, or, what some campuses have done – and we have not been able to do – some campuses have made the decision not to admit students who need remediation. When students need remediation in math and/or English, and especially when it’s both, that alone significantly stretches out the timeframe for graduation. And to the extent that we have a higher percentage of those students than some other campuses, then we’ll have a lower six-year graduation rate. We still want those students to finish, but they might not finish in the normative six-year timeframe.

SB: You touched on remediation being a setback to graduation within six years; why do you think it is that CSUB has lagged behind in terms of graduation rates? You mentioned the 14-percent differential. What do you think some of the reasons are for that?

HM: Well, again, I think it is the percentage of students we have who need remediation. If you take a campus like Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo, they have the highest graduation rate, but they are what’s called ‘impacted.’ They can pick-and-choose only the best students, and what we’ve decided is, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to take the students who live here and who need to be educated. 75-percent of our students are first-generation college students. Their parents have no experience with college. In addition to that, over 60-percent of our students are PELL-grant eligible, meaning that they’re low-income students, and our students tend to work more than the average student does. Those factors of being new to college culture and having to work a lot cut down on the time that students have to address remediation issues and others.

One year we started what we refer to as a student-employment initiative, where I allocated about $250,000 across the campus for departments to hire students. The reason was, we wanted students to have an opportunity to work on campus so they’d be on campus longer; they’d have time to go to study groups and visit with their faculty members in their office hours and things like that. After the one year that we did it, the budget kept going down so we couldn’t do it anymore, but that’s something that we see doing for the future because we want to reduce the burden of students in terms of working.

The first quarter after I came here from Berkeley, I was very surprised to find that a significant percentage of the students who had started in the fall were not enrolled for the winter. It was actually alarming to me coming from Berkeley because at Berkeley, the retention rate from one academic term to another was probably 90- to 95-percent. I asked our staff, ‘Is this an anomaly? Let me see what the data is on previous years.’ The answer came back: Well, this is fairly characteristic, but the change in enrollment was not the net of students who didn’t come back, because there were students who were not here in the fall who did come back in the winter. They might have been here in the spring.

We commissioned a study by a couple of our faculty members that came to be known as the ‘stop-out’ study. It showed a persistent pattern among our students of ‘stopping-out.’ What that means is, they might be here for one, two or three quarters, they ‘stop-out’ for a while – work, get resources, come back two or three quarters later – and continue that pattern, which is why I say that, for many of our students, they don’t see themselves graduating in six years.

We need to take a look at, and we can get this, students who graduate even after six years to see how many totally graduate. But the metric is at six-year time frame.

SB: Now, in a sense, we’re passed the vision statement now in terms of the deadline you had for it. What are some of the goals you have looking ahead for CSUB?

HM: And, in fact, we’re going to take that timeframe off the vision statement. Normally, there isn’t a time frame on vision statements because vision statements are always intended to be aspirational, but when I came, I wanted that there so that, as a campus, we had some sense of, we want to move toward this in a timely manner, as opposed to ‘some day, we’ll be there.’ So that’s why we had it there, but we’re going to take that off because one, we’re at that timeframe now, and two, it should be aspirational. That’s something we want to do long-term.

Certainly a big initiative for us is what’s called the student graduation initiative. This is about engaging in high-impact practices that support student retention. A big part of that is student engagement. If students are here for class and gone, that works against retention and graduation. What helps is when students are engaged in student clubs and organizations or athletics or some kind of activity where they also have a cohort of students that they identify with so that they don’t see themselves as alone here. It’s when you see yourself as being alone that you’re more likely to allow things to get into your way, whereas, if you’re a part of a cohort and your cohort is working to move forward, then there’s a sense of a group and something ‘we’ are going to do.

Part of what we’ve done here is we’ve developed a First-Year Experience Program that’s been here for about nine years. Students take CSUB 101 or 301 depending on whether you’re a freshman or transfer student. That’s been important, especially for students whose families are new to higher education; it gives them a cohort with whom they can begin to experience higher education and with whom they can learn the ropes, so to speak, as they’re going through the process together. Those are important courses for us, and we are looking at ways to strengthen that particular program.

The real emphasis is around student success. We probably don’t have much more opportunity to grow in the short run because the state underfunded the CSU Board of Trustees request for an additional $90 million to enroll an additional 20,000 fully-eligible students. With the absence of that funding, then, there [are] essentially ceilings on our enrollment growth. We’ll keep trying to push it some, but there’s a limit to how much you can push it, because if you have the students but you don’t have the resources to have faculty and academic support staff, then you’re hurting your own graduation rates.

In some ways, it’s easy to increase graduation rates. By being ‘impacted’ and being able to say – well, when campuses are ‘impacted,’ they can then use higher admissions criteria. I’m not in favor of that, because we need to serve the students for whom the CSU was designed to serve. But we just need to get more of those students to be fully college-ready by the time they enroll in the university. One of the steps toward that is a program called Early Start, where students who need remediation are now required to begin their remediation before they enroll. That’s an important point.