From the ground up
"I didn't start out to be a university president," observes Alexander Gonzalez. What the president of California State University, San Marcos, did start out as was the son of Mexican immigrants in East Los Angeles, the middle child of seven. After graduating from Garfield High School--the school made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver--military service, not college, was in Gonzalez's immediate future.
"My friend and I were going to join the Navy, but the recruiter had gone out to lunch, so we joined the Air Force," he remembers. After a four-year stint, including service in the Philippines, Gonzalez began to consider college. No one else in his family had gone to college, and his parents had received just a few years of schooling. But when he was recruited by Pomona College, he enrolled, earning a degree in history.
In 1998, 30 years after he first set foot on the Pomona College campus as a 23-year-old freshman, Gonzalez became president of his own campus, CSU San Marcos in northern San Diego County. He had served just a year of what was expected to be a two-year temporary appointment as interim president, but CSU Chancellor Charles Reed said Gonzalez had earned the permanent appointment "the old-fashioned way--through dedication and hard work." Since then, San Diego Magazine has placed Gonzalez on its list of "people to watch," describing the college president as "hard-charging" and a "no-nonsense educator."
All this apparently caught the eye of the Bush administration, which tapped Gonzalez to serve on the newly created Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. The commission is focusing on K-12 education. Gonzalez is the only representative from higher education.
Gonzalez says "there is nothing magical" about the ingredients of school success for Latino and non-Latinostudents: "Parents have to get involved, and students need to take the right mix of courses and stay engaged." Making all that happen, he adds, is the difficult part. "But I really do believe that education is the key. Without it, advancement is difficult. Besides, it's fun."
The issues before the commission bring Gonzalez back to his time in Santa Cruz County. As part of his UCSC work toward a master's and Ph.D. in psychology, he observed students at Watsonville High to understand social interactions in an educational setting. At UCSC, he also taught psychology, and he and his wife, Gloria, were residential preceptors.
After earning his degrees at UCSC, Gonzalez was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and taught at California State University, Fresno, where he served as chairman of the Psychology Department. Gonzalez says he was "steered" into other administrative posts, eventually serving as provost and vice president of academic affairs at Fresno State. "It turned out I had a talent in that area," Gonzalez says.
He has always felt a strong bond with students, and his decision to move into administration went against the advice of many close to him, including his wife. He misses the one-on-one with students from his teaching days but gets satisfaction from his work as an administrator. "I can really influence a lot more students."
As president of a 6,200-student campus expected to quadruple in size over the next 20 years, Gonzalez will have plenty of influence. "We're building the campus from the ground up," he says. A science building and a visual and performing arts building are nearing completion. To keep class sizes from ballooning, Gonzalez has made sure buildings are designed to hold mostly small classes rather than lecture halls.
Writing has been emphasized, thanks in part to a student-writing requirement. San Marcos has also stressed lifelong sports and wellness rather than big-time athletics; golf, track, and cross-country are the three competitive sports. The sports scene at San Marcos, he says, is closer to the UCSC model than the football fever he witnessed at Fresno State.
When its first dorm is completed this fall, San Marcos will become more than the commuter campus it has been since it opened in the fall of 1990. Gonzalez looks forward to the greater level of student-faculty interaction this will bring. "It's going to change everything--it'll be 24/7."
Approximately 20 percent of the students currently enrolled at San Marcos are Hispanic, with backgrounds similar to Gonzalez's. "I represent the university for everyone," he says. "But my success is not lost on those particular students."
--Louise Gilmore Donahue
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