Story Leadership

Leading the Way

Michelle McCarthy

Women at the CSU aren’t just celebrating history…they’re making it. Meet the university’s 11 female presidents. 


​Women make up 50.9 percent of the U.S. population. In 2019, they earned 56 percent of the bachelor's and 53 percent of the master's degrees conferred. Yet women account for less than 50 percent of leadership positions​ in the country.

It's a disparity not lost on the Cal State University, the nation's largest public four-year university. We stand committed to fostering a vibrant community of diverse students, faculty, staff and administrators. Not only is the CSU workforce 55 percent female, but women hold top leadership roles across the university, including the chair and vice chair of the board of trustees, the executive vice chancellor​ of Academic and Student Affairs and 11 of 23 campus presidents.

To mark the occasion of Women's History Month, we shine a light on the impact and accomplishments of the CSU's female presidents.​

Erika D. Beck

Erika D. Beck, Ph.D. | California State University, Northridge

“At the age of 12, I picked up an intro to psychology textbook, fell hopelessly in love and knew I wanted to be a psychologist," remembers Dr. Erika Beck.

But as much as she loved being a faculty member, it wasn't long before the professor was drawn into leadership roles. In 2004, Beck became the founding dean for arts and sciences at Nevada State College and, in 2010, the provost and executive vice president.

By the time she arrived at CSU Channel Islands in 2016 to assume the presidency, Beck had honed her leadership philosophy. “I thrive in the space of imagining what comes next," she says.

That ability to take a long view has paid dividends, as Beck was appointed president of CSUN in October 2020, the fourth consecutive woman to serve in this role. “Leadership is service," she says. For me to be the leader the university needs, everyone in the university needs to be working in their best and highest purpose."

Soraya M. Coley

Soraya M. Coley, Ph.D. | California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

A veteran of the CSU system, Dr. Soraya Coley worked at both Cal State Fullerton and CSU Bakersfield—in roles that included lecturer, provost and vice president for academic affairs—before coming to Cal Poly Pomona in January 2015. Coley is the university's first woman president and first African American president.

Coley was raised in segregated North Carolina, where she learned that others would evaluate her by a different set of standards. “My mother and teachers instilled in me a sense of self-worth, even as the larger society said, 'You are not and you cannot.' I was encouraged to be persistent, work harder and develop a resilient mindset."

Those early experiences also helped mold Coley's leadership style, which focuses on valuing others, being authentic, demonstrating integrity and promoting diversity. It is in this context that she takes great pride in the social mobility of Cal Poly Pomona's graduates and the value they place on their degree.

Jane Close Conoley

Jane Close Conoley, Ph.D. | California State University, Long Beach

Dr. Jane Conoley earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and was on her way to achieving what she believed was her dream job as a well-known research psychologist. Her career took a turn when she joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an associate professor and was later asked to take on the role of department chair of educational psychology.

“Once I got involved with higher education leadership, I began to feel that was more important," she says.

With each successive position, Conoley found herself increasingly drawn to leadership roles, but when UC Riverside asked her to become interim chancellor, she says, it was an “awakening."

In July 2014, she joined Cal State Long Beach as the university's first female president. Under Conoley's leadership, CSULB has focused on increasing high-impact educational opportunities such as internships, service-learning courses, international classes and faculty-led international learning.

If there's a hallmark to her leadership style, it's that she loves to encourage environments where the strengths of others are amplified.

Adela de la Torre

Adela de la Torre, Ph.D. | San Diego State University

As the first Mexican American woman to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural and resource economics from UC Berkeley, Dr. Adela de la Torre faced a lot of bias. “There weren't any role models for me, but I did have one faculty member who made me see that I would be a good economist," she says.

De la Torre served as a professor at CSULB, director of the Mexican American Studies and Research Center at the University of Arizona, and vice chancellor for student affairs and campus diversity at UC Davis. While at UC Davis, she began to reimagine the possibility of a college presidency.

San Diego State was the only university de la Torre applied to, and she assumed the presidency in June 2018.

“I knew when I walked on the campus—before I got the job—it was the perfect position for me," she recalls. “It reflects all the core values I believe an institution of higher education should have."

Gayle Hutchinson

Gayle E. Hutchinson, E.d.​​D. | California State University, Chico

Dr. Gayle Hutchinson was a natural leader from the start, whether it was in Girl Scouts, high school sports or college clubs. “I was always interested in finding ways to bring groups of people together," she says.

Teaching came naturally as well. Hutchinson started her career as an assistant professor at Chico State in 1990 and called the university home for the next 23 years, working her way to full professor, then department chair and finally dean. She also served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at CSU Channel Islands, where she learned the importance of community partnerships and philanthropy.

But she calls her return to Chico State in March 2016 as president momentous in her working life for more than one reason. “We had a reception, and I just danced the night away with joy to be back at a place I consider home," she recalls. "I'm proud, too, to be the first openly gay president of the CSU."

Ellen Junn Ellen N. Junn, Ph.D. | California State University, Stanislaus

Earning her master's and doctoral degrees in cognitive and developmental psychology from Princeton University, Dr. Ellen Junn loved learning and doing research. Her focus was rooted in the discrimination she and her family experienced while living in legally segregated Macon, Georgia, in the 1960s. Junn discovered a talent for creating programs specifically designed to support underserved students.

A 32-year veteran of the CSU, Junn worked at five other campuses in roles that included professor, founding director of the Faculty Development Center, associate dean of the College of Health and Human Development, associate provost, chief academic officer, vice president for academic affairs, and provost before coming to Stanislaus State in May 2016 as president. She was the first Korean American woman appointed president of a four-year university in the U.S.

“The beauty of the CSU is that every campus is unique, distinctive and remarkable, but the mission is the same overall," she says. “That's why I've never left."

Lynn Mahoney

Lynn Mahoney, Ph.D. | San Francisco State University

Dr. Lynn Mahoney has spent her academic career working on issues related to enhancing student learning—and those efforts have paid off. In 2021, the California State Student Association, the voice for more than 425,000 students in the CSU system, named her the Robert C. Maxson President of the Year.

Appointed president of San Francisco State in May 2019, Mahoney is the first woman to serve in this role in a permanent capacity.

She previously held the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. Earlier in her career, she served as the associate vice president for undergraduate studies and interim vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at CSULB.

“What I love about history is that it's about people," says President Mahoney, who taught history as a faculty member at Purchase College, State University of New York. “It's about their agency, what they can accomplish and what they can do to change the course of history amidst conflicting ideas and conflicts over power."

Ellen Neufeldt

Ellen J. Neufeldt, Ph.D. | California State University San Marcos

Since becoming the fourth president of CSU San Marcos in July 2019, Dr. Ellen Neufeldt has focused on engaging, interacting, listening and building relationships. A champion of innovation and entrepreneurship, she oversaw the opening of CSUSM's Innovation Hub, an on-campus home for meeting societal needs, less than a year into her tenure. But her commitment to innovation goes beyond a physical space, encompassing an entire ecosystem that includes a critical focus on social innovation.

She came to CSUSM from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where she served as vice president of Student Engagement and Enrollment Services. Neufeldt also served as vice president of Student Affairs at Salisbury University. Her higher education experience also includes serving as assistant vice chancellor for Student Development and dean of Student Life at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

In 2010, Neufeldt appeared on The Daily Record's “Maryland's Top 100 Women" list, awarded annually to women in the state of Maryland who have made significant contributions to their organization, profession and community.

Judy Sakaki

Judy K. Sakaki, Ph.D. | Sonoma State University

Like so many CSU students, Dr. Judy Sakaki was the first in her family to attend college. During World War II, her parents, both U.S.-born citizens, were sent to internment camps. This injustice left a powerful impression on her; Sakaki knew she wanted to always reach back to help others.

“When I speak to students, I talk about the responsibility to lift as you climb," she says. “I've been so impacted by people who believed in me—probably even before I believed in myself."

Before coming to Sonoma State in January 2016, Sakaki served as vice president for student affairs for the University of California system, vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Davis and vice president and dean of student affairs at Fresno State. She is the first Japanese American woman in the country to lead a four-year university.

“I used to think I needed to be more like other successful leaders," Sakaki says. “A leadership epiphany for me was that there's not one way to lead."

Cathy Sandeen

Cathy A. Sandeen, Ph.D. | California State University, East Bay

A product of the CSU, Dr. Cathy Sandeen graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in speech pathology from Cal Poly Humboldt and earned a master's in broadcast communication from SFSU. She was appointed president of Cal State East Bay in October 2020.

Prior to returning to her hometown in the East Bay, Sandeen served as chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she oversaw all academic, financial, operational, student affairs, outreach and development functions for Alaska's largest open-access, urban-metropolitan university. She was also chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and UW-Extension for four years.

“More than 60 percent of our students are first-gen," Sandeen says. “I use my direct experience to help them on a daily basis through the programs and support services we provide. I could not have anticipated this, but I have come full circle from where I started as a first-gen undergrad in the CSU. What I initially considered a disadvantage has turned into a tremendous advantage for me in serving others."

Lynnette Zelezny

Lynnette Zelezny, Ph.D. | California State University, Bakersfield

The skills Dr. Lynnette Zelezny learned at Cal Poly Humboldt while earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology are ones she still uses daily. “Being a social psychologist is a great background for a university president because we reframe problems into opportunities to overcome challenges and achieve success," she explains.

Zelezny served for 30 years at Fresno State in roles that included associate provost, dean and associate vice president in continuing and global education, associate dean for the campus's Craig School of Business and chair of the psychology department.

She was appointed president of CSU Bakersfield in March 2018. In addition to being the first female president of CSUB, Zelezny is also the first CSU president to benefit from the Chancellor's Doctoral Incentive Program.

“I hope I inspire emerging leaders, in particular young women, who will look to me and say, 'Well, if she could become a university president, I can do that.'"


Revisit our 2018-19 Women & Leadership campaign, which served as a historical snapshot of the tipping point when, for the first time ever, the majority of CSU presidents were women.​