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The Rosser Revolution

The Rosser Revolution

President James Rosser’s leadership at California State University,
Los Angeles is a testament that diversity and excellence are mutually reinforcing qualities  in an academic setting.

By Ronald Roach

It’s not surprising that urban colleges and universities with large commuter populations are among the most racially and ethnically diverse of all U.S. campuses. But many of those campuses have

struggled over the years to fully appreciate and accommodate that student diversity by providing adequate academic and social support. That support includes a commitment to faculty diversity that is comparable to that of the student body.

For more than 26 years, Dr. James Rosser has headed what many experts consider one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, the California State University, Los Angeles. Diversity at CSULA encompasses both the student body and the faculty and administration ranks. The university boasts a student breakdown of 52 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Asian-American/Pacific Islander, 16 percent White and 9 percent African-American, while the full-time faculty is now just under 40 percent non-White. In comparison, people of color comprised roughly 53 percent of the Los Angeles city population, according to 2000 U.S. Census data.

“I think perhaps the most significant accomplishment is the general acceptance here now that diversity and excellence must go hand in hand,” Rosser says of his tenure as CSULA’s sixth chief executive.

His time at the helm of the university has in large part been focused on proving that diversity and excellence are mutually reinforcing qualities in an academic setting. Rosser has aimed at leading CSULA, one of 23 CSU schools, into the ranks of the nation’s top-tier urban universities.
He gets high marks for his efforts from fellow college presidents with whom he has worked or has gotten to know over the years.

“I have worked closely with Dr. Rosser and it’s been a good relationship. He’s kind of a senior statesman in the sense that he has been here in the Cal. State system as president for 26 years,” says Dr. James Lyons, the president of California State University, Dominguez Hills and former president of historically Black Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.

“[Rosser’s] done a marvelous job of transforming a sleepy campus that really didn’t have a lot of energy — no apparent specialized niche for itself and just serving whoever came — into a thriving campus with recognized programs in the engineering area, the sciences, in education and in the arts,” says Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, the president of Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

One of a handful of minority faculty members at CSULA when Rosser became president in 1979, Ribeau says Rosser’s early presidential years were an inspiration as he moved into academic administration and held a series of administrative posts before becoming BGSU’s president in 1995.

“Rosser showed that as a president you can make a real difference on a campus,” he says. “So you see that and you say, ‘I want to make a difference, too.’ The other thing he does is that he challenges you to really be good, do your best work, and I think that’s had a positive effect on a number of people who have gone on to presidencies” from CSULA.

A microbiologist, Rosser has also played a highly visible role in national efforts, commissions and councils supported by organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, which
have sought to diversify the scientific and engineering workforce in the United States. Like counterparts at traditionally White institutions such as the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Rosser is among a recognized group of college presidents who have demonstrated how a commitment to diversity can help produce significant numbers of underrepresented minority bachelor degree recipients in the sciences and engineering.

“My attention on a national level — involvement with NSF, involvement with the National Academy of Engineering and involvement with NIH — has been trying to convey the notion that [diversity outreach] works if you provide the environment and the nurturing, and Cal. State is an example,” Rosser says.

In national rankings, CSULA has consistently been recognized for high quality engineering and business programs by U.S. News and World

Report. Diverse’s predecessor, Black Issues In Higher Education, has tracked CSULA in its “Top 100” editions as one of the most prolific producers of minority bachelor’s degree-holders. In 2005, the Black Issues Top 100 undergraduate edition ranked CSULA as the sixth-highest producer of bachelor’s degrees among Hispanics across all disciplines. The college was ranked 17th in combined minority bachelor’s degrees awarded.

Nestled on a hill overlooking Interstate 10, the CSULA campus these days buzzes with major construction projects. Construction on a state-of-the-art $80 million science complex and a $31.6 million student union are the most visible projects currently underway on the 175-acre campus. Over the years, new buildings and renovations have infused the campus with a sense of progress and improvement, particularly after earthquakes, including the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake, caused serious damage there.

The addition of campus dormitories, a highly acclaimed art gallery and

performing arts center, a student bookstore/conference center/food court complex and a commuter rail station have contributed to campus pride and prominence in East Los Angeles. The $30 million bookstore complex, known as the Golden Eagle, currently stands as the campus’ reigning architectural attraction. To bolster school spirit, large banners and mural-like posters adorn the areas around construction sites with messages that urge students — mostly commuters — to take part in campus activities. Out of a total undergraduate and graduate population of just over 20,000, roughly 1,000 students live in the campus dorms.

Its newer buildings as well as current construction projects reflect the areas in which CSULA has established strong programs. Leveraging resources from Los Angeles’ arts and entertainment industry, Rosser in the early 1990s led efforts to build the $22 million Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex that includes the Luckman Gallery and the 1,152-seat Luckman Theatre. The theatre is the home of the critically acclaimed Luckman Jazz Orchestra and serves as a cultural center for

East Los Angeles.

CSULA’s strong forensic science program led to the university being chosen as the site for a Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab now under construction on the campus. The lab is the result of a partnership between CSULA, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Once completed, the lab will allow for forensic science internships and research opportunities for students.

Voter approval of bond financing has enabled CSULA to begin construction on a high-tech science center, which should ensure the continuity of the school’s well-regarded science programs. One wing of the center will house chemistry, biology, kinesiology and health and nutritional science labs. The other wing will host physical science labs including organic chemistry, geology and physics.

“I think [Rosser] has really energized the campus, set a clear sense of direction,” says Ribeau. “If you were there in 1979 when he started and looked at what was there and look at it now with the performing arts center and all the new structures, it’s a brand new place.”

CSULA gets positive recognition for a number of unique initiatives that make strategic use of campus resources and community support. In the 1980s, Rosser helped spearhead the establishment of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts on the CSULA campus. Another initiative, the Early Entrance Program, offers the opportunity for gifted students as young as 11 to attend college and take regular college courses.
One of the beneficiaries of that program, 20-year-old Jonathan Roberts, has begun work on his master’s in electrical engineering at the university. He earned his bachelor’s in the field last June. Roberts, who is African-American, enrolled in CSULA as a 14-year-old and completed his degree in four-and-a-half years while commuting from his family’s home in west Los Angeles. His sister, a year younger than Roberts, finished her bachelor’s degree last year, at the age of 18.

While proud of the visible signs of progress on his campus, the 66-year-old Rosser says the challenge of leading CSULA to effectively serve its largely working-class student body keeps him most energized. That challenge has been present since his earliest days at the university, and it played a part of a struggle he had with faculty for about the first decade of his tenure.

“In many respects, I think early on there wasn’t a full appreciation of what students from diverse backgrounds could accomplish in an environment that was rigorous and nurturing,” Rosser says.

“One of the greatest challenges that I face, particularly at this institution, has been finding ways to enhance the faculty’s appreciation of the opportunity they have by virtue of the challenge of where our students are,” he says. “And that a significant measure of their success as professionals could be measured within the context of fostering the development of more individuals who could achieve at that same level and who would manifest the same compassion, commitment to both opportunity and excellence.”

Rosser cites his own humble beginnings and the mentorship he received from others in his climb as scholar and administrator as key factors in his commitment to diversity. He explains that commitment “grew out of who I am, being the youngest of eight kids, being the first one in my family to go to college, neither of my parents having graduated from elementary school, having to use an athletic scholarship as a vehicle to getting to college and of having literally been adopted by a highly educated African- American family” that could provide the guidance his biological family could not.

A native of East St. Louis, Ill., Rosser’s father worked as a railroad coach cleaner and his mother labored as a domestic worker. Despite not getting academic enrichment at home, Rosser proved a talented student and graduated from high school at the top of his class. He attended historically Black Langston University on a basketball scholarship. After a year at Langston, he transferred to Southern Illinois University, where Rosser earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in microbiology and health education administration.

Prior to CSULA, Rosser served as the vice chancellor in the New Jersey higher education system and briefly as an acting chancellor. Before the New Jersey posts, he was an associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Kansas and had been a tenured faculty member in pharmacology and toxicology.

Governing Challenges
When the opportunity to take over the presidency of CSULA presented itself, Rosser immediately saw a chance to put into practice his vision of how a higher education institution should work. He had envisioned a campus that could improve life opportunities for disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities through keenly attuned and responsive faculty and administrators. Part of that vision would require that all faculty searches consider the broadest pool possible, including women and minorities, he says.

“This place attracted me early on because of the quality I saw when I read the résumés of the faculty. We sort of looked like we could be in the 21st century what City College of the City University of New York was in the prior century,” Rosser says.

His attempts at realizing his vision met with significant early opposition from the faculty, which had essentially taken up the job of running the university on its own. Says Ribeau, who had joined the CSULA faculty in 1976, the “faculty had run the campus, not the president.

“Through their committee structures, they had made all the decisions and determined what they wanted the campus to look like, the kinds of programs they wanted, the kinds of students they wanted. And the administration, basically, prior to Jim coming, just rubber stamped things,” Ribeau says.

Dr. John L. Cleman, who joined the faculty in 1971, agrees that the faculty was used to running the university, prompting a clash with Rosser after he sought to gain control of the governance process.

“Dr. Rosser came in and had a different way of doing business … He was seen at the outset to be a stronger self-willed leader” than his predecessor,” says Cleman, now chair of the English department.

“When I came to Cal. State-LA, the faculty relationship, especially the academic senate leadership relationship with President Rosser, was not very positive. It was not a lot of trust on the faculty’s part and not as much willingness on the part of President Rosser to consult with, or to take the advice of the faculty. And so it was contentious. I’m not sure which side was at fault … probably both,” says Dr. Kevin Baaske, chair of the department of communication studies at the university.

“[The faculty] really had their heels dug in and Jim Rosser was having a very difficult time bringing them towards acceptance of the need to change curriculum and the need to make the institution more hospitable to change in the student body,” says Temple University President David W. Adamany, who was an author of a CSULA reaccreditation report in the early 1990s.

What Adamany discovered among those opposing Rosser was an older, predominantly White faculty cohort who feared “that more authority in the campus administration would lead to the changes in the way they had worked for decades,” he says.

“I think Jim Rosser had the right vision in that you don’t have to lower standards for a more diverse student body, but you may have to teach differently and structure your curriculum differently,” Adamany says.
In the early 1990s, Rosser and the faculty worked out a compact that spelled out their respective roles in university governance. Rosser admits that relations with the faculty turned for the better at a time when prolonged contention would have likely motivated him to leave.

“I think that 10-year dance that [Rosser] describes was trying to establish who the partners were going to be and who’s going to be calling the dance signals,” Ribeau notes.

Thinking Ahead
Even with the success of programs that have sent underrepresented minorities and other disadvantaged students to graduate school and successful careers, CSULA officials remain focused on improving the university’s ability to serve students who typically demonstrate more need for academic, financial and social support than students at the suburban CSU campuses. Enrollments at the urban CSUs, including CSULA, have fluctuated in recent years due to state-mandated tuition and fee hikes, officials say.

Hikes in student fees worry CSULA administrators and faculty members because they are all too aware that such changes can prove detrimental to the education prospects of the students they have embraced. Says Dr. Herman Lujan, the CSULA provost since 2001, “Here, we reach out and embrace the community and go to where they are. Our recruiters go to the high schools. Our faculty go to the community colleges and high schools to recruit.”

Lujan, who is of Hawaiian and Hispanic background, says he was drawn to CSULA because it demonstrated a commitment to communities of color that he had not experienced as an academic administrator in Washington state, Colorado and other places he had worked.
“People of color are in fact the source of the next generation of leaders, and so we have to be sure that minorities and persons of color are in the leadership-oriented programs,” Lujan says. “Now’s the time to groom the next generation of leaders. The challenge to do that is significant.”

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