Fall 2022 Convocation Address


August 18, 2022

Good morning. And welcome to Convocation 2022. I hope your summer has been all that you’d hoped and more. I hope you feel rejuvenated, rested, and ready to welcome a new academic year. It is good to see you all, in-person, outside of the grid. I appreciate this opportunity to be together again, to occupy the same physical space as we celebrate the new year. 

Let me begin by acknowledging some of our guests. Today, as you heard earlier, we’re welcoming a history-making cohort of new faculty. We’ve hired the largest group of tenure-track faculty in the history of the University. Would you all please stand so that our community can welcome you? I want you to know that you are joining a faculty whose commitment, passion, and talent are unparalleled. You may be seated. This is also the most diverse group of faculty we have ever welcomed. It’s also noteworthy that 12 of our new tenure-track faculty have come from our outstanding CSU lecturers.

Let me take this opportunity to introduce and welcome, two new deans: Dr. Stephen Trzaskoma for the College of Arts and Letters and Dr. René Vellanoweth for the College of Natural and Social Sciences. Will you please stand? Thank you. You may be seated.

Today we also welcome staff members from across the University whom we’ve not greeted before. Will those staff members who have joined us in the last two years, since 2019, please stand? Now that we are together, I want to welcome you again to the Golden Eagle family. You may be seated.

Let me congratulate and introduce our newly installed president of Associated Students, Inc. Jaime Arellano. Please stand, Jaime. On Monday, Jaime was sworn in as president. We wish our ASI president and the ASI officers all the best and we look forward to a great year of working together. You may be seated, Jaime.

Welcome to our emeriti faculty, who are such an important part of our Golden Eagle family. Thank you for your continued commitment to the University. And today we’re also joined by members of the Board of Directors for the Cal State LA Alumni Association and members of the Board of Directors for the Cal State LA Foundation. In addition to our newer staff members, many of our longstanding staff are in the audience, including our Facilities Champions, welcome.

For nearly a decade, we’ve opened every academic year by gathering just as we’re doing now. We’ve come together each fall, to see old friends and meet new faculty, to share the excitement and hope that each fall brings, and to share this space together, in community.

I have to say the Luckman Theatre has never looked lovelier than it does today with all of us here. I’d like to thank Maria Magolske, Senior Executive Director for Donor Engagement and Special Initiatives, and Nicholas A. Mestas, Executive Director for the Luckman Fine Arts Complex, and their staff for their great work on Convocation and for the season ahead. In the upcoming months, this very stage where I now stand will be graced by an all-star line-up: Dionne Warwick, Mariza, Gloria Gaynor, legendary actress Isabella Rossellini, along with some other surprises that we’re still confirming.

Standing on this stage is always inspirational and reminds me of how far we’ve come. In 2020, when the pandemic forced us off campus, we moved Convocation online. But we still held a Convocation. In 2021, I stood here on this stage looking into a nearly empty auditorium, while you watched the livestream online. But still, we held a Convocation. Today’s gathering is our first in-person Convocation with invited guests since 2019. Once again, we’re here. We should all be proud of our commitment to this gathering and all that it represents. I see our fall Convocation as confirmation, encouragement, inspiration and, yes, a testament to our readiness to continue and a celebration of our dedication to a thriving university.

We took care of each other during the early and worst days of the pandemic, and we continue to do so as we learn to live with an ever-evolving virus. Students received technology, food support, financial support from federal funding, and hundreds of thousands of community members received the COVID-19 vaccine right here on our campus, at a time when it could not be found elsewhere. We not only served our students, we served the places they call home.

In the years ahead, much will be written about the pandemic. But I couldn’t be prouder of what our legacy will be.

As we continue celebrating our 75th anniversary, the word legacy and all it connotes comes to mind. Today, you’re hearing a lot about our University that I hope will inspire your sense of pride—and help frame our legacy. Whether this is your first year at Cal State LA, or your fiftieth, this Convocation confirms that you belong to a University community that is deeply engaged in the important work not only of transforming the lives of our students, but the communities they call home and the society in which we live.

We open this year against a daunting national backdrop: inflation, mass shootings, January 6 hearings, a stunning reversal of Roe v. Wade, monkeypox, and political divisiveness that threatens the very core of our democracy. Our University history reassures me that our mission will continue; that our work of educating, empowering, and inspiring students, taking care of one another, enriching and advancing our academic disciplines, and representing the public good, will not be stopped and will push forward with a heightened sense of our responsibility to the future. 

Cal State LA opened its doors in 1947 and soon became a part of the allure of Southern California, and its golden narrative. If Southern California was heralded as a place for new dreams and fresh starts, then Cal State LA, a premier public university in the heart of the city, was the rich soil that dreams and fresh starts require.

Earlier this year, we heard from one of our older alums, who attended during the first decade of the University’s history, back when we were still known as Los Angeles State College or LASC and our mascot was the Diablo. 92-year-old Joseph Bagnall reached out to us with what I call a recorded thank you letter. For 61-years, Bagnall was an educator whose deep love for Cal State LA has not waned. He has not forgotten the names of the professors who taught and inspired him. He also has not forgotten the University’s fight song.

Let's hear from Joseph about what Cal State LA means to him.

Thank you to our videographer, Emilio Flores, for that moving video. A lot has changed since Joseph’s time at the University, including our name and our mascot. But students in those then-and-now photos share one thing in common: their lives were not the same after they graduated from Cal State LA. They left here ready to begin new lives and to contribute in ways that would not have been possible without their time here.

That’s what each study about our success in upward mobility tells us. Cal State LA is still ranked number one in the nation for the upward mobility of our students. We’ve known this since the first nationwide study was released in 2017 by Raj Chetty and the Equality of Opportunity Project. Since that time other studies have confirmed it.

The latest study, released this year by the think tank Third Way, reaffirms our standing and expands our understanding of what it means for our students to attend the University ranked number one in the nation for upward mobility. This new study found that at Cal State LA, only 17% of full-time undergrads had to take out federal student loans. While other students at other universities take years to earn back the cost of their education, our students are able to recoup their costs within just five months. And, as the Equality of Opportunity study demonstrated, we have the highest proportion of low-income students who join the top 20% of wage earners than any university in the country.

This spring, about 6,000 Cal State LA students graduated. In May, we constructed Commencement Pavilion on campus and held beautiful ceremonies where we celebrated our graduates and their families. Thank you, James Cuaresma, who is the force behind Commencement, and to our many volunteers. Our graduates headed into careers, or further studies or other ventures. They left here with what I’ll call the Cal State LA advantage: less debt as they climb the income ladder. This fall, a new class of students will start their journey and will reap that same advantage.

We always look for ways to help others understand what it means to be number one in the nation. The very short video you’re about to see takes that concept and distills it. I should add that this video won a national award for excellence in communication from the Council for Advancement And Support of Education.

Thank you to the creator of that video, Olympia Crawford and the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

As universities across the nation struggle with declining enrollment, we are making history. The entering fall 2021 class featured the largest number of undergraduate students in Cal State LA’s history. A total of 23,298 undergraduate students enrolled in fall 2021, compared to 22,566 in fall 2020. And we’re poised to continue our success. This academic year, our domestic freshman applications increased a remarkable 16% over that number from 2021. We even exceeded our pre-pandemic application numbers. Thank you to our Admissions and Recruitment Office working with Communications and Public Affairs and our International Office for implementing new ways to reach potential students and share our story.

Our students are joining an extraordinary community. We have always maintained strong ties with the larger community that surrounds us. And with those ties, we have been shaped by defining social movements. When we say We Are LA we mean it.

We are making efforts to strengthen our work as a Hispanic-Serving Institution that celebrates the cultural wealth and strength of our students, families, and communities. I’d like to recognize some faculty supporting several innovative HSI programs, including Dr. Claudia Diera, Dr. Alejandro Villalpando, Dr. Kidogo Kennedy, Dr. Marla Parker and Jason Chiu. I applaud your great work. Thank you.

The history of our city and this region is that much richer because, as an anchor institution, we reach out and join in. The nation’s first Chicano Studies program began here in 1968. The nation’s second Black Studies Program began here in 1969 with the establishment of the Pan-African Studies Department. And our history of recognizing the importance of all of our histories that our communities represent continues with the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies. Ours is the second such college in the nation and the first in 50 years. Leading the way at the College of Ethnic Studies is Dean Julianne Malveaux. Dr. Malveaux is envisioning with her faculty the work of the college in the lives of our students, the lives of our communities, in our city and national dialogue. We are supporting the efforts of the college and look forward to continuing that support. Dean Malveaux, will you stand? Thank you for your leadership and commitment to our newest college and its mission. Thank you. You may be seated.  

This year the College of Ethnic Studies is extending its reach into new and exciting territory with the launch of a new center and program to address the acute need for culturally diverse and culturally responsive health professionals: the Health Professions Center and its signature program, the Martin Delany-Pan African Studies (MDpas) pathway to Medical School Program.

The pathway supports students with a robust mentorship program, internships, and research opportunities as students major or minor in Pan African Studies while completing the prerequisite courses to be eligible to apply to medical and other health-career schools. With this new center, Cal State LA is poised to become a regional and national leader in producing culturally diverse and culturally responsive health-career professionals who are homegrown—students from and trained in our local communities.

The Health Professions Center provides students with linkages to professional schools and research, tutoring, and mentoring opportunities. It is open to all Cal State LA students who seek careers in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, veterinary medicine, occupational therapy, physical therapy, podiatry, and as physician assistants. 

The Health Professions Center and MDpas already have unique partnerships or agreements with USC Keck School of Medicine, Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, Western University of Health Sciences, Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Marshall B. Ketchum University, and Keck Graduate Institute. We anticipate the number of linkages to grow.

This visionary work has involved many. I’d like to thank everyone involved with the center and MDpas, including chair of Pan African Studies, Dr. Nana Lawson Bush, the fifth. Dr. Bush, please stand. Thank you. You may be seated.  

Later this month, our students will take part in a Student Welcome, a convocation designed just for them. It’ll be held here at the Luckman; again the theatre will be filled, but this time the seats will be occupied by students. They’ll hear about clubs and orgs, meet staff, and learn information that will help them feel comfortable and at home on campus.

Our staff across the University play a vital role in the success of our students, our programs, and our operations. Without our staff, our success would not be possible. They work behind the scenes and on the front line: the staff of the divisions of Academic Affairs, Student Life, Administration and Finance, Advancement, and the President’s Office have worked hard to ensure the success of students and the fulfillment of the University’s mission. Staff are often the unsung champions on our campus.

This year’s recipients of the Facilities Services Champion Award are with us in the audience. As I call your name, I’d like for you to stand and remain standing:

Ulti Ramos, General Administrative Coordinator; custodians Carolina Hermosillo, Patricia Barberena, Alvaro Reyes, Rosalina De La Cruz, Evita Valencia, Hilda Castillo, and Rine Avalos; Elsa Ayala, Lead Custodian; Phillip Rodriguez, Groundsworker; Victor Pacheco, Light Equipment Operator; Kevin La, Auto Mechanic; David Ayala, Painter; Edward Ornelas, Electrician; Hoa Pham, Refrigeration Mechanic; Jorge Martinez, Lead Plumber; and Andre Gutierrez, Laborer. Thank you for all that you do, you may be seated.

I’d also like to acknowledge Dianne Taylor, who received the CSU System’s Procurement Professional of the year Honorable Mention. Thank you, Dianne.

And our staff were busy this summer: As you walk around, you’ll see other additions, including more outdoor furniture: tables, chairs, and umbrellas have been added to places around campus. Our goal is to provide outdoor places to sit and study, meet with friends, eat or simply relax, with charging stations nearby. Soon you’ll see the statue of our alum, tennis-great Billie Jean King outside of the athletics building. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we do so keenly aware of the role that Billie Jean King and other alums have played in advancing its goals. We are grateful for their roles and their indelible impact on history. You’ll hear more about the official unveiling in the months ahead.

Our staff members played a key role in advancing the dialogue that began at the CSU Juneteenth Symposium earlier this summer. An impressive number of them met in the new, large student services lecture hall to watch the two-day event. Following that event, a dedicated group of staff organized Lift Every Voice: Campus Climate Conversations and will continue throughout this year and beyond, sharing ideas and initiatives to enhance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at Cal State LA. Thank you to the organizers.

Supporting our students’ mental health and well-being continues to be a top priority. We offer faculty, staff, and students the opportunity to be trained in Mental Health First Aid. This is an eight-hour course that teaches you how to identify signs and symptoms of distress, engage in nonjudgmental conversations, and refer students and other individuals in crisis to appropriate resources for help.

I’m happy to report that more than 1,000 faculty, staff, and students have now been trained in Mental Health First Aid. We expect to reach more than 1,100 trained by the end of the month and we will continue to increase that number throughout the year.

The Mental Health First Aid training is a cornerstone of our WellBeingU initiative and was relaunched by CAPS and the Dean of Students Office in the spring after being reworked to offer in-person, hybrid, and virtual options, as well as a recertification course for those whose initial training was three or more years ago. CAPS and the Dean of Students have expanded the number of campus facilitators and have offered department-specific trainings for Housing and Public Safety. We plan to offer trainings for other departments, colleges and students, and a dozen trainings for faculty and staff are scheduled to be available throughout the academic year. I encourage you to get certified or recertified and join our growing number of Well-Being Ambassadors. I hope to see you wearing your green “We Care, I Care, Let’s Talk,” button on campus, so students know you’re there to help. I’ll be wearing mine.

From the Mental Health First Aid training to our new CSOs and Community Care Advocates, whom I’ll discuss in a moment, we are deepening our support for well-being and expanding a culture of well-being awareness on campus.

Our Counseling and Psychological Services works hard to meet the needs of our students. Doing this work at this moment in history requires a students-first lens, innovation, and fortitude. Under the leadership of Dr. April Clay, CAPS is beginning this year with a full complement of psychological counselors and looking back on a year during which students in crisis were seen immediately, and students with less urgent needs were seen within a week. That responsiveness will continue.

Last spring, we officially opened the Janice Cordova Garden of Well-Being. For years students have told us how much they wanted a garden space on campus. Because of the generosity of our supporters, we dedicated that garden in April. The garden is supported by the gifts of a range of donors and is named for the late spouse of Richard Cordova, a distinguished alum who served as co-chair of our comprehensive fundraising campaign.

The Janice Cordova Garden of Well-Being is at the heart of our WellBeingU initiative, which offers resources, programs, and events to support the mental and physical well-being of students and to promote the holistic wellness of the entire Cal State LA community. Check out the website for podcasts, special events that will take place on WellBeing Wednesdays throughout the year, and an archive of great presentations from our speaker series. I must add that the unrelenting and driving force for the construction of this Garden, a perennial donor to WellBeingU, and the founding voice for WellBeingU (formerly known as Mind Matters) is Debbie Covino.

This year, again for the first time in the history of the University, Cal State LA received a Gold Star from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the leading association for the advancement of sustainability in higher education.

We’ve earned this distinction because of our accomplishments in campus sustainability, our efforts to sustain the Earth. Heading this effort and leading us to a gold star is Brad Haydel, our Energy and Sustainability Manager. Thank you, Brad, and thank you to the members of our campus sustainability committee for urging us to consider and alter our impact on the Earth.

To be an inclusive campus that fosters belonging requires thinking in new ways about what it means to be together, particularly with the pressures, needs, expectations, and complications heightened by the pandemic. Our community is not immune to the problems and trends that we see in the larger society.

Our Department of Public Safety, led by Chief Larry Bohannon, has hired a new group of Community Service Officers to assist and serve our community. The primary role of Community Service Officers is community outreach and engagement. These six new officers are part of our collaborative efforts to reimagine law enforcement on campus and to build trust with the community we serve. CSOs will be trained in first aid and CPR, conflict de-escalation, and mental health first aid.

Calls to our Department of Public Safety span a wide spectrum of needs. Our new Community Service Officers will expand our options for responding to those needs and will help us better serve our campus. Community Service Officers are an intermediary resource, a middle space between Eagle Patrol and our Public Safety Officers. They are unarmed, and they are, in the fullest sense, peace officers.

The CSOs will be highly visible on campus, in areas such as the Student Services Building, Student Housing, and at certain events. They’ll be available to help provide safety escort services, patrol parking lots, and to serve our campus. As with the larger corps of public safety officers, many of our new CSOs are alumni of Cal State LA.

CSOs will work closely with our Community Care Advocates in our new Community Care Program. Run through Counseling and Psychological Services and the Dean of Students, this program is dedicated to fostering a safe and welcoming environment on campus. Community Care Advocates are trained in mediation conflict resolution and peace building. They can assess and peacefully diffuse a situation that may be of concern, minimizing the need to involve public safety officers.

Staff, faculty, and students can request that an advocate responds to non-life-threatening situations that might need de-escalation or support, such as a campus conflict or a student experiencing a mental health crisis. The advocates offer informational workshops about their work and collaborate with Public Safety to help develop public safety outreach programs, increase effective communication with students, and help to build a strong relationship of mutual trust between Public Safety and the campus community.

The Community Care Advocates team is guided by CAPS Director Dr. April Clay and includes student, faculty, and staff advocates that are available to support our campus community with care and compassion. Student CCAs may include interns from academic programs such as Counseling, Psychology, Social Work, Criminal Justice, and Nursing.

My Convocation addresses are always a mixed experience: we are celebrating, updating, announcing, and reflecting, especially in a milestone anniversary year like this one.

In 2018, we announced our first comprehensive capital campaign in the history of the University. Our goal was to raise $75 million by the time we reached our 75th anniversary. Well, that time is now, and I’m proud to report that the campaign has exceeded its goal and raised more than $101 million. That’s 34% above the goal.

And there’s more great news: This past fiscal year was the University’s single largest philanthropic year on record, with more than $16.5 million in gifts received to support students, programs, faculty, research, and community services.

We’ll celebrate the conclusion of the campaign in October with a gala. The campaign’s great success was possible because of the more than 16,000 donors who gave, including many of you. To everyone who has contributed, our staff, our faculty, emeriti faculty, our friends and supporters, a very deep thank you for making our campaign a success. Because of you, we will be able to enrich the lives of generations of students to come.

Cal State LA’s legacy of service is a bridge that links us to communities. The list of ways our students, faculty, and staff serve is long, deep, and varied. We’re proud of this service, proud that our community understands the critical value of service.

If you’ve read about a wrongly imprisoned person being exonerated by tireless attorneys who spent years working on the case, sometimes utilizing DNA testing, then you’ve likely heard of the Innocence Project, a nationally recognized network of dedicated teams pursuing social justice.

What you may not know is that our Professor Kathy Roberts, director of the graduate program in Criminalistics in the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services, has played a critical role in some of the local exoneration cases. This work is powerful and necessary and is aligned with the mission of the University.

That’s why I am so pleased to announce a new partnership, the Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State LA.

By joining forces, we will intensify our dedication to transforming the lives of individuals, families, and communities.

I’d like to introduce the director of the Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State LA, Paula Mitchell. Paula, will you stand so that we can welcome you? Welcome to Cal State LA. Thank you, Paula. You may take your seat. The Los Angeles Innocence Project at Cal State LA will be housed in the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services, which is home to the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, with its crime labs, and the California Forensic Science Institute, which is headed by Dr. Kathy Roberts. Dr. Roberts, will you stand? Thank you. You may be seated.

The partnership will be supported for the first two years by a million-dollar gift. The gift was made by an individual who knows well the work of Paula Mitchell and her team. That’s because Paula and her team spent two years doing the legal work that led to his exoneration—after he spent 32 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. His name is Andrew Wilson and he is with us today. Mr. Wilson, will you please stand? Welcome to Cal State LA and thank you for your support of this great work. You may be seated.

Through this new partnership, we will work for “liberty and justice for all.” Again, to Paula Mitchell and her team of attorneys and to Mr. Andrew Wilson and his family. You’re now officially part of the Golden Eagle family.

This is how legacy is formed—from what persists: year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. It is the path we choose to follow and the decisions we choose along the way. It is who we are and who we’ve always been. It is how we will be remembered.

It is my great honor to be a part of the Cal State LA legacy. This will be my 10th year as president of the university. My 10th year will also be my last. I’m planning to retire at the end of the academic year in June 2023.

The incredible work that’s taken place at Cal State LA during my time as president could not have happened without you—the students, faculty, and staff. Debbie and I thank each of you for all the ways you’ve helped to make our community stronger, more compassionate, and simply better.  In the many months ahead, I’ll still be here. I look forward to getting to know our new faculty and staff, staying focused on student success, well-being, safety, and expanding our commitment to campus diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Debbie and I are thrilled to be part of the transformative energy that makes this university great, and so grateful to all of you who have established such strong foundations for the next 75 years and beyond.

The Cal State LA legacy will continue growing deeper and stronger because of you. Thank you and welcome back.