Photo of Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D.

Jane Close Conoley, Ph.D.

President | CSU Long Beach

“Once I got involved with higher education leadership, I began to think, Maybe I could help more students get a college degree.”

Early in her career, Jane Close Conoley, Ph.D., received some good advice from a colleague: “In life, when a door presents itself, walk through it.” It was those words that helped extinguish feelings of self-doubt when Dr. Conoley was offered a career-making opportunity.

“She said, ‘Only women think they have to check every box before they’re ready to do something,’” recalls Conoley. “It helped me believe I could grow into positions.”

These days, the door Conoley literally walks through every morning takes her into the office of president of California State University, Long Beach.

The path to leadership began early. At 15, after hearing her older brother had earned his Ph.D., Conoley (who has a twin sister, Joan) was convinced she would do the same, even though she had no idea what it was.

Years later, the New York native graduated with 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. Then 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. “I remember thinking, The world is not going to be changed by one more article or one more book. Maybe I could help 10 more students get a college degree.

With each successive position, Conoley found herself drawn more and more to leadership roles, including associate dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and dean at Texas A&M University and UC Santa Barbara. But when UC Riverside asked her to become interim chancellor, she says, it was an “awakening.”

“That experience made me start considering university-wide leadership.”

In July 2014, Conoley got her chance: She joined CSU Long Beach as the university’s first female president. “It’s great—people don’t interrupt me as much as they used to,” she says with a big smile. Her quick wit and sense of humor go a long way in balancing the often serious role of campus president, which she likens to being “mayor of a small city.”

It’s easy to see the administrator, psychologist and woman reflected in her office. Stacks of research books and achievement awards share space with “Star Trek” memorabilia and framed photos of her husband, three children and five grandchildren. In the corner sits a poster of a young girl watering a garden. At the bottom is a William Allen White quote: “My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias.”

Under Conoley’s leadership, CSU Long Beach has focused in particular on increasing high-impact educational opportunities such as internships, service learning courses, international classes and faculty-led international learning. “It’s not about getting through as fast as you can. It’s getting through and collecting experiences that will shape the way you think about the world,” she says.

If there’s a hallmark to Conoley’s leadership style, it’s that she loves to encourage environments where the strengths of others are amplified. “I’m inspired by examples of success in the CSU system,” she says. “When alums come back and they want to mentor students and talk about their experience at the Beach, that’s success to me. It means we’ve done something, that we’ve helped facilitate their success.”


"I’m inspired by examples of 
success in the CSU system."

Removing Barriers to Success

BY Jane Close Conoley, Ph.D.

Listen to President Conoley's essay

A leadership trait I find critical to my success is being able to absorb the inevitable slings and arrows associated with making leadership decisions without rancor toward those who sent them my way. It’s not always easy to be forgiving, but it is necessary. At my best, while I certainly learn from experiences, I assume good intentions from others and attempt to see their criticisms as an indication of their care for Cal State Long Beach.

My background as a psychologist may have helped me develop a mindset that does not personalize comments aimed at me in my role as president. Psychologists are trained to hear statements as more descriptive of concerns and experiences of the sender than accurate depictions of the receiver. Of course, there are rare moments when it’s clear the sender’s intent is to simply hurt my feelings. I tend to experience those times with sadness about the other person’s emotional regulation. Gaining a sense of power by belittling another is a disastrous pattern that often predicts personal unhappiness.

Another insight I have about leadership is that my role is to create environments that enable people to thrive. We all have “plant-like” features. We grow and develop best when we are planted in contexts that are rich in opportunities, fair, supportive and creative. I see my most important job on campus as removing barriers to success and adding to the wealth of possibilities available to students, faculty and staff.

There is no one way to be successful as a leader. The match of the leader’s skills to the needs and aspirations of the organization is what’s key. Some organizations need a laser focus on getting tasks accomplished while others require a leader who tends to the social emotional needs of its members. The best formula may be to stay curious about the people, processes, outcomes and policies that make up the university and always be creating strategies to enhance communication, inspire engagement and celebrate success.



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