Dear Titan Family:
Some say our feelings are most pure first in the hour of meeting and then in the hour of farewell.
With the hour of farewell upon us, I could not help but reflect upon our hour of meeting.
It was just past dawn on January 2nd, 2018, and I was beginning my Titan career the way many of us do – looking for the right parking spot. Then, with my fresh-off-the-57 freeway ’57 Chevy parked, I marched my 57-year-old self onto the campus of a university founded in ’57, only to find a College Park elevator stuffed with what seemed like 57 Titans.
Serendipitous 57-isms aside, my first-day nerves must have been evident in my naïve hesitancy to pile into that early morning elevator-turned-Titan-sardine-can.
“Hurry up and get in, new guy!” sang the unofficial welcome committee as multiple hands reached out to block the doors from closing. “You never know when the next one is coming!”
I hadn’t been president for more than 30 seconds, but in that moment of meeting, I did what I would spend the next five and a half years doing: I listened to the Titans who made this university great long before I arrived (and who will continue to drive its ascension long after I am gone).
I got on the elevator.
And as I piled into a sea of hearty handshakes and welcoming words that morning, I instantly knew. These were my people. And they would quickly become family. Their feelings were pure in this hour of meeting, empowering me to shake off my jitters, seek to reciprocate that purity, and develop a first-day epiphany before I even reached the 10th floor: Together, we would do what I would promise just a few hours later in my first letter to campus – elevate (pun intended) our already excellent university to “previously unimaginable heights.”
Indeed, at that point in time, even the most confident among us could not have imagined the heights to which we, together, would soon elevate our beloved university. And therein lies the crux of the challenge we faced in 2018 – the “confidence among us” was inexplicably low. In the pureness of our meeting hour, it seemed that we weren’t yet equipped to dream of (let alone imagine) new heights. It was as if we spent so many years with our heads deep down in the work that, in the process, we had forgotten how to hold our heads high in our community.
I quickly learned that this CSUF inferiority complex was in stark contrast to that which was (and still is) deserved by our Titans – students whose vibrance, diversity, and tenacity in no way matched the physically drab campus, subordinated reputation, and underwhelming “best-kept secret” brand. Flying further in the face of this paradox was a tight-knit team of faculty and staff whose credentials and excellence put them on par with any group of educators in the world.
So, not long after that first-day elevator ride, we collectively committed to a university-wide movement with a simple but aspirational goal: Take CSUF from a diamond in the rough to a crown jewel of excellence; from a commuter school to a university of community; from transactional practices to transformational engagement; from “Orange County’s best kept secret” to one of our nation’s shining beacons of hope, access, opportunity, equity, and inclusion.
A weighty vision, to be sure, but its fruition was our destiny.
Led by some of our most innovative and charismatic internal cohorts — from Athletics and the Arts to Project Rebound and Presidents Scholars — and supported by our most revered and committed external partners — from the OC Vietnamese community and Black Chamber to the Hispanic Chamber and Hispanic 100 — our new vision began to take shape.
Slowly at first but gaining momentum in tandem with (and in direct relation to) our redoubled commitment to social justice, the manifestation of our goal organically developed a phrase I began hearing across the OC from hiring managers, business owners, and CEOs everywhere.
“I will take a Titan.”
Soon the ubiquity of that phrase grew legs and an even sweeter addendum: “I will take a Titan over a Bruin,” or “an Aztec,” or “an Anteater,” or even a graduate from the school our good friend and Titan alum Congressman Lou Correa calls “a pretty good community college.”
You know, a Trojan.
As you now know, I have a slightly competitive side, and our Titans rising to the top of the Southern California workforce pecking order brought me joy to no end.
When I would ask CEOs and business owners to explain this hiring paradigm shift, their answers were equally pride-inducing: “Titans are soaring off your commencement stage workforce ready.” “Academically prepared and personally confident. “Culturally agile and inherently inclusive.” “Socially aware and civically engaged.” “Tenaciously driven and passionately ambitious.” “Servant leaders and community builders.” And on and on.
And as our more than 325,000-strong Titan family of educators, students, and alums grew in size and confidence, we also found the courage to stand up, speak out, and seek further investments on the return we were already providing our community, state, and nation. In short, the university’s first Comprehensive Philanthropic Campaign was born, aptly titled “It Takes a Titan.”
And we got even better at backing up that bold claim.
We didn’t just cling to our standing as a top regional university; we blew right past it and were named a top national university.
We didn’t just improve graduation rates; we raised them to all-time highs in nearly every measurable category and climbed high into the top 10 in the nation for Social Mobility.
We didn’t just talk about eradicating systemic inequities; we were named an Inaugural Fulbright HSI, a Seal of Excelencia recipient, and an INSIGHT Into Diversity’s Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award honoree – all in the same week.
As we polished the rough off the diamond, our bling began to catch the eye of the nation, leading to a record-setting gift of $40 million, the surpassing of our original campaign goal by nearly $100 million, and a more than $270 million haul during the life of our “It Takes a Titan” campaign.
We cannot forget that so much of this was achieved during a global pandemic when our innovation and excellence shined even brighter as a guiding light for other campuses throughout the CSU and around the nation. First to go remote. First to return to in person. First, first, first.
And when we did lead the charge back to campus, our students found that we had leveraged their absence to breathe further life into our physical master plan. Drab tans, grays, decomposed granite, and rundown buildings had given way to the vibrant colors of refreshed landscaping, refurbished buildings, new housing, parking structures, and of course, a completed Titan Gateway, Promenade, and Titan Quad.
In short, we had become the steward of place and destination university that genuinely reflected the vibrance and passion of our students along with the excellence and commitment of our faculty and staff.
And on every step of this journey, Julie and I sought the joy of attending and participating in every Titan event possible. From late-late-night baseball to three-peat softball; from March Madness to modern dance; from soaring symphony orchestrations and Opera to the captivating Jazz Band syncopations; from Moot Court to Constitutional Jeopardy; from Titan Rovers and Formula 1 to pumpkin launchers and gravitational waves; from pinning ceremonies to cadet commissionings; from Titan Voices to University Singers; and on and on.
For Julie and me, together in mind and heart, it was our mission, our dream, and the culmination of our life’s work.
Here. With all of you. Our Titan Family. And always with warmth, care, love, inclusion, and, as I must reiterate here, gratitude.
To the faculty and staff and all levels of administration across the campus: You are the lifeblood of the Titan Family and the heartbeat of the Titan Experience. Thank you for being the difference makers; for your commitment to our students and our future; for giving yourselves away and affecting eternity through your teaching and service.
To our Titan alums and external partners: You are the foundation for who we will be tomorrow. Thank you for supporting us and recognizing excellence anytime you see “CSUF,” whether on a resume, a transcript, the front of a sweatshirt, or the back of a jersey.
And, of course, to our exceptional Titan students – past, present, and future: You are the best of who we are. You are the reason. You are the mission. You are the Titan Family. I know that you will go on to live your lives, grow up, grow wiser, and grow old. But for me, you are forever frozen in time with your wide-eyed dreams and ambitions, lighting up our campus with the unrivaled passion of your convictions and the unfettered hope in your hearts. Thank you for inviting me to share that light, if only for a moment.
Together, all of us — faculty, staff, students, alums, and partners — were part of an incredible five-and-a-half-year journey that saw more than 55,000 Titans cross our commencement stage, unearthing a newfound but well-earned Titan confidence that is now and must forever be part of our DNA.
Today, Orange County knows what it takes to be the only CSU in the nation’s sixth most populous region with the third-largest economy in the state.
California knows what it takes to confer more baccalaureate degrees to women and historically underrepresented students than any other university in the state.
The nation knows what it takes to serve more Pell-eligible students than the entire Ivy League combined.
The world knows what it takes to garner a record-breaking investment from one of the most selective philanthropic teams on the planet.
And most importantly, we in the Titan Family know what it takes to build an inclusive, welcoming, equitable, and anti-racist community that promotes justice and opportunity for all.
It Takes a Titan.
We can never let anyone forget that, least of all ourselves, for we are — and must always be — the Titans that it takes.
What an incredible journey it has been, every minute of it, and I am so very grateful you held the elevator doors open and invited me aboard.
Rest assured, as Jules and I pile back into our ’57 Chevy and rumble onto the 57 freeway for our next adventure (even though neither of us is 57 anymore), CSUF is eternally in our thoughts – and you will always be our Titan Family.
That is my purest feeling in this hour of farewell, and it will forever fill my heart.
Blessings and care,