An SF State Homecoming

Photo by Deanne Fizmaurice

Even before Lynn Mahoney became the University’s newest president, she felt a special connection to the campus and what it represents

When Lynn Mahoney took over as San Francisco State University’s 14th president this July, she hit the ground running — almost literally. The New York City native might not have been sprinting, but she definitely set a quick pace up and down the campus’ footpaths and corridors as she hustled from one get-to-know-you meeting after another. Though Mahoney had a long career in academia — earning a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers before moving on to teaching and administrative positions at a number of universities, most recently California State University, Los Angeles — she wanted to give faculty and staff a chance to get her up to speed and ask questions. Below are highlights from these open-forum Q&As that provide both a look at Mahoney’s past and a glimpse of the future she hopes to forge at San Francisco State.

What’s your vision for the University?

This campus has a rich history and a robust present. My job is not to come here and rewrite history or rewrite the present. It’s to take what we are good at — students and educational equity and social justice — and make us even better at it. The greatest expression of our commitment to social justice is having more students earn their degrees. No student arrives here saying, “Eh…I think I’ll get my degree.” They come because they intend to graduate. And when we help them succeed, that’s educational equity. I’ll be looking for new synergies to support that — new ways we can work together to promote social change. 

I’m exploring what we can build here.
It’s not just leadership programs
for women, but also for groups
that are starkly underrepresented
in leadership positions.

What’s your top priority?

I am an accidental administrator. Back in graduate school and in my early career I never envisioned this. But then I lived on campus for 14 years as a faculty fellow with 380 undergraduates. I raised my children on a college campus. And when you live with students, boy, do you see their educational experience differently. I knew they were having spectacular experiences in the classroom, but I didn’t know they were being weeded out of programs. I didn’t know that courses weren’t being offered that they needed. I didn’t know you practically needed a doctorate just to understand the requirements for graduation. Seeing all that made me a champion for student success. We are here first and foremost for them. If they don’t earn their degrees, we’ve failed.

What’s your history with SF State?

As early as my freshman year at Stanford, I was aware of the excellence of San Francisco State. I watched a friend pursue her goal of becoming a lawyer by studying first at a local community college and then at SF State. From my first days in the California State University system, I relied on the work of faculty colleagues here to help foster change and improve student learning. Professors from the English and Biology departments shaped my thinking about how best to teach college writing to first-year students and shared their expertise in getting student-learning centered STEM grants. And, very recently, while provost at Cal State LA, we worked with SF State faculty on innovative ways to transform our courses and curriculum to enhance student learning and ensure greater success. In my few weeks here, those initial impressions have been confirmed — we have a world-class faculty leading the way in innovation and student success.

How does it feel being the University’s first female president?

I come out of a feminized field. Much of my academic experience has always been majority women, both as a student, a faculty member and an administrator. So I was a little caught off guard the first time I got that question. I’ve never been the first woman anything! One interview quoted me as saying that my mom would be shocked and proud. Well, a couple of my high school friends saw that and quickly corrected me, “Your mother would have been proud, but she would not have been shocked. She would have said, ‘What took so long?’” Since I arrived, I have been struck by the number of students, male and female, who have noted how important it is to them to have a female president. So now I’m very aware that I have to be much more intentional about this. I was lucky to come up through fields in which women were supported. Obviously that’s not always the case. So I’m exploring what we can build here. It’s not just leadership programs for women, but also for groups that are starkly underrepresented in leadership positions. 

Was coming to work in San Francisco a big adjustment?

In many ways this is a homecoming for me. Almost 61 years ago my in-laws arrived in the Bay Area as immigrants from Bolivia. My husband was raised here. Then 37 years ago I arrived here as a cocky 18-year-old New Yorker. Initially I kind of came unglued. I had never even seen a palm tree before! But then I fell deeply in love with the Bay Area. In fact my heart was broken on the second date with the man who became my husband. He told me he had gotten into a doctoral program, and I was thinking maybe as far away as Davis or Santa Barbara. And he said, “Rutgers.” And I said, “Not the one in New Jersey!” I was hoping there was another. It took 22 long years to make it back to California, and another 11 to return to the Bay Area, but we feel blessed to be back.  Our family and friends are here. This is where my roots in California are. It feels like home. 

Learn more about President Mahoney at