New President Takes The Helm Alongside Fresh Crop Of Leaders At San Diego State
Adela de la Torre was raised by a single mother — the daughter of a Mexican immigrant — in California’s Central Valley. Now she’s the first person of color to lead San Diego State University, and the first woman permanently appointed as the institution’s president.
De la Torre joins the institution at what could be a major turning point. In November, voters will be asked to approve the sale of SDCCU stadium to the university. The school would use the land to add as many as 13,000 students, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, and continue on its march from teachers college to research university.
Regardless of what happens, SDSU is on the cusp of change. In an interview with KPBS, de la Torre said the university has a clean leadership slate. The longest-serving dean has been in the position for just four years, she said.
Below is that interview. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: President Adela de la Torre, you came to us from UC Davis, where you were an administrator and also a scholar in Mexican-American Studies. Tell me about what you bring to this campus?
A: Well, I think I bring over 30 years of experience in higher education. I was also at the University of Arizona. I was at Cal State Long Beach. I have a fairly long research career focusing on disparities in education, as well as in health, in both the Central Valley and the border region, so there are many of intersection points in terms of my research, my teaching, as well as (being) vice chancellor of student affairs and campus diversity at Davis, working in many areas that are critical to the success of San Diego State, including enrollment management, as well as student life and well being.
Q: Something that’s on a lot of people’s mind right now is the rising cost of higher education. Of course, tuition is set by the California State University system and largely informed by the state budget. But as a university president what can you do to bring those costs down?
A: The CSU system is probably one of the most affordable systems. Our average debt is around $19,000 compared to the national debt level, which is over $37,000 for students. But I think, for example, when we look at the cost of attendance, probably one of the biggest areas for our students is housing. And that’s an area where I really want to partner with the city, because I think for campuses like San Diego State or San Francisco State, the cost of attendance is largely driven, not so much by tuition, but by food and shelter, as well as the cost of textbooks. So the extent to which I can control those costs (and) allow students to have the opportunity to attend, I will work very closely with the system and the city in order to ensure that accessibility.
Q: San Diego State is not shy about looking to boost its research profile. Just this past year it saw increases in the kinds of grants that traditionally would have gone down the road to UC San Diego. Research is one of the big drivers behind the proposal for a Mission Valley expansion. But people also might say that research has a big footprint on campus or research professors have a lower course load, so is this the right move when we’re talking about efficiencies in higher education.
A: I absolutely think it’s the right move. We have, of course, been ranked multiple times in different indicators. One area I’m really quite proud of that I heard recently was that we are in the top 10 of Hispanic-serving institutions in research activity. We are in the top 12 of research-intensive activity. What does that mean? In order for our students to become global citizens, innovative leaders, as well as compassionate leaders, we need to really focus on the fact that they need to have a multiplicity of experiences in and outside of the classroom. The opportunity to work with top researchers is one important area, as well as having the opportunity to work in internships.
The other thing that’s important, I think particularly for San Diego State, is that 61 percent of our students stay in the region, so we are really an important workforce development partner with the city and the region. And the fact is that in order to create cutting edge employees, they have to have the cutting edge experiences.
Q: CSU campuses are traditionally seen as serving their immediate community. Here in San Diego, we have a lot of first-generation students. How do you bring them along in the research vision, especially if maybe they didn’t start off on that path?
A: From my past experiences, I’m a firm believer in partnerships with K-12. And that is we don’t only want to provide access, we also want to provide success. So how do we do that? We work closely with our schools. So, historically, San Diego State developed under President Weber the Sweetwater Compact. We have other programs that are partnering with local schools as well. Fortunately, we have a new dean in the School of Education, Dr. Barry Chung from Indiana, and I think he’s going to do a fabulous job reaching out to schools.
Q: I know that you’ll be embarking on a new strategic plan for the university. Can you give us any hints as to what that’s going to look at, some of the themes it’s going to address?
A: Well, I would say first and foremost is my commitment to students, and so my mantra has been that we are going to produce global citizens, ethical innovators and compassionate leaders. So in that process, what’s important is a collective vision. And when I say a collective vision, this year we’re going to be focusing on a listening tour. I’ve already talked to many of our new deans, and we have a lot of new deans. In fact, I think the dean that has the longest tenure here is the dean of the College of Arts and Letters, who’s been here four years, followed by our business dean, who’s starting on his second year. So everyone is going to be new. One of the things that I really have asked all of the deans that I’m talked to so far is to really sit down and start talking to their faculty, their department chairs, about what makes them distinct, and to really think about where they want to be 10, 15, 20, 30 years looking at their discipline.