Investiture Address

Investiture of President William A. Covino

"Engagement, Service, and the Public Good"

May 9, 2014

Welcome, to our hardworking and dedicated students; our staff members who create a welcoming atmosphere every day; our distinguished and devoted faculty; our accomplished and loyal alumni; academic, community, and political leaders; family; friends; Secretary Solis, Chancellor White, and CSU Trustees Monville, Alexanian, and Kimbell.  Thank you for all that you have done and will do to make this a great university, and special thanks to all of you who have worked so hard to make today a great event.

A special thanks to John Welty, president of Fresno State for 22 years, and a great mentor and friend to so many of us here today.  And I’m honored to have Jim Rosser here on the platform: over 34 years he led Cal State L.A. to great distinction, and today we look ahead to a future that will build on his legacy.  Jim, thank you very much.

My parents, Jean and Vito Covino, could not be with us today; I hope they’re watching the live stream from their home in Thousand Oaks. Without their love, and the many sacrifices that afforded great opportunities for me and my sisters, I wouldn’t have the privilege of being with you today. My sister Karen is here with her daughter; our son Danny is taking a break from Cal State L.A. coursework to be here; our daughter Lexie drove up from San Diego along with Debbie’s mother, Brigitte Caslav; and my son Chris—who received his doctoral degree in Education this time last year--flew in from Chicago, and represented the whole Covino clan during the Investiture a moment ago. Debbie’s brother Dennis and his family are also here, from Hemet. And it’s great to see Bob and Paula Chianese (Bob directed my Master’s thesis at Cal State Northridge), and Don Marshall, who led the English Department during my days at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Add to these our favorite neighbors from the years we lived in Reseda, great lifelong friends that I first met at Sequoia Junior High School and Reseda High School in the valley, and some of the first students I taught as an assistant professor at San Diego State, who have gone on to great careers and accomplishments. Thank you all so very much for being here today.

And a special thanks to Debbie, whose grace, wit, and devotion make every day new and bright, and who is a terrific cheerleader-in-chief for Cal State L.A.

I also want to thank Debbie for recommending that we feature some exceptional mentors and mentees in our processional. These pairs—who marched in behind her—represent great dedication, generosity, and success.

We have:

  • Gary Matus and Diego Campos – Mr. Matus is a managing director at RSR Partners and his mentee, Diego, is a senior majoring in Criminal Justice.
  • Sharon Grigsby and Jessica Nila – Ms. Grigsby is the former deputy director of operations for L.A. County’s Department of Health Services. Her mentee, Jessica, is a nutritional science major who plans to graduate next spring before attending grad school.
  • Francis Morelos and Christina Harding – Mr. Morelos is the director of financial compliance at Warner Bros. His mentee, Christina, graduated Summa Cum Laude from Cal State L.A. in March 2013, with a Bachelor of Science in business administration. Today, she works at Ernst & Young.
  • Liz Herrera and Myrna Compean – Ms. Herrera is executive director of El Nido Family Centers, the largest teen and family services provider in California. Her mentee, Myrna, is a sophomore working toward a degree in sociology.
  • Jorge Ramirez and Kimberly Henry – Mr. Ramirez is the CEO and president of Heateflex Corporation. His mentee, Kimberly, is a master’s student in our environmental hydrogeology program. She’s just one month shy of graduation!
  • Anthony Cox and Nicolle Fedor – Mr. Cox is a professor of broadcast journalism at Cal State L.A. He is an award-winning radio and television journalist in Los Angeles with more than four decades of experience covering local, national and international stories. His mentee, Nicolle, is a senior who also serves as the president of Golden Eagle Radio.
  • Francisco Cornelio and Micah Zimmermaker – Mr. Cornelio is a Cal State L.A. recruiter and his mentee, Micah, graduated from Cal State L.A. in 2011 with a degree in sociology with a concentration in inequalities and diversity. Today, Micah is a community liaison with the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Thank you all for being a part of this ceremony.

This has been a great week. We hosted a number of events that underscore our commitment to engagement, service, and the public good. I hope you had an opportunity to attend some of them.

For those who did not, let me highlight a few:

  • On Monday, we held the grand opening for our new Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good. Headed by Taffany Lim and a wonderful team of faculty, staff, and students, this center will serve as a nexus between the university and the region as we build and cultivate new partnerships and alliances.
  • On Tuesday, we broke ground on the Rosie Casals/Pancho Gonzalez Tennis Center that will anchor the Billie Jean King Sports Complex. We were thrilled that Billie Jean flew in from New York to join us for the event.
  • Also on Tuesday, the Academic Senate—eloquently represented by Professor Kevin Baaske earlier—hosted Los Angeles civic leader and icon, Maria Elena Durazo. Her Distinguished Lecture poignantly framed the critical need to engage and serve our community.
  • On Wednesday, we opened the Cal State L.A. Hydrogen Research Facility and Fueling Station. This cutting edge facility will serve as the next stop along California’s hydrogen highway and provide students with a meaningful, hands-on education about the technologies of tomorrow.
  • Also on Wednesday, we unveiled the Charon D’Aiello Sandoval and David Sandoval Student Services Center. It was our opportunity to underscore our top priority at this university—student success—and thank the Sandovals for their generosity. They have given so much to Cal State L.A.
  • Just yesterday, we visited nearby Garfield High School to announce the GO East Los Angeles! collaborative project. In partnership with East L.A. College, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and School Board Member Monica Garcia, Cal State L.A. will join a “cradle to career” commitment to the success of students in East Los Angeles.
  • Individually, each of these events represents a step forward for the university within our community. Taken together, they begin to signal the future of Cal State L.A.

At our fall convocation, I spoke about the importance of engagement as a force that defines our mission as a 21st century public university. By engagement, I mean the active, generous, and often lively interaction with others.

I have an example. The brief interchange I am about to play for you—between 2-year-old Leah and her Sicilian great-grandmother (her bisnonna)—is both reminiscent of scenes from my own childhood and representative of a type of engagement about which I will say more after we watch. As you’ll see, Leah’s impressive attempts to mimic her bisnonna’s combination of Sicilian and English suggest that she’s acquiring an inside knowledge of family patter. She has already internalized the traditions of her heritage, speaking as she does—in that well-known Italian way—with her hands:

I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a delightful exchange. Through this kind of engagement, which can even seem combative at moments, we become literate. Leah’s banter reminds us of how we pick up words, concepts, ways of thinking, kinds of interaction. We adopt the patterns and practices of our families, cultures, and communities.

This sweet and comical encounter allows me to focus on a key element of engagement at its best: the idea that interacting with another, with others, may sometimes involve spirited and lively contention, but that the contention should always remain a vigorous demonstration of learning and love, a demonstration of what 20th century philosopher and rhetorician Kenneth Burke calls “cooperative competition.” More about that in a moment. But first, back to Leah.

They are talking in the video about Leah’s grandfather, who, according to bisnonna, talks too much, and doesn’t listen. Though there are moments when Leah and her bisnonna’s passionate dialogue resembles a high-pitched battle, it is also punctuated by moments when Leah’s attempts to participate by speaking gibberish are acknowledged and applauded, with bisnonna at one point nodding and saying “Yeah, I know.” Bisnonna then says, “Leah, listen to me,” and proceeds to tell Leah that her grandfather is hard-headed (“testa dura”), and doesn’t want to be quiet. That sets Leah prattling away again, to which bisnonna nods and seems to say, finally, “Good work, Good work.”

In my own case, I can compare Leah and her bisnonna’s encounter to the Covino side of my family. Just take Leah and her great-grandmother, multiply the participants by 10, include uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews, and triple the decibel and aggression levels. That’s a Covino family gathering. As I’ve said, engagement sometimes involves scrappy interaction. We all have our own ideas about what’s of value, and how best to get things done, and these differences can lead to contention, which is a positive and necessary entry into true dialogue.

Representing the more “cooperative” aspect of cooperative competition is my mother’s side of the family. The Tartaglias were made up of a host of musicians, many of them playing guitar or mandolin. While there was also plenty of hands-flying and high-decibel talking at family events, they also spoke to one another through their music.

They sounded much like this once they were warmed up:


A mandolin That mandolin at left belonged to my grandfather, Tony Tartaglia, and was a staple at the family music fests. What I remember most about the Tartaglia musicians is their obsession with being in tune with one another. The mandolin is typically tuned to the guitar, and the guitar is typically tuned by ear. For every 10 minutes of music by my relatives, there was at least 30 minutes of tuning up. This made for quite a comical scene in itself, given that a number of the eldest Tartaglias had some trouble hearing. But I now see their obsession with being in tune as another important element of engagement: the perennial desire to be in harmony with others.

Of course, in order to be fully engaged in the larger human conversation, we need to interact outside of our comfort zone, outside of what we might call our “immediate family.” Outside of the family, we encounter others who have come from very different backgrounds and experiences. As university students, we learn about events, values, conflicts, and discoveries from other times and other places.

In order to present a picture of how this broader, larger human conversation looks, I return to Kenneth Burke, who offers an anecdote—which I’ve modernized a bit—that has guided my understanding of engagement throughout my academic life:

Imagine that you arrive at a social event. You come late. When you arrive, everyone seems engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the topic of the argument. You offer your opinion. Someone answers; you disagree with her; someone comes to your defense; another disagrees with both you and your defender. At a certain point you realize that the topic has taken off in a new direction. The discussion continues; people come and go; the hour grows late. You depart, and when you depart, the discussion is still vigorously in progress.

For me, the scene described by Burke represents the ways in which engagement can occupy our lives. Like little Leah, we come into the world in medias res (in the middle of things). A great deal of human history has preceded us, and has defined the context into which we merge. As we grow and learn, we become more and more practiced in joining the larger human conversation, making our way through ethics, politics, human relationships, values, obligation to others, and so forth. We try out our own arguments and positions, hoping at every point that someone will say—like Leah’s bisnonna does, “Good work, good work.”

Burke points out that each of us is “one voice in a dialogue. Put several such voices together,” he says, “with each voicing its own special assertion, let them act upon one another in cooperative competition, and you get a [discussion] that, properly developed, can lead to the views transcending the limitations of each.”

Through such a dynamic dialogue, we refine and perfect our own ideas and perspectives. We become—in the best of worlds—more sensitive to opposing views and more inclusive of multiple perspectives.

This is what a Cal State L.A. experience is and should be: suffused with engagement that begins in classrooms alive with dialogue among students and professors who address questions that can’t be reduced to a simple answer. Put another way, Cal State L.A. should be a prominent site for cooperative competition. This term is, of course, an oxymoron: cooperation would seem to be the opposite of competition, and yet these impulses require one another in order to be useful to the public good. Cooperation, by itself, can lead to acquiescence and conformity—the tendency to accept the views or requirements of others without question. Competition, by itself, promotes an individualism that can lead to injury to others. In such cases, competition becomes a fundamental element of conflict. Cooperative competition, however, requires us to maintain and voice our own perspective (that’s the competitive dimension, “here’s what I think”), while also searching for common ground (that’s the cooperative dimension, “what goals or values can we all agree on?”).  The dynamic energy of cooperative competition should fill our classrooms, fuel our partnerships, and drive our scholarship.

We want this spirit to prevail throughout the university, within our local communities, across the city and county of Los Angeles, and well into the regions beyond. In these places, with a population that represents some of the richest ethnic and cultural diversity in the world, every conceivable challenge—and opportunity—arises, making our unique milieu a living lab for bringing distinctive voices together in the service of innovation and transformation.

What is the relationship then, between engagement and service? Engagement means sharing a part of ourselves with others, giving them our time, attention, and energy. In other words, an act of giving and sharing is an act of service. Sharing can be easier when we have a common heritage or set of experiences to begin with, but proves more challenging when we encounter persons, ideas, and problems that are unfamiliar to us. Faced with the unfamiliar, an engaged person—or organization—tries to find what Kenneth Burke calls a “margin of overlap”: that space in which we can “identify” with some aspect of the unfamiliar that makes it more recognizable.

University faculty often try to develop this margin of overlap by finding innovative ways to make unfamiliar material relevant to students who are experiencing it for the first time. They do so, for instance, by drawing connections with students’ personal experience or with popular culture. Here at Cal State L.A.—and at a number of other campuses—the faculty also makes material relevant to students by embedding service learning into their courses. One of the great benefits of connecting community service with academic coursework is the discovery of that margin of overlap between what we read and hear in books and lectures, and how it is applied and practiced in the larger world. And as we get to know others who are devoted to, and benefit from, community service, we develop an ethic of generosity; we realize that (even though we may be from very different backgrounds, times, and places), we all worry about some of the same things, love some of the same things, and face some of the same obstacles.

I’m very pleased to say that the faculty senate at Cal State L.A. has approved a general education policy which, beginning fall 2016, will require all of our students to take two courses that involve service learning. This means that all of our Cal State L.A. students will be performing community service that reinforces what they are learning in their courses, working in agencies that include the Red Cross, the East L.A. Women’s Center, the YMCA, the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, Para Los Niños, and more. We will be expanding our current partnerships to accommodate more than 3,500 students each year, working and learning in the community. We know that students who are engaged in service learning also stay better engaged with their studies and graduate in higher numbers.

Institutions that value engagement and service implicitly identify themselves as servant institutions, consistent with the seminal definition of servant leadership offered by Robert Greenleaf in 1972.  He says this:

Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions … If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

With Greenleaf’s words in mind, and with our defining focus on engagement, service, and the public good, Cal State L.A. will become a regenerative force—through the vitality and commitment of our students and faculty; through robust partnerships like the GO East LA initiative that we celebrated yesterday; and through institutional hallmarks like the Pat Brown Institute for Public Policy at Cal State L.A., which has reinforced our commitment to civic education and civic engagement for well over two decades.

Finally then, how are engagement and service connected to the public good? In recent years, the obligation of colleges and universities to advance the public good has been a very live topic. Here in California, accreditation will soon require all universities to demonstrate a commitment to the public good. This will raise important questions about how the public good is best pursued. Professor Craig Calhoun says this in his important work on The University and the Public Good:

Universities are almost everywhere understood to have public missions. They offer education that equips citizens for occupations traditionally centered on public service … They advance social mobility. They produce new technologies and other innovations. They contribute to both the continuity and creativity of culture. They directly inform the public sphere and also prepare citizens to participate in it.

The California State University System in general, and Cal State L.A. in particular, contribute to the public good in all of these ways—and then some. Some of the officials who are contemplating the public good ask questions about which college majors are most valuable. Should we be graduating more artists or more MBAs? More engineers or more criminologists? More scientists or more sociologists? My answer is, as you might expect, all of the above. We need to continue to offer access and success to students with a wide range of interests, abilities, and dreams. And we want to ensure that each of them leaves Cal State L.A. ready to contribute to the public good.

How do we help students get ready to contribute? By offering a curriculum that prizes engagement, service, and the public good: active and engaged learning in the classroom; research that tackles the issues, questions, and problems that occupy our neighbors and our neighborhoods; an ethic of service that entails the capacity to work with and sometimes argue with others to make the world a better place.

There is, of course, much to do in order to realize our commitment to engagement, service, and the public good. This is just a beginning. I returned to Los Angeles because it has always been, for me, the land of transformation—where I was transformed into a scholar-teacher, and where the public good has always been at the heart of great leadership and great change. I came to Cal State L.A. because you, because we, are poised to transform the years ahead, as we become more deeply committed to the well-being of our city and our region, more clearly focused on becoming a powerful engine of social mobility, and more fully aware that compassion and caring for one another are at the heart of what education means. Then, along with Leah’s bisnonna, we will be able to say to our students and to each other, “Good work, Good work.”