Photo of Ellen N. Junn, Ph.D.

Ellen N. Junn, Ph.D.

President | stanislaus state

“Getting to see the unadulterated joy of first-generation students and their families at commencement is transformative.”

“Please call me Ellen” is one of the first things you’re likely to hear upon meeting Ellen N. Junn, Ph.D., president of California State University, Stanislaus. In fact, she almost insists on it.

“I’m not a hierarchical or terribly formal president,” says Dr. Junn with a smile. “Being grounded and down-to-earth is very important to me.”

Just as essential are equity and opportunity across the campus community, two pillars that make up the core of Junn’s approach to leading Stanislaus State. California State Controller Betty Yee, the keynote speaker at the president’s investiture in 2017, calls her leadership “bold and effective, yet understated and quiet.”

Seventy-four percent of Stan State students are the first in their families to attend college. To help them succeed, Junn wants to shift the paradigm that asks only that students be college-ready.

We need to be ready for them,” she says, “and make them feel like they belong, no matter what background or circumstance they come from.”

Accomplishing this means supporting the myriad ways professors and instructors strive to help students. When Junn asks alumni to share a memory from their time on campus, “99 percent of them will mention a faculty member,” she says. “Having that connection between faculty and students is absolutely foundational.”

Junn’s parents immigrated to the U.S. shortly after the end of the Korean War. She was born in Champaign, Illinois, and spent most of her childhood in Jenison, Michigan, a town of 20,000 where hers was the only Asian family. “I spoke Korean until I was three and learned English by watching ‘Captain Kangaroo’ and ‘Romper Room,’” she recalls.

Earning her master’s and doctorate in cognitive and developmental psychology from Princeton University, Junn loved learning and doing research. But the transition to professor proved challenging: “It was very frightening to me because I was a shy and quiet person.”

She soon found a focus, though. It was rooted in the discrimination she and her family experienced while living in legally segregated Macon, Georgia, in the 1960s for two years. That painful experience proved transformational as 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—CSU San Bernardino, CSU Dominguez Hills, San José State, Fresno State and CSU Fullerton—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 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. We are the economic engine of California.”

That said, Stan State remains, she says, the system’s best-kept secret. “Because it's a smaller campus and located in a rural area, Stanislaus has a hometown feeling,” Junn explains. “Our students are so kind and polite, yet aspirational and Valley tough.”


"My leadership style is grounded in

providing service, especially for

those in need."

An avid reader, Junn finds inspiration from the leadership example set by her fellow CSU president Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D., of CSU San Marcos (“I just adore her”) and from luminaries like poet Maya Angelou and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela.

But the poems of Emily Dickinson have an especially profound effect. “Hope” is one of her favorites: “Hope” is the thing with feathers—/ That perches in the soul—/ And sings the tune without the words—/ And never stops—at all.

“I like it because it captures how our students feel—the hope of getting a college education and improving their lives,” Junn says. “That hope springs eternal in their hearts.”

Equity and the Greater Good: Making Higher Education Dreams Meet Reality

BY Ellen N. Junn, Ph.D.

Listen to President Junn's essay

Working toward equity and making the promise of the greater good a reality for everyone has always been one of my core driving beliefs and inspirations.

The commitment to be a “student-ready” campus at Stanislaus State is especially relevant since almost 75 percent of our students (among the highest percentages in the CSU) are the first in their family to get a college degree. Nearly two-thirds of our students are Pell-eligible and are from under-resourced families and neighborhoods here in the Central Valley, where educational attainment rates for the baccalaureate degree lag at about half the rate for the rest of the state. As one of three CSUs in our region, we are indeed creating a powerhouse workforce, who will go on to forever enhance their families, their future generations of families and our rich agricultural and vibrantly diverse part of the state.

My passion for education and equitable opportunities and inclusive treatment for everyone originates from both of my parents, who were immigrants from South Korea. My father was the first in his family to attend college, and I vividly remember him lecturing me while growing up that the three most important things a parent can provide to their children are: the choice to raise children, the choice to live in a free democratic society and the gift of education for their children. 

My mother gave me the conscious choice to always serve those who are in need. These powerful parental lessons, coupled with being raised in my very early years in the segregated Deep South in Georgia in the early 1960s, provided me with the firsthand knowledge and experience of racial bigotry and discrimination. So ensuring a climate of respect, equitable treatment and inclusive civility is a hallmark of what we are trying to create and promote on campus and in our surrounding communities.

One critical insight about leadership for me has been to slightly reframe the concept of what it is to be a leader. Often, people will say to me that they could never aspire to be a “leader” because in their view, a “leader” is someone who possesses a more glorified set of standards—including degrees, publicly visible accomplishments and charismatic personalities. In my view, a true leader is someone who can work in trusting, sometimes complicated, ethical, yet open and collegial relationships with others in order to accomplish mutually positive outcomes. From this perspective, anyone can be a leader—whether in their own families, in their communities, at school or at their workplace, to effect positive change.

This is why I seek to be a collaborative, communicative, consultative and innovative leader who prefers not to be overly formal or hierarchical. I love our students and I feel so grateful to be at a campus where our extraordinary “Valley tough” students come to us with dreams and hopes to learn and to push themselves beyond the norm to realize new uncharted professional and personal aspirations. Similarly, I am deeply indebted to our dedicated and talented faculty and staff who work very closely with our students to help them realize their dreams. Together, all of us here at Stan State are excited leaders working to empower our students and our Central Valley region.

OF Stanislaus state

VIDEOGRAPHY: Patrick record; COURTESY OF Stanislaus state

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