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Fram Virjee: The Power Hitter

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If there were a Fram Virjee baseball card, the stats on the back would look a little different. In the 20 months he’s been president of Cal State Fullerton, he has seen roughly 24,000 students become alumni. He has been in one rap video, attended dozens of Titan Athletics games and College of the Arts performances, given hundreds of speeches. He’s shaken the hands of thousands.

The best is yet to come. In March, Virjee was appointed permanent president of CSUF. As he gets ready for another academic year and the first comprehensive fundraising campaign in university history, Cal State Fullerton’s sixth president and chief power hitter — and before that, executive vice chancellor, general counsel and secretary to the California State University Board of Trustees — jumps at the chance to tell our stories.

You often talk about the ‘Titan Experience.’ What is it?

The Titan Experience has strong academic underpinnings and lots of co-curricular experiences that help students fulfill their potential in every way — academically, emotionally and creatively.

We want each student to have a strong academic foundation, of course, but to make them truly workforce-ready, we must create experiences that prepare them for their future jobs. Our goal isn’t to only prepare them for their first job, but for their second, third and fourth jobs.

I tell our student engineers all the time, ‘You are going to be great engineers. Many of you are going to invent something — and then you will be an entrepreneur. You will start your own business. Or someone is going to see your ability to lead and will make you an administrator. You might become a CFO, a CEO or a CIO. You need to be prepared for that, too.’ We want to prepare students for life.

I am committed to offering a transformational and collaborative experience that prepares our students for life more broadly.

How do you define that?

It means that Titans are not just going to be great nurses, teachers, doctors or lawyers,
“they’re going to give back to their communities. They’re going to vote and be civic-minded. They’re going to care about social justice and about the environment. They’re going to care about taking care of those who are less fortunate. When students become alumni and are in a position to pay it forward, I want them to become caretakers of their communities and stewards of place, just as we are.

Helping students graduate is also part of our mission. What does our scorecard look like?

When I was getting ready to go to college, my high school counselor suggested to me, ‘Start with 12 units because you need to get your sea legs during your freshman year.’

I wasn’t a math major, but I know you need 15 units a semester to graduate in four years. If you take 12 units your first semester, you’re already behind; you’re going to have to take summer school or take 18 units a couple of times. The Choose 15 Units campaign
at CSUF encourages students to go for 15 units a semester so they can graduate in four years. Our Student Success teams in each college make sure students have the tools and information they need to succeed.

Even before I got here, CSU Chancel- lor Timothy White announced Graduation
Initiative 2025, with the goal that campuses are going to double our four-year graduation rates and erase the opportunity gap by 2025. It’s a lofty goal, but it is not unattainable.

I don’t want anybody to go before they’re ready, but I want to create the opportunity for those who want to be able to graduate. Every year that they’re here beyond four years is a lost year of income for them, a lost year of experience in their profession. That’s not fair to them.

We worked hard to get rid of the bottle- neck courses. We created degree pathways so students know what classes to take and when they should take them. We will continue to create opportunities for students to persist and graduate.

What role do you see for alumni and the community in our comprehensive campaign? 

When Gov. Gavin Newsom was lieutenant governor, he came to most of the CSU board meetings. I know because I was there. He participated. He understands the worth of the CSU.

Historically, the CSU has relied on 50 percent of its money from the state and 50 percent of its money from tuition, yet state participation has gone down in the last five years. This is the perfect opportunity to share our story. We’re No. 1 in the CSU for graduating Latinas, No. 4 in the nation for graduating students of color, sixth in the nation for best value. We must continue to share these points of pride and let our com- munity know that they need to invest in us with their treasure, but also their time.

They need to come and participate in campus life at our concerts, sporting events, plays. They need to bring their kids here when they’re in junior high or elementary school so they start thinking about going to college — to Cal State Fullerton.

The people of the state of California invest mightily in the future and what we
do pays dividends. We have nearly 300,000 proud alumni. We are transforming lives and communities every day. All it takes is telling our story. We’ve just been shy to share it.

I don’t want to be shy. My favorite philosopher, Muhammad Ali, said, ‘It ain’t
bragging if you can back it up.’ We can back it up.

What’s most challenging about being president? 

The most challenging role that I have, and that we have as an institution, is taking the limited resources and directing them in the most effective ways for students’ success. We need to make sure that our expenditures reflect our values and our strategic priori- ties. While we’re never going to have enough money, the issue is, how do we do the best with what we have? That’s a hard challenge.

A second challenge is to convince our Orange County community that they need to get involved. We have amazing corporate partners. I talk to companies all the time, who say, ‘Titans make up half of my workforce.’

To which I say, ‘Great! Come to campus. Mentor a student. Hire an intern from
Cal State Fullerton. Guest lecture on campus. Invest in the university.’ If we are giving you half your workforce, you owe that to future students. Support and invest in your community.

At our master plan forum in the spring, we talked a lot about interdisciplinary learning among our colleges. Let’s create spaces and places for that to happen. Let’s think aspirationally but practically. We know cohort education works. Their persistence level is higher than the general persistence level. Their graduation rates are higher. Why? Because they learn and they find community. We have to find ways of creating community for everyone.

Have your impressions about CSUF changed since you arrived on campus?

I worked at the Chancellor’s Office for over four years. During that time, I visited the campus a half dozen times. I had no idea the impact and the reach that CSUF has in Orange County, in our state and our nation.

I like to tell people we are what Orange County will be in five minutes, California will be in an hour and the United States will be tomorrow. I mean that in respect to demographics, but also in respect to innovation, to collaboration, to commitment to social justice, to sustainability, to environmental issues, to cross-cultural understanding and to collectively working together.

I couldn’t have imagined the day I walked in the door 20 months ago that I would feel the way I do about this place.

It’s not a job for me. It’s a mission. It’s a lifestyle. I tell my wife, Julie, that for 30 years, as a lawyer, I would come home every night, take my armor off and put it in the closet. I’d watch a little TV, play with the dogs, talk to the kids, eat some dinner, get up in the morning, put my armor back on, and go back to work.

I came home the other day and there’s no armor to take off. This is just who I am, 24/7. I couldn’t think of a better thing to do in life.