Photo of Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D.

Mary A. Papazian, Ph.D.

President | SAN JOSÉ STATE

“I am always inspired by people with a belief in something greater than themselves, and you see that in our students.”

“Women often feel that they have to be invited in or have it all figured out,” says Mary A. Papazian, Ph.D., president of San José State University. “I don’t mind jumping right in and seeing how it works out.”

The Los Angeles native attributes this personality trait to her father, an immigrant from Greece who came to the U.S. as a young man to pursue an education, someone who loved current events and encouraged lively debate around the dinner table. Growing up with three brothers, Dr. Papazian quickly learned that to be heard, she had to assert herself.

“My dad used to say, affectionately, ‘You really should go into law; you love to argue.’”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA, Papazian did consider becoming an attorney. But a senior-year course on the works of the English poet John Milton had sparked something.

“I had law school applications and graduate school applications and thought, Torts or ‘Paradise Lost’—which one do I want? I threw away all the law school applications and the rest, as they say, is history,” recalls the scholar of English Renaissance literature.

While leading a university wasn’t a long-term goal, others recognized Papazian’s potential. In graduate school, her dissertation advisor’s letter of recommendation concluded with the prophetic line: “She’ll be a university president in 25 years.”

Papazian was skeptical. “He told me, ‘Just tuck it away and when the time is right, the opportunities will be there.’”

Over time, Papazian honed her skills as a leader, first as a professor, associate dean and dean. She continued her momentum, serving as a provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Lehman College of the City University of New York, and then as president of Southern Connecticut State University, in New Haven.

“You have to live in the moment of the positions you’re in. As opportunities came up, I took them. Each time, I was fortunate to be able to move into the next level of experience,” Papazian explains. “If I think about my own leadership style, it is always energized by imagining worlds that aren't here yet. Perhaps that is the Renaissance scholar in me.”

In 2016, Papazian became SJSU’s 30th president and the first Armenian American female president of a university. Her paternal grandparents were survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, so the accomplishment serves as a point of great pride. “To be able to be a role model and give young women a sense of aspiration is heartwarming,” she says. “I meet young people across the country and in Armenia who tell me I inspire them.”


"In leadership, you need to have time for reflection, to step back, gain perspective and look at the whole picture."

Since San José State is the only public university in Silicon Valley, Papazian knows it is in a unique position to give its students access to the region’s globally recognized businesses. “We hire a lot of talented part-time faculty who are professionals at companies in our region and can bring that knowledge and expertise of the workforce, complementing what our faculty on campus are able to do,” the president says. “And we connect students, whatever their area of study, with companies and internships so they are working all over Silicon Valley.

“I am proud of our success in preparing our students for the workforce in our region and the innovation economy, students who at the same time are imbued with the values of equity and inclusion that are part of our rich and long history.”

In the end, Papazian always keeps her focus on ensuring student success at SJSU, California’s oldest public university: “Our mission is to create opportunities for students who don’t otherwise have them and to allow students to soar.”

Together, we are brilliant: Leadership and the art of team-building

BY Mary A. Papazian, Ph.D.

Listen to President Papazian's essay

As I consider the many aspects of leadership I find important in my position as president of San José State University, I am reminded of a simple phrase by the educator and author Steven W. Anderson, which sums up a vital element of my overall leadership approach: "Alone we are smart, but together we are brilliant." Truer words may never have been spoken about the importance of team-building.

When I hire senior leaders, I look to hire colleagues who understand that their individual success is not as vital as the success of the enterprise as a whole, and I look ahead to see how they will fit in with the broader team.

Deep knowledge and expertise in a new staff member’s field is obviously paramount when building a team, but there are plenty of smart people with strong experience and expertise who are not always able to see beyond their own ambitions to the needs of the enterprise as a whole.

Just as important—perhaps even more important—is the prospective candidate’s interest in seeing how her or his area of expertise and responsibility fits into and adds value to the larger whole. Building an effective team means offering people an opportunity to feel fulfilled in the work that they do, rather than feeling the need to compete with their peers.

Here at San José State, for example, we have strong institutional values around our social justice mission and a shared commitment to creating opportunities for our aspiring students. It has been refreshing for me to see just how many senior leaders I have hired who understand and support that bigger picture and find fulfillment in being a part of that mission, professionals who measure their success by the impact they have on others rather than the personal accolades they might achieve. In fact, I have found that those people tend to come and find us, rather than us having to go and find them.

University presidents—and indeed all leaders—are only as good as the people around us. When I look to hire senior leaders and build a leadership team, I try to send the right signals up-front, so that it is understood that we are not competing with or playing off of one another, but rather that we are collaborating in a very real sense. When we model this behavior in our own relationships, we provide important examples for our students.

It is a certain orientation I hope to identify in potential members of my team, a way of seeing the world and a way of measuring success. Do they seek individual glory and bask in their own successes, or do they find gratification when the team moves forward collectively, not caring who gets the recognition? It is the leader in that latter category whom I want to hire.

Finally, I find it important to build teams that allow people to create balance and perspective in their personal and often very complex lives. It also helps when you have team members who do not take themselves too seriously, who have a true blending of confidence and humility. We want people who are serious about their work, but who also can laugh at themselves while enjoying the fun and even the absurdities of life.

Here at San José State, we are striving to create a healthy culture, establishing and adhering to our values, transforming lives and bringing people together. It has been so refreshing to see just how many people on campus and in the community share those values and are eager to be part of a greater good. That is the tone we set as leaders, and the kind of individuals I look for when building a team.


VIDEOGRAPHY: Patrick record; COURTESY OF San José State University

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