​​​ Photo of Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D.

Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D.

Former President | CSU San Marcos

“I didn’t have to be like everyone​ else at the table to be an influential voice.”

What you notice first is the smile. Often, what follows next is her laugh, warm and infectious.

At first glance, Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D., president of California State University San Marcos and currently the longest-serving president in the 23-campus CSU system, may not fit the stereotype of an academic administrator.

Yet Dr. Haynes’s entire career has been spent in higher education, including 23 years as a campus president. When she came to CSU San Marcos from the University of Houston-Victoria in February 2004, the Southern California campus was just 14 years old, with a student body of some 7,000.

The young university immediately energized the new president; it didn’t take long for her to find her focus. “I very quickly looked at the demographics of our students and the region and realized there was quite a gap,” remembers Haynes, who has been named one of the most influential social workers in the nation.

“In order to reach out and bring the educationally at-risk, underrepresented students that Cal State San Marcos serves, we would have to create partnerships and pathways, so students knew how to get to us successfully.”

And come they did. The campus has more than doubled its enrollment, which stands now at 17,000 students, since Haynes’s arrival.

The results of that audacious goal—to serve not just the students on campus, but to raise the educational attainment rate of an entire region—have become one of Haynes’s most cherished successes: Over half of the 2018 graduating class of CSUSM were the first in their families to earn a four-year degree, just as Haynes was the first in her family to do so, and 39 percent came from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Starting out as a young female administrator in higher education, Haynes’s first experience as an academic leader was a somewhat lonely one. In 1985, she landed the job of dean at the University of Houston, becoming the sole woman in the administration.

“I sat across the table for 10 years with 14 men and had to get comfortable with wearing bright colors and sometimes affectionately, sometimes disparagingly, being dismissed and talked over,” recalls Haynes.

“It took me a while to say, the only way I can do this position is if I can speak in an authentic tone and stand up for my own style in leading.”

Lacking mentors and coaches in the early years of her career, Haynes has worked for decades to ensure other women don’t have the same experience. “There was a real absence of that in my early professional life, which probably helped me be more passionate about ensuring that I acted differently as I went forward,” she says.

That has meant hiring more women in middle- and upper-management at Cal State San Marcos; developing in-house talent; and examining campus hiring practices to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. “I’m somebody who doesn’t believe in just passively sitting back and expecting change will happen,” says Haynes, who revived and has led the American Council on Education's Southern California Network of Women in Higher Education since 2005.

“I believe that women add value to the conversation, often come from different experiential backgrounds…and can often bring a more collaborative approach to leadership.”

Looking around her office, with its purple accents and views of Double Peak and the San Marcos foothills, the vivacious grandmother of four reflects on her nearly 15 years leading CSUSM.  

“This campus energizes me, but certainly over the last 15 years, there have been days that have tested me,” she says. “What I have always kept in the forefront of my mind in those moments is that the presidency is not about winning, it is about compromise, as long as that compromise does not result in the loss of the university’s core values and mission or one’s own.

“A good leader needs to know what issues they are willing to go to the mat for, and, in each instance, I’ve encountered, I was fortified by my experience and belief that the campus community and I shared those same values and vision.”

Throughout her career, Haynes—named one of the most influential social workers in the nation—has been a catalyst for change, and she remains a powerful advocate for women. She knows that while it’s still an uphill battle for a woman to be judged as both a good woman and a good leader, she is encouraged that progress is being made.

“Thirty years ago, there weren’t many women in the pipeline to become university presidents,” says President Haynes, “but now there are and it’s up to us to continue to champion this change and move the needle forward.

“As women leaders, we need to be brave, be bold, and be mentors who open doors for other women.”

Update: Karen S. Haynes retired in June 2019.


"What inspires me still are 

bold ideas that actually have

enough support to be executed."

Longevity & LEADERSHIP

BY Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D.

Listen to President Haynes's essay

I never imagined when I first became a university president—in June 1995 at the University of Houston Victoria (UHV)—how quickly time would pass. Fast forward 23 years to 2018, and I have now served two presidencies—8.5 years at UHV and 15 years at California State University San Marcos.  In today’s global and constantly changing world, the work of a university president continues to be more complex and multidimensional—particularly when the institution you serve is as forward focused and innovative as CSUSM.

In 2004, when I became Cal State San Marcos’ third president, the university was one of the youngest in the nation – only 14 years old with a student population of 7,000 and an alumni base of 13,000. Fifteen years later, CSUSM’s diverse student body has grown to 17,000. Meanwhile, our alumni—now 45,000 strong—are flourishing. We’ve launched over 100 new academic programs, opened an off-campus center in Temecula in 2008, and we’ve constructed 15 new buildings and facilities. Our research enterprise has steadily grown while our annual regional economic impact has soared to half a billion dollars.

In December, we will successfully close CSUSM’s first major philanthropic campaign encompassing our commitment to preparing tomorrow's leaders, building great communities, and solving critical issues. At the time of its launch, no other university in the CSU, and likely in the nation, had attempted a philanthropic campaign at such a young age.

Clearly, these accomplishments have required the dedication of the entire community to push CSUSM forward. It has required leadership across campus: who understand the needs of our students and our region; who collaboratively manage and address complex issues through sound and participatory decision-making; who create and share a clear strategic vision—a vision supported by consistent strategic priorities that remain at the forefront and are assessed annually.  

What I have learned over the course of my two presidencies is that all of this requires the time-intensive but extremely valuable work of building relationships, establishing trust and creating a cohesive and collaborative institutional culture. A social worker by background, I am rooted in the values of service and social justice, human relationships and integrity. These values have defined my leadership style, as I have worked to articulate goals, motivate teams and look to the future. A university president cannot just be a visionary; they must be an influencer, a strategic planner, a bridge-builder, and know how to execute plans.

At CSUSM, campus climate is one of our strategic priorities that we committed to in 2005; it is the priority that sets us apart.  We pride ourselves on being a university that champions climate, culture, and how we work together through the values of civility and respect, communication and collaboration, and support and success. Together, we are an institution that breaks down silos and leverages our collective “University First” perspective to put students and our region first.

This positive and inclusive campus culture didn’t develop overnight. Nor was it one that came with a clear blueprint. Building this culture was a gradual process that took time, commitment, and trust, and the work is never truly done, as culture is a living element of every organization. But, I can tell you, it is certainly work worth doing – and it takes staying power to have the endurance to implement bold, audacious goals. That’s what we’ve done and what makes us so uniquely, CSUSM.



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