When Cal State Fullerton President Fram Virjee met recently with business leaders from the North Orange County Chamber of Commerce, he wasted no time in describing how the university is taking action to ensure a quality student education during the pandemic.
Pivoting on a Dime
“We had to pivot on a dime back in March,” he said. “We not only transitioned 40,000 students but also 4,000 faculty and staff members as they moved to virtual learning, teaching and support. However, graduation rates didn’t suffer. Nearly every service we offered is up and running virtually. Of course, this came at considerable expense to ensure all Titans have equitable access to the technology necessary to access these resources. This included issuing thousands of laptops, MiFis, cell phones and state university grant money, more than $10 million in March and April alone.
“This also included training faculty and staff to better utilize the technology we have,” he continued. “In fact, 2,600 faculty participants took virtual teaching workshops this summer. They focused on how to get students involved, what would happen in the classroom this fall.
“And yes, we have a tremendous plan in place for fall with 97% of our classes being held in a robust and engaging virtual environment. Students will have lectures, they’ll have labs. The other 3% will be held on campus with tremendous safety precautions in place.”
Emphasizing that CSUF is the largest campus in the CSU (the largest system in the country) and the only CSU campus in Orange County (that graduates about 12,000 students each year), he shared that about 60% of the student body are students of color and the first in their families to attend college. Also, nearly half are eligible for Pell grants — federal grants that are overwhelmingly provided to students from families who earn less than $30,000 a year.
“We are going to come out of this and on the other side, we’ll be better,” he said. “The new normal, post-COVID, is going to be a hybrid of working virtually and on-site. That is the experience our students are undergoing right now. You’ll never have to miss a class because your childcare didn’t work out, your car conked out … “
Unanimous Approval of the Campus Master Plan
“And, most recently, we are celebrating the unanimous approval that Cal State Fullerton received for its campus master plan,” he noted. “We’ve been working on it for almost three years. This is good for Fullerton, North Orange County … and many of you came out to support us.”
Of course, Virjee continued, the innovative work coming from CSUF transcends the university. Some of the community benefits of the master plan include a new events center that will replace the “granddaddy Titan Gym.”
“We are being careful in the design of the gym and are beginning the drafting and planning,” Virjee said. “It’ll be a place for Titan basketball obviously, but we want a versatile space where we can hold concerts, conventions, speaking events, gatherings …. We also want the flexibility to accommodate academic delivery. Since it will be located near the Marriott, there will be easy access off and on 57 freeway.
“Another project, the Innovation Center, will be a place for collaboration, not just among the colleges … but with businesses and the community. Students and faculty can collaborate with outside groups for mutual benefit.
“And there’s the arboretum. It will stay in one piece. We are very proud of it and hope to incorporate it into the academic life of our university. We want our students working out there: engineering, marketing, science, art, music …. This will make it more vibrant for the surrounding community.
“With this approval, we are now beginning work on the master plan as we speak. Remember, this is a 15-year plan. One of the things that might not be so obvious to the community but is quite important is developing a new flow for traffic on campus. There will be no traffic running through the core of the campus but it will be diverted in an oval shape around the perimeter of the campus. In fact, we are already beginning to implement that. We are widening the perimeter roads and creating bike/pedestrian paths on campus.
“This approval will also allow us to enhance our student housing. We will be able to offer 5,600 beds on campus (from 2,000) to create ‘villages’ on campus. And again, having students live on campus will reduce traffic density.”
Not Just COVID-19
Virjee also stressed that he expects the campus to be more proactive and have greater success as we grapple with the nation’s long-standing plague: systemic racism and anti-Blackness. In fact, just days after the killing of George Floyd, Virjee published an “Open Letter to Our Legacy Leaders Across White America.”
“It’s been a new rallying cry. We have virtual advocacy and training programs. We developed these on our campus organically. Each division has developed a framework to work on issues that relate to anti-bias and anti-racism,” he said. “We’ve been working with different groups in Orange County and Southern California. We’re very proud of the work we’re doing but we have a lot more work to do.
“Our proactive, decades-long mission to be a national model for diversity and inclusion continues with the momentum of a very intentional redoubling of our commitment in this work over the past two years,” he said. “The fruit born from these measures are infinitely backed by endless data but such markers of success are laurels that we cannot and do not intend to rest on for one simple reason: It is not enough.
“As we advocate for and work toward long overdue reform, please know that we at CSUF will not stop at the campus, country, or even state-wide level.”
How Can the Community Become Involved?
“We have started a ‘Common Read’ program where we are all reading the same book, ‘The Book of the Unknown Americans,'” he said. “This is an opportunity for everyone to engage in discussion. We would love our business community to be reading this book along with us.
“Also, if you have the capacity, mentoring students is a great way to get involved in working with kids from underserved communities. Your assistance helps them become fully engaged and ready. They are hungry for mentors. Help us build what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the ‘beloved community.'”
What About Athletics?
“The Big West Athletic Conference just announced they’d cancelled athletics for the fall,” Virjee said. “We hope to offer athletics (if safe) in the spring. Our student athletes are still on full scholarship. But if it’s not safe to play in spring, we won’t play then either.
“As far as our new baseball and softball complexes, we’ve already raised most of the money so groundbreaking will begin soon. Right now, we’re working with the contractor, state fire marshal and so forth. We need to keep people safe but we need to also keep the long-term view in sight.”
Contact: Valerie Orleans, firstname.lastname@example.org