San Francisco State U. Names New President

A veteran leader of public institutions who considers himself well-equipped and experienced in responding to shrinking state appropriations has been named president of San Francisco State University.

Dr. Leslie Wong, who is currently president of Northern Michigan University, is expected to begin at SFSU on August 1. He will succeed Dr. Robert Corrigan, who is retiring.

A California native, Wong grew up in Oakland. “I’m anxious to get started,” he says.

Wong will inherit a school that, along with 22 sister campuses making up the California State University system, has sustained multiple tuition hikes since a state budget crisis began in 2008 resulting in continual funding cuts.

At NMU, Wong became battle-tested while steering the 10,000-student school through eight straight years of budget cuts totaling a 33-percent drop in the annual appropriation from the state of Michigan.

He recalls that, when he first assumed the NMU presidency in 2004, “we were greeted with a 30-percent proposed cut for that year alone, and, if we hadn’t worked to convince” budget-slashing lawmakers to reconsider the steep proposal, NMU would have suffered an overall loss of 63 percent by now. 

Under Wong’s watch, NMU grew its fundraising and grants, including receipt of a record $5 million philanthropic gift to enhance its ability to recruit high-achieving students. “If (institutional) priorities are right, people are willing” to make donations, he says.

One of the most diverse four-year universities in the country, SFSU enrolls 29,000-plus students; more than 60 percent are ethnic minorities. About 41 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty are minorities.

“The diversity is clearly a resource and asset we can do many things with,” says Wong, who credits the high numbers to Corrigan, whose presidency spanned nearly a quarter-century. Corrigan is one of this year’s winners of the John Hope Franklin award, an annual recognition for excellence in higher education sponsored by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine.

California State University trustee Roberta Achtenberg, chair of the presidential search committee, says Wong brings “a strong record of accomplishments, academic experience and exceptional leadership skills. He understands the unique mission of the university and its commitment and respect for scholarship, freedom and diversity.”

Wong says he’s already aware that SFSU students have grown increasingly upset at state budget cuts resulting in—on top of higher tuition—fewer classes, employee layoffs and much more difficulty in earning enough course credits to graduate in four years. At NMU, Wong cultivated a reputation for reaching out to students, holding small-group meetings at residence halls and other venues so they could vent, and he’s planning a similar strategy at SFSU.

“We need to have honest conversations so they can trust and communicate with me,” he says.

As NMU president, Wong secured funding for a new academic building and integrated technology throughout campus and developed a comprehensive strategic plan for the institution. NMU became the first university nationally to own and operate its own WiMAX network, a fourth-generation technology able to transfer data, voice and video at distances significantly beyond what is available using traditional WiFi. The network now stretches more than 40 square miles.

Wong held senior leadership positions at Colorado State University-Pueblo, including serving concurrently as provost and interim president in 1997. Previously, he was vice president of academic affairs at Valley City State University, where he led and sustained technological initiatives within the curriculum and groomed corporate, regional and international partnerships. He also held academic positions at Evergreen State College and Pierce College.

As one of only a handful of Asian-Americans leading U.S. colleges and universities, Wong notes, “The numbers have always been terribly low, usually around 1 percent for as long as I can remember” among all sitting presidents. However, “the presidencies lately have been in high visibility,” he says, citing as examples Dr. Leroy Morishita of Cal State East Bay and Dr. Wallace Loh of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Wong earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Gonzaga University, a master’s in experimental psychology from Eastern Washington University and a doctorate in educational psychology from Washington State University.