Longtime Leader Guides SF State Through Crisis

by Sarah Duxbury
Nov. 20, 2009 -- Reprinted courtesy The San Francisco Business Times

Photo of President Corrigan in his office

Photo by Spencer Brown.


TITLE: President

INSTITUTION: San Francisco State University

HQ: San Francisco

2008 REVENUE: $295 million


CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Corrigan has served two terms as board president of the SF Chamber of Commerce.

MANAGEMENT STYLE: He regularly e-mails the campus community and holds town hall meetings.


In more than two decades at the helm, President Robert Corrigan has transformed San Francisco State University into a model of urban, public education -- albeit one in line with his own values. Those values include diversity and accessibility, and a sense of an urban university's role in its community. So Corrigan has looked beyond the university, to San Francisco's civic and business institutions, to make his school more relevant.

Corrigan describes himself as a product of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

"From that comes my sense of the need to reform the nature of higher education. We need to open our doors to disadvantaged youth, minorities, more women," he said. "Those are my values, and what I want to see here."

Clear as his ambitions are, Corrigan's is no dictatorial, top-down corporate management style. He strives to communicate openly with his administrators, faculty and the broader campus, Corrigan said, and he regularly e-mails the campus community and convenes town hall meetings, such as one recently held to discuss how to address the current budget crisis.

"You survive in a university as president because you build consensus," Corrigan said. "You have to have vision, and the ability to communicate that vision. You can't go off in a university on your white horse with flag flying and expect the troops to be behind you."

Indeed, that consensus-building quality is one of Corrigan's primary leadership traits, said California State University Chancellor Charles Reed.

"Bob is well respected among his colleagues for knowing how to run, operate, lead and manage an urban institution," Reed said. "He doesn't overreact, but he knows when he needs to take action. He is inclusive in his decision-making, and he can also reach out to lots of people in the community to get good advice."



Nor is Corrigan locked into stale, inherited notions of what a university president is or does.

To keep the university with a foot in the community and its employment needs, and as its chief advocate, Corrigan has served two terms as board president of San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce. He is the only educator ever to do so, and he also currently serves on the Mayor's Technology Advisory Council and the Mayor's Children, Youth and Families Policy Council, among other boards and civic institutions.

"We need people to see that we are a quality institution, that we turn out the basic workforce at virtually every level of staffing," Corrigan said. "For me, that association with the business community has been very important as they understand what we do."

Corrigan believes an SF State education is only valuable if it serves the community's needs, so he is focused on and committed to making sure that the school is training the citizens, workers and leaders that San Francisco and the Bay Area need.

"Education is a public good, not just a private good," Corrigan said.

And he cares deeply about making that good reach as broad a swathe of the public as possible. The university, working with the mayor's office, is working on a new program to guarantee admission to every single qualified San Francisco high school graduate. To that end, the university actively works to get middle school kids thinking about college, then to prepare high school students for college and finally to help them secure financial aid.

Corrigan has also expanded the campus borders in creative ways, including new housing at Park Merced and adding a downtown campus at the Westfield shopping center to bring classes to workers.



The quality of education is as important as access.

SF State ranks highly among its peer institutions in terms of diversity, numbers of students who go on to pursue higher degrees and overall quality.

"The campus in 1988 had not been managed very well, and there was a lot of confusion about the governance of the campus and who was supposed to make decisions, and there was a lot of unrest among faculty and students," Reed said. Corrigan "really got them together."

Corrigan also was able to hire the right staff, and he estimates that some 80 percent of staff -- including roughly 1,000 faculty members -- arrived during his tenure.

Diversity has also been an express aim. When Corrigan arrived, 29 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty were female; 16 percent were minorities. Today, women are 52 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty and minorities make up 43 percent. The two together comprise 71 percent of all faculty.

"That means we have changed the face of our instructional staff," Corrigan said. "We have provided role models."

Over 60 percent of SF State students are themselves minorities.

"Thirty years ago, the population we serve now was not getting served by higher education," Corrigan said. "Part of what we're trying to do is not only provide access for under-represented populations, which we do, but also to provide quality education for the lowest-earning quartile of the population."

Access only matters if the quality of that education is high, and Corrigan is particularly proud of SF State's commitment to teaching. He actively pursues funding for faculty research, Corrigan said, and unlike many peer institutions, SF State really pushes faculty scholarship.

"We try to apply our research capabilities to local issues, like health disparities of prostate cancer among African American men," Corrigan said. "We're not going to come up with cures for diseases here, but we work with researchers at UCSF to ameliorate impact."



As the financial situation darkens and the California state budget crisis pounds the California State University system, Corrigan believes that communication is more important than ever.

"This is as bad as it's been in my entire career. In the 110 years of San Francisco State, this is the worst," he said.

The school has been forced to cut about 300 sections and 400 lecturers. The faculty and staff took salary cuts equal to about 10 percent and students are paying 32 percent more than they were two years ago, Corrigan said.

Corrigan is holding town hall meetings to plan the school's way through the crisis, to impact quality as little as possible. And that is the innovating-in-the-face-of-adversity that has been a hallmark of his leadership style. What he has achieved at SF State was not necessarily in the job description back in 1988. "I think most of it he created himself," Reed said. Corrigan said the crisis is keeping him at his post.

Since he's not the sort to cut and run at difficult times, the pleasures of scholarship and books unwritten that beckon him must wait.

"I want people to understand that this is a stronger, better, more inclusive institution that is more connected with and involved in the major life of this community; that we matter," Corrigan said. "We've been able to bring this place to the point where it's perceived as San Francisco. The lives of thousands and thousands of people are better because we exist."


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