Cultivating Potential

In celebration of Black History Month, the CSU's African American university leaders reflect on their journey and inspiration.

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The California State University strives to create a welcoming environment for all members of its campus communities, and this commitment to inclusive excellence is manifested in students who make up the most ethnically, economically and academically diverse student body in the nation. In fact, fifty-two percent of CSU students are from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds and the CSU provides more than half of all undergraduate degrees earned by California's Latinx, African American and Native American students combined.

The university's 23 campus leaders are as diverse as the students they serve, and their lived experiences inform their leadership styles and offer them a unique perspective on how to foster student success and lift up historically disadvantaged communities. To mark the occasion of Black History Month, we asked some of the CSU's African American university presidents to share their journey, what inspires their work and how they use their platforms to ​​effect change in their communities.

Read thoughts from CSU Dominguez Hills President Thomas Parham, Cal Poly Humboldt President Tom Jackson Jr. and Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya Coley.​

Thomas Parham


Who or what inspired you to continue pursuing new and higher leadership roles, and how were you influenced by the presence or absence of people of color in these positions?  

I come to my role as the chief executive of a campus with a posture as a reluctant leader who, if truth be told, never aspired to be a university president or even a senior executive. On the contrary, I was content being a psychologist of African descent, and an African-centered one at that, whose roles and duties as academician, clinician, scholar and researcher, administrator and consultant were enough for me to manage.

And yet, the invitations to serve in higher levels of the organization hierarchy that I received in my career echoed the voice of my first mentor and mz​​ee [respected​ elder], the great psychologist and contemporary father of the Black psychology movement Dr. Joseph L. White. He reminded me to consistently produce excellence, and that excellence would bring me opportunities. He was also clear that in the context of one’s trajectory toward career success, the key to mental health, particularly for a young Black man or woman in the field of psychology in America, was to develop and create a broad range of choices and options in one’s endeavors. It also helped to see other people of color and of African descent in these roles. CSU Bakersfield President Emeritus Horace Mitchell, Ph.D., and former University of California, Irvine Chancellor and current UC President Michael Drake, Ph.D., are two examples I can point to who were not only role models but symbols of possibility and potential for me.

The CSU places high importance on diversity, equity and inclusion. Why are these values important in higher education and how do you ensure your campus is an inclusive environment for students of color?

Higher education is about the cultivation of the human spirit and human potential. And yet, that cultivation must consider the cultural mores, values, customs and traditions diverse people bring with them on their journey through life. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are essential elements in higher education and impact everything from faculty and staff composition, curriculum offerings, the instructional methodology and system of pedagogy an instructor employs, the student experience on campus and the relationship of a campus to the community in which it is located. Equally important, students should be able to see themselves reflected within the fabrics of the university community and attention to DEI helps that.

Regarding insuring that my campus is a diverse and inclusive environment, I tend to engage in a multi-pronged approach. One strand of that approach puts great intentionality of ensuring that we have a competent and capable, yet diverse, student body, staff, faculty and senior executive leadership team. Increasing the pipeline of applicants and providing opportunities to review credentials of students, staff, faculty and senior administrators in the admissions, human ​resources and academic department domains where each segment apply is also important. However, making real and authentic DEI progress demands that we move beyond simplistic yardsticks of diversity progress like counting demographics. That’s where the second strand emerges. For me, diversity is not just percentages of race, gender, etc. Diversity is a question that asks if policies and practices of our institutions and agencies change as a function of our demographics, or whether they are contaminated with the racism, sexism and biases that are too pervasive in the human condition. It is that level of review and interrogation that helps us be a truly diverse and inclusive environment.

How do you use your platform as a university president to effect change in the African American community? 

Throughout my professional life as a psychologist, academician, clinician and senior administrator, I have been blessed with a platform to use my voice, my writing and my behavioral activities to effect change. That posture has been enhanced since becoming a university president. As a president, I speak to my university community with an uncompromising clarity about our campus's ability to transform and move from where we are to where we might be, if only we can close that attitudinal and behavioral gap between aspiration and actualization. Externally, I stay involved in and engaged with the larger African American community, participate in national and community-based organizations and write articles and commentaries on issues that impact various segments of our nation's citizenry for various local and national periodicals like Inside Higher Ed and the Los Angeles Sentinel

Tom Jackson, Jr.


Who or what inspired you to continue pursuing new and higher leadership roles, and how were you influenced by the presence or absence of people of color in these positions?

My leadership experience in higher education is rooted in student affairs. Having worked closely with students, I have seen firsthand the power of opening doors to education. It has been—​and still is—amazing to see what students are capable of when they have access to opportunities and resources that are often out of reach for many, including underrepresented young people. They flourish in an environment where their dreams are seen as concrete, achievable goals. Given the chance to shine, students can change the trajectory of their lives. I'm inspired by their dedication and their commitment to bettering themselves through education.

My own life trajectory has been influenced by many factors and people. My parents instilled perseverance​​ to withstand the naysayers I would encounter. Early supervisor Joe Poell inspired me to pursue graduate school. Mentor Dr. Charlie Fey, who is still one of my closest friends, opened the door to doctoral programs for me and befriended me through a more than 35-year career, so far. There are others who are diverse in their own ways. A few were of color; most were not. But they valued our relationship, they valued me and they valued the work of helping students. Their passion for helping others comes out every single day in the work that I do as a university president.

The CSU places high importance on diversity, equity and inclusion. Why are these values important in higher education and how do you ensure your campus is an inclusive environment for students of color?

There is no question that diversity continues to be the source of strength for all campuses in the CSU system. That's why amplifying the voices of students who ma​y not otherwise be heard is critical to providing a positive, meaningful educational experience at Cal Poly Humboldt. Our students—45 percent of which are people of color—bring with them their unique perspectives and life histories​ which ultimately make us stronger as a university and as a campus community. Cal Poly Humboldt also plays a major role in diversifying the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. Of current students, 41 percent are Pell Grant recipients and 37 percent of STEM majors are people of color. Fifty-one percent​ of STEM majors are women while 41 percent of STEM faculty are women. And 48 percent of recent Cal Poly Humboldt graduates were the first in their families to earn a college degree.

I look at these figures and I'm in awe of the resilient spirit of students who have overcome personal and financial hurdles to graduate from Cal Poly Humboldt. That's all the more reason campus resources are dedicated in support of these students and continue to play an important​ role in their success. In the spirit of staff and faculty helping others, we have programs like the Cultural Centers for Academic Excellence. The centers support academics and create a sense of belonging for students of color. They are also homes away from home where students can receive peer mentoring, be involved in cultural programs and build a community.

As a campus, we are not just trying to help students of color succeed while they are ​in college. We have an obligationa duty​to help students succeed beyond college and in society. To help them find their voice and their life's passion is a service to a greater good. The person who will discover the cure for Alzheimer's disease, cancer and other diseases will be a college graduate. That graduate may also be a person of color. We cannot afford to lose any students who are in the pipeline for a degree. The one we do lose might have been the one to make a history-making discovery later in life.

How do you use your platform as a university president to effect change in the African American community?

This is a very personal question to me. My grandmother lived during a time when African Americans weren't allowed to pursue an education beyond the eighth grade. Still, she believed in the power of books and of education. She passed those values on to her children including my father who passed them on to me. Two generations later, I am proud to say that, like so many students across the CSU system, I am the first in my family to earn a college degree and the only one to earn a doctorate.

I am also a university president who is African American and also Filipino, Native American and Irish, and I am honored to be an educator who makes​ tangible changes by supporting opportunities for people of color. Those opportunities include the continuing push to hire diverse administrators and faculty. Additionally, we have a new position that supports outreach and partnerships with local Tribal nations. Being a person of color in a leadership role carries with it incredible opportunity and responsibility. Through my story ​and the stories of other leaders in the CSU, we can show students what is possible after graduation. Despite the obstacles that may come their way, students can serve their communities and help to solve the many challenges our world faces today.

Soraya Coley


Who or what inspired you to continue pursuing new and higher leadership roles, and how were you influenced by the presence or absence of people of color in these positions?

I grew up in North Carolina at a time when segregation was the law of the landa time when the color of my skin determined where I could live and go to school. Significant portions of society said to me, "You are not and you cannot." The attitudes and prejudices of others could have defined or deterred me. But it was the sense of self-worth instilled by my mother and my grandmother that gave me the resilience to succeed.

I owe an incalculable debt to my grandmother, who was very active in registering Black Americans, especially the elderly, to vote for the first time after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her courage still burns within me today.

I owe a gratitude to my mentors and supporters, especially those who saw potential in me that I never imagined. I vividly remember a time earlier in my career when I had just settled into my role as a department chair at Cal State Fullerton. The university president at that time, Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb​an African American woman and trailblazer in the sciencessaid very emphatically that, someday, I was going to be a university president. I summarily dismissed that idea, but her confidence in me and her mentorship proved critical in getting to where I am now.

The CSU places high importance on diversity, equity and inclusion​. Why are these values important in higher education and how do you ensure your campus is an inclusive environment for students of color?

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), as core values, are not only crucial to higher education but to humanity. Our human diversity, along with our diversity of thought, experiences and contributions are among our greatest strengths and greatest benefit to our communities, our state and our nation. Only by fostering inclusion and mutual respect can we create an​ environment where each of us is empowered to reach our full potential and greatest contributions.

Higher education remains the greatest engine for social mobility. This is especially the case for low-income students and for students of color. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. When low-income students and students of color start college but don't complete their degree, they end up worse off than if they had not gone to college at all because they do not have a degree but, too often, end up in debt without means to pay. So, we have to create the conditions in which all students—including those who the system is not set up to serve—​​can thrive.

Cal Poly Pomona is the most diverse polytechnic in the nation. But the benefits of diversity and inclusion don't just happen. It takes deliberate effort and an institution-wide approach. Academic Affairs, Advancement, Student Affairs, Administrative Affairs, Information Technology, Athletics...everyone needs to be engaged. I'm fortunate to serve at a campus where those efforts are valued and actively promoted. And yet, I know that there is so much more that we need to do.

How do you use your platform as a university president to effect change in the African American community?

I appreciate being part of a public university and system in which we welcome and proactively engage in extending access to achieving the social mobility that is derived from higher education. I work with local and national groups in promoting access, opportunities and education advancement. We are hosting the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education (AABHE) Leadership and Mentoring Institute summer program. I also served on the faculty of the New Presidents Academy sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) that engages attendees in discussions regarding DEI in higher education. As a campus, we also collaborate with local professional and community-based groups as well as national organizations that provide early education and information about college to young people.

Cal Poly Pomona is the first CSU to launch a Black Thriving Initiative. Through town hall meetings, surveys and listening sessions, we found that we have more to do to fulfill our value of inclusion, particularly for Black students, faculty and staff, and we have welcomed and encouraged our entire campus to participate. The initiative recognizes that our university's future is connected to the success of Black communities both on and off campus.​

The CSU partners with African American communities to increase the college preparation, enrollment and graduation rates of students across the state of California. Learn more about these efforts.