Photo of Erika D. Beck, Ph.D.

Adela de la Torre, Ph.D.

President | San Diego State

“Every day, our students inspire me; when I see the hope in their eyes, it excites me because I know SDSU is doing well by them.”

Adela de la Torre, Ph.D., president of San Diego State University, grew up knowing the importance of education. As a child, her grandmother took her to UC Berkeley and told her, “Adelita, aquí es donde vas a estudiar.” Little Adela, this is where you’re going to study. Years later, that’s exactly what she did, earning a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate at the university.

“Anyone who knows a Mexican family knows you listen to your grandma,” Dr. de la Torre says with a smile.

De la Torre was the first Mexican-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural and resource economics from UC Berkeley. She faced a lot of bias as a woman and a Chicana. “That discipline was dominated by white men who had perspectives that reflected the prejudices that existed at that time,” she says. “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.”

When de la Torre graduated with her doctorate, she insisted her grandmother accept the degree on stage with her. “She was in her wheelchair, my mother was behind her and we all walked,” she says. “Without her prayers, love and commitment, I never would have gotten that degree. My grandmother and mother are my biggest inspirations.”

That strong sense of family informs de la Torre’s leadership. “I view what I do through a familial lens,” she says. “Family and community engagement are part of my DNA.”

Prior to de la Torre assuming SDSU's presidency in June 2018, she served as a professor at California State University, Long Beach, 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, de la Torre began to reimagine the possibility of a college presidency. SDSU was the only university she applied to. When she was offered the position, she didn’t hesitate.

“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. It’s a research institution committed to student excellence. It has a scholar-teacher model. And it is located on the border with a regional presence.”


"I view myself as a servant leader, putting my needs second to the needs of the community."

While still new to the position, de la Torre is already engaged in the Mission Valley project, a historic campus expansion that proposes to extend access to 20,000 more students. It calls for 1.6 million square feet of academic and research facilities, a stadium, accessible housing for students, staff and the general public,​ and a river park. “The plan is fully informed by the needs of the community, faculty and students,” she says. “It will be viewed as life-changing for this particular region.”

The 15-year expansion plan is set to start in 2020 and is part of de la Torre’s vision for SDSU’s future, which also includes valuing more than just high GPAs when it comes to student success. “It is important that we also create global citizens, compassionate leaders and ethical innovators,” she says.

As SDSU’s first female and first Latina president, she doesn’t discount her own influence on students. “We need to create representation that looks like our students,” she says. “I hope my legacy provides a pathway for young women, Latinas and other administrators of color who would like to be in leadership roles in higher education.

“I want to encourage individuals who are historically underrepresented to reimagine their dreams and recognize they have the capacity to become a president and be a transformative leader.”

Leading through Listening

BY Adela De La Torre, Ph.D.


Listen to President de La Torre’s essay

I don’t take lightly the privilege I have to lead SDSU, a flagship institution with a history of path-breaking, innovative work in teaching, research, creative activity and community impact.

At the same time, I understand that during times of change, the tendency for a new team is to see the barriers, the problems and the differences that divide us. But the real opportunity is to see the bonds that bind us—if we listen intently and pay attention to what others are trying to say.

My wonderful grandmother, a strong, first-generation Mexican immigrant who deeply influenced my leadership style, used to say: “A fuerza, ni los zapatos entran.” You can’t force your shoes to fit. You can’t force your way into anything.

And so it is with leadership.

No one can force his or her way into the hearts of people. But through the process of listening, we can develop a collective vision for the future. A vision we can all be proud of.

Shortly after I arrived at SDSU, Chris Thomas, our wonderful Associated Students president, gave me a copy of “The Heart-Led Leader,” the book he and his cabinet have been reading to prepare to lead not just with skill but also with heart.

As I read the book and reflected on the importance of leading as a servant leader, one statement stood out: “Whatever the question…love is the answer.”

I believe that listening is how I can best demonstrate love for those who have participated in the success of SDSU—students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and faithful partners in the community.

And although change can feel disruptive when diverse perspectives collide, listening to one another illuminates the fact that we share the love we bring to this place:

Love for our students
Love for our work
Love for our research
Love for our community

I share that love with my new San Diego State University family.

It propels me to listen. To listen intently.

In the process,

I have heard our faculty and staff say they want to see a real expression of shared governance, marked by transparency and trust.

I have heard it’s important to honor the knowledge and capacity of our staff.

I have heard that SDSU cares about serving San Diego’s community and wants to tackle our greatest societal problems, like global warming, homelessness and educational and health disparities.

I have heard faculty, staff and alumni say—even without tangible words—they don’t want me to forget about the extraordinary legacy that has already made San Diego State University a crown jewel among university systems.

I could speak all day about all I’ve heard our community say, the insights they’ve shared over hundreds of hours of one-on-one or group meetings.

My hope is that students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of our San Diego community will not only feel heard, but will also show up to our various conversations ready to listen.

And when that becomes a distinctive element of our culture, our impact will be unstoppable. Together, we will produce impressive global citizens, compassionate leaders and ethical innovators who will transform our city and the world.

Here’s to listening with our ears and with our hearts.

PHOTOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD; courtesy of San diego state

san diego state

Share Dr. de La Torre's story