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At the outset of his second semester as president of SF State, Leslie E. Wong sat down with Xpress Editor-in-chief Kale Williams. In the final installment of our three-part interview, Wong discusses promoting the Gator brand, the new leadership at the top of the CSU and his vision of the future for SF State.
LEW: We’ve done some pretty exciting experiments. We’ve gotten down to some pretty fundamental things of just using purple and gold. We’ve had a billboard up on 7th and Brannan that I thought was pretty cool. The owner of the board gave it to us for free, for a month, and a student class devised the shoes theme. I’m not sure if you’ve seen that, it’s shoes with gator sports on it. The merchandising out of the bookstore is so much better now with gator stuff on it. In just one semester’s time the amount of attention to purple and gold, to the gators, to the athletic events, with our public information office, with our volleyball team doing well, getting into the NCAAs, with men’s track and field ending up in 19th or 20th. We’ve really done a lot to get our brand, if you may, out there and be more consistent with purple and gold and those kind of things.
We’ve met with representatives from the media to talk more about using purple and gold and gators for some more visibility. As you know, the game with Berkeley and USF was phenomenal. Berkeley won’t talk much about it because we played them better than some of the Pac12 teams are playing right now. My understanding is that we have a contract next year to play Washington State University up in Washington and I believe we are close to a Big East team, which will get San Fracisco State out in Division I basketball cirlcles. The women’s sports teams have done well. People are noticing our presence in a lot of different weays. I feel pretty good, in a very short amount of time we’ve been able to get our colors, our brand, out there.
Even the discussion about whether gators are the future or not, is out there right now. It showed up on Twitter this last week. You know, “Why would we waste time and money?” that kind of thing, looking at gators etcetera. As we talked about last time, we’re trying to get everything into rhythm and we’ll continue to work on that, but we’ve also tried to be pretty visible about academic successes.
A faculty member, an up-and-rising science star was invited to the White House. We won a number of very significant grants, very prestigious research grants. A philosophy professor gets named to an award and we’re really trying to get that out in front of people. We’ve had a number of conversations with some students who won some very prestigious awards from an organization called ARCS, and we’re the only state school in the competition for that, with Berkeley, UCSF, Stanford. I’m really quite proud of the eight to ten students that won awards and scholarships from that group.
We’re really trying to tell our story more effectively, more consistently. I’ve been very pleased. I told you last time that I didn’t want to win the Heisman trophy in the first semester. You have to pace yourself and try to set yourself up right. We have a great story to tell and we’ve been much more consistent in telling that story when we get out there.
KW: But you still have your eyes on the Heisman?
LEW: You know, we have a lot to be proud of and I am not embarrassed to tell that story whenever I get a chance to do that. We have some people who have been helping me, from Senator Feinstein and Leader Pelosi to Representative Speier, we’ve been doing real well. Meeting with the mayor on a regular basis talking about better cooperation to push San Francisco educational opportunities. I’ve been meeting with Superintendant Carranza to make sure that our connection is solid. It’s really been going well. In a couple years, we’ll win the Heisman, but we’re going to pace ourselves.
KW: Another thing that we talked about last time was you wanting to forge connections with local leaders of industry. It sounds like you’ve been meeting with a lot of political-types, but I’m wondering if your schedule has allowed you to make any of those connections that you were anticipating last semester.
LEW: It’s been really kind of a fun thing to get near the corporate leadership of San Francsico. From Bank of America to Wells Fargo to healthcare. I shouldn’t have mentioned them by brandname, but even some of the major health care providers like Kaiser Permanente. I’ve been able to get into the CEO’s office and talk about the relationship, for example, between Kaiser Permanente and San Francisco State. We’ve been well received by the corporate leadership in San Francisco. That really has been across all the industries, from banking to healthcare. I’ve even met with some of the leadership at Clorox out of Oakland. I shouldn’t be mentioning brand names because we’re trying to meet with everyone to try and create some opportunites for students. That includes some of the major players in industry in Taiwan, also in Beijing as well. That’s been going really, really well
KW: You said last time we spoke that you anticipated spending a lot of your time trying to solicit donations from alums and from private donors. Are there any accomplishments in that area that you’d like to share with us?
LEW: We’re going to announce some big ones at the investiture. so I can’t let the cat out of the hat right at this moment. The Student First campaign is moving along wonderfully. I have to bite my tongue, but we’ll make some announcements about that as well. The fundraising part is going really well.
KW: We’ll keep our ears open. There has been a change at the top of the CSU with Timothy White coming in to replace Chancellor Charles Reed. What do you hope to see out of the new leadership at the CSU?
LEW: Dr. White has just been phenomenal. He’s my kind of guy. We actually met by teleconference so that I didnt have to get on a plane to Southern California. He and I have had some personal interactions on issues that have been effecting San Francisco State. The presidents have been meeting with him. Not only a gentle, proactive, student-centered focus, but just bright. I think the world of him.
I think Dr. Reed did a terrific job getting the boat through the storm. Chancellor White has been setting a terrific stage to really get our step back into the successes as a system that we should be very proud of. It’s been just wonderful working with him.
KW: It seems like there has been some good news recently. We had Prop. 30 pass, we had the governor submit a budget, it hasn’t been approved yet, but a fairly CSU-friendly budget. As you look forward, if the good news continues, what will your goal be if there is a significant reinvestment in higher education in California? Where would you like to see the campus get back to, or even exceed where it was at its peak?
LEW: What a terrific question. What we are going to get very serious about is the development of a strategic plan. I’ve been working with different constituents on campus to get their input on how to shape the process for the development of that strategic plan. I hope, in late spring, to release that plan to campus so that everyone can have input on it. That’s where the answer to your question will come from.
The strategic plan really will be a map for us into 2020, 2025, that really is bigger than any players. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. The strategic plan is really a testament to the goals of the campus and our aspirations and part of the way in how to get there. Now I don’t plan on getting hit by a bus anytime soon, but I look forward to having that discussion because everybody learns a new perspective on the university. I look forward to that.
I’ve always enjoyed strategic planning, opening it up. We have got so much talent on campus, our ability to affirm values that are important to us and also stake out some new territory in the future, I think, will be an exciting piece. The answer to your question lies in how energetic we are in getting that process launched. I had told the campus when I came, that I wanted to spend a year learning and by our first faculty meeting in the fall we will launch that whole thinking, planning process after a lot of input from people, students included.
We also have accreditation in March. They’ll affirm the quality of work that we do with students. Their visit is in the early part of March and their presence on campus will be quite obvious. They’ll meet with students and leadership and faculty and staff. That’ll affirm our strengths. It will affirm our awareness of who we are, and the shortcomings too. More importantly, it will start a conversation about what we’re going to do about them. What do we do with those strengths and what do we do to repair the weaknesses that are identified? That’s good for an institution and we’ll take that as a good point to start talking about the futuure.
KW: And that will inform the strategic plan, I imagine?
KW: What are some concrete goals that you have for this semester? What are some things that don’t exist now, that you want to see exist? Some programs that you want to see either bolstered or eliminated? What do you want to see happen by the end of the semester?
LEW: If I was to be my own self-critic, I don’t think I put myself in front of students enough to listen to them. I felt good about the events with Adenike and the leadership group. Running in to students impromptu was pretty good. Interacting with all of you at the newspaper was terrific, but there was a part of me that if I was to give myself only an average grade, I would’ve liked to have been around students a lot more than I was. Fine, people saw me at sporting events and a variety of different things, but I think I could have been better about that. This semester I hope to have a lot more of those listening sessions with students. We’re woking on a schedule for that. I’ve told the staff that I’m not going to travel nearly as much as I did this past semester. I think that the karma of being the new guy, we’ve handled that and now I think I need to talk to the constitiuency and be on-campus.
KW: In that vein, this is your opportunity to say whatever you’d like to all of our readers. If there is anythiing I haven’t covered that you’d like to touch upon? Or any sort of general statement that you’d like our readers to hear from you?
LEW: There is always a part of me, when you learn more and more about an institution, my expectations have been exceeded by the talent of students and their involvement, the talent of faculty and their involvement and I’m going to learn how to tell that story better. I’ve just been very thrilled by what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard from students, what I’ve heard from faculty.
I’m going to be able to help everybody lift their head up out of the storm for the last five years and look to see what can San Francisco State be and what do we need to do to make that happen. A lot more listening on campus, a lot more getting out. I give myself an average grade for getting around our employees, for example, some of the staff people and really getting into substantial discussion about their work here. What are they worried about? Those kind of things. I hope to do more of that this semester. I don’t mean this to flatter you, but you actually got me to read both the print and the online (newspaper). Both are exceptional. You’ve kept your independence, you’ve kept the standard up. You’ve done the funny stuff, the flirtatious stuff and the serious stuff, with good balance and good quality. I’m pleased. I open up the Xpress everyday now to see what is going on.
The other thing I always tell myself is that its only been six months and I’m still learning. I sometimes think I might know something, but the truth is I probably don’t. I need to ask questions more. I’ve been very happy about how students have responded to me. It’s been fun when you run in to a group of students and they’re going, “My god, I’ve met the president. Wait until I tell my friends.” Then they want a picture with me and that kind of thing is terrific, but I always remind myself that it’s a big family. We’ve got 30,000 plus students and some very talented staff and faculty and I’m still learning.
KW: That just about wraps it up. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.