Stephen Weber Looks Back On 15 Years As President Of SDSU
How has San Diego State University changed over the last 15 years? We speak to outgoing SDSU President Stephen Weber about his time at the university. Weber discusses the major challenges he faced when he took the helm in 1996, the accomplishments he's most proud of, and where SDSU is heading in the future.
Stephen Weber, outgoing president of San Diego State University. President Weber will be retiring next month after leading the university for 15 years.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. There will be a changing of the guard during summer vacation here at San Diego State university. At the beginning of the 2011 fall semester, students will be greeted by a new school president, Elliot herb man. The man who has led San Diego state university through the last 15 years is retiring. President Steven Webber, SDSU's 7th president will be leaving his post next month. President Webber joins us now. Good afternoon.
WEBBER: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Hi. So why are you retiring as president of San Diego state university?
WEBBER: Because I'm old. It'll have been 15 years, and that's a long time. And it's good for organizations to get new leadership. And I want a new adventure. I look forward to the next part of my life.
CAVANAUGH: It seems that you've planned that out. You've been planning on retiring this year for the last three years right?
WEBBER: Yes, for the most of my life, I mindlessly thought I would retire at 65. That was just sort of the conventional wisdom as I grew up. And as I approached that, my colleagues you remembered me to stay on. Then I didn't want people wondering, well, how long I she gonna stay on and then worrying about that. So four years ago I said I would do four years, and even though that's an unconventional thing to say, because people worry about being a lame duck, it's in fact searched I think the university well.
CAVANAUGH: I want to take you back to when you first came here as president I believe in 1996.
CAVANAUGH: What were the big of the challenges that you faced?
WEBBER: Well, in very short order, we had a horrid triple murder on campus. Three of our engineers were gunned down. And I was still learning where the library was at that point.
WEBBER: So that was -- but that was not a challenge in the sense you're thinking of. In terms of the university, one of the biggest problems was that we were over enrolled. And over enrolled meant that students could come to our campus and the state would not fund them. And that meant that we had to thin the soup for all our other students and that meant students couldn't get courses and things like that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. So took that challenge on? It's not the same now?
WEBBER: It's not the same now. It wouldn't be right to say I took it on. I think the right way to say it is I asked the question, why do we do this?
WEBBER: Because it's an unusual circumstance in the terms of the rest of higher education. And I raised the question with the campus, and we spent a year talking about it because we're educators. We like to have students. On the other hands -- on the other hand we don't like to participate in an academic fraud in which we admit students and then can't give them the courses. So we talked about it, as I said, the better part of a year, then the senate voted to move to control our enrollments, and we began from there.
Q. I think one of the most obvious changes to anyone who saw the campus in 1996 and comes here and takes a look now is the way it looks. We have a trolley station, a new library, numerous buildings, construction going on now. The campus looks a lot different than it did 15 years ago. Do you like the look of it?
WEBBER: I do like the look of it. And our students obviously like the look of it, because when we ask them why they come to San Diego state the first thing they say of course is the quality of our faculty. But they also regularly mention the beauty of this campus. They never mention the president. I don't know why that is, but in the last 15 years, we've done over seven hundred million dollars in major construction on campus, and only 23 percent of that has been paid for by the citizens of California.
CAVANAUGH: And I imagine you're quite proud about that.
WEBBER: I am.
CAVANAUGH: What have you gotten the most criticism for during your time at SDSU?
WEBBER: Well, I don't know. You get criticism of course in this job. It comes with the territory. And some of it is people have been concerned about enrollment, going back to what we said before, because the other side of that is that meant that some people couldn't come to San Diego state, and folks were concerned about the consequences of that. On the other hand, one of the things that has happened is our graduation rates have gone way, way up. We now lead the country in our improvement in the graduation ratings. 28 percentage points in the last 12 years. So I think while you're going to get some criticism about that, we've gotten far more prase about it want.
CAVANAUGH: I do remember a lot of flack when just recently you had to basically scale back that idea that people in San Diego County in a certain area would not be automatically accepted. That was very controversial. Why were you forced to do that? Or were you forced to do that?
WEBBER: No, I don't think it's fair so say we were forced to do that. The truth is, we chose to do that. But we chose to do it for some pretty good reasons. The students living below route 56 are what we call our service area. And those students had been able to get in with the minimum eligibility established by the State of California. Which is a 29 hundred freshman eligibility index. While will rest of our student body were coming in with freshman eligibility indexes of over four thousand. Now, from an education point of view, to have some of your student body at one level of preparation and another at a wholly different level of preparation makes it very difficult for there to be productive classes. So we had pedagogical reasons for wanting to get a student body that was shared more that preparation. And one of the things that's happened is in point of fact, we have more low income students now. A higher percentage of lower income students than we had previously. And a higher percentage of students of color than we had previously. And I'm particularly proud of the fact that our students of color have increased their graduation rate more than the rest of our student body. Their graduation rate is up 31 point 2†percentage points.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with retiring SDSU president, Steven weber. I remember, president weber, another area that you got a lot of criticism, but you deflected it, was about your support of athletics at SDSU. There was a time in the recent past where there were calls to disband the Aztecs because their record was not too hot.
WEBBER: Well, first of all, that's certainly true. But I think there too we have to put that in perspective. I think people have given me more credit than I deserve for this. We're a university. This'll always be different point of views on a different that people express those points of view. Some members of our community are very supportive of athletics, and some are not. But at the end of the day, when it comes to the view of our university, it's expressed through the university senate. And the university senate has been very supportive.
CAVANAUGH: And the university senate -- and that support from the senate has I think people can see that these teams have been somewhat transformed over the past few years. How influential do you think that your decisions were in achieving that?
WEBBER: Only insofar as I had something to do with choosing the coaches.
WEBBER: But the other to beings that are the unsung heros in this regard are our student body. Because the student bodies' fees to support athletics have gone up. And I believed that this was going to prove to be as valuable an experience for our present generation of students as all those students that I know as alums now when don Corriel was here. In fact, you can't go anywhere and talk to that generation without their talking about their memories of Don Corriel. We're going to see the same thing now with students is that were energized by either Beth burns, wonderful sweet 16 run the year before this, or Steve Fisher's run this years in basketball.
CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about student fees. I would imagine that's causing a great deal of concern all across the university system in California. And what is your take on what we're looking at down the pipe when it comes to student fees and the access that students have to public education, higher education in California?
WEBBER: Well, let me start with some context. When California fought through its higher education challenge to itself and the master plan, it had the notion that it could provide virtually free education to its citizens. That's a wonderful, remarkably noble and enlightened view which bears no relationship to the California that you and I are in now. In fact that's part of the problem. Of the master plan is 50 years old, you know, imagine what KPBS and what this equipment would have looked like 50 years ago. So it seems to be fundamentally rethought. The issue now, now the figures are that a college education adds about a million and a half dollars to a person's lifetime income. Well, with financial aid helping low income students as it does, I think you're gonna find the choice being either you -- since California is not likely to be able in the short run to increase its support, you're gonna either have to reduce your enrollment, and that is to reduce access, or you're going to have to increase tuition.
CAVANAUGH: And that's pretty stark.
WEBBER: It is, yeah.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So that would be one of the challenges that you would see facing SDSU down the road. What are some of the others?
WEBBER: Well, actually, the challenges are very largely to do with forces beyond our troll. Like the State of California and its funding. The university itself is in pretty strong shape. But of course we're a creature of the State of California. In the current year that we're just ending, our support from the State of California was cut 55 million dollars just for this campus. 18 million dollars a year before that. We're looking at over the best case scenario another 35 million dollar cut for next year, and in the worst case scenario, something between 60 and 70 million dollars. So those are -- the biggest challenges are the challenges that we're not in a position ourselves to mediate.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you'd say a word or two about the person who is going to take your job, Elliot herb man.
WEBBER: Yeah, I'm really impressed with Elliot. First of all, we're all looking forward to Elliot's leadership. He's asked good questions, he seems to have very good instincts. I like the fact that he's used to being out in the community, that's one of his clearest values is to get out and meet San Diego. We're working with him to put together a list of organizations and people that he needs to meet during the summer, which is a good time for him to do that has he comes in. He's eager to be doing that, he's been asking for meetings with our different organizations on campus. On the one hand, he's asking good questions, on the other hand he's asking them of a broad variety of people. Now, I don't know what the answers will be or even what the questions will be, which is why it's a good time for new leadership. Because when I came in, that's what I was doing. I was just a sponge, I was talking to all these people, listening to all these ideas, beginning to ask some questions, and out of Elliot's asking a set of new questions will come some whole new initiatives for San Diego state.
CAVANAUGH: We've been talking about some of your proudest achievements and some of the things that you were right on when it comes to sports, and so forth. Do you have any regrets that you'd like to share with us?
WEBBER: I have regrets, none of which I'd like to share with you. Sure. You don't want to suggest that there weren't things that could have been done better. But mostly I have a sense of gratitude, first for the privilege of being associated with San Diego state and for the wonderful support we've received from the community of San Diego and the State of California. I don't mean now the taxpayer support, I mean the support, philanthropically, we've raised over seven hundred million dollars. That's three times what we raised in the prior ninety-nine years. Well, that's a real statement of support. Beyond that, they've helped us develop programs, which we would have never done on our won't, if it weren't for sittings down with members of the biotech community or the engineering community, or the hospitals or the hospitality community. They all helped us develop new programs, which now are enrolling thousands of students.
CAVANAUGH: Could you tell us what you'll be doing next?
WEBBER: Well, I'm gonna head to Maine. Suzanne is already there unpacking. It's a mixed blessing, she points out, because she gets to put things exactly where she wants them, and I'm not interfering with that. On the other hand, she's the one that's left there with all the boxes. But I'm gonna write, I like wood working, so I'm gonna be doing some woodworking and some gardening. And then we're going to travel a lot. Then we'll spend two months of the year back in San Diego. We'll be back here in February and March.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you very much. I've been speaking with Steven Webber, outgoing president of San Diego state university. Thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.
WEBBER: Maureen, it's a pleasure. Thank you.