Energetic. Passionate. Inspiring.
These are some of the words that have been used to describe Mildred García, who is set to become Cal State Fullerton’s president beginning June 11, ushering in a new era for the institution.
García has a long list of degrees, publications and appointments to her credit, and has rubbed shoulders with both high-profile educators and government leaders. Yet she never forgets her roots in New York City as one of seven children born to poor Puerto Rican immigrants, and she frequently recalls those responsible for helping her construct the foundation on which her future success would be built.
“My hero and my ‘shero’ are my parents,” she said in a recent interview. “They came to this country not knowing the language and making very little money working in a factory. It was instilled in us that the only inheritance a poor family can leave is a good education.”
The importance of education and research is a theme that echoes throughout García’s lifelong career as an educator, researcher, author and administrator. Recently appointed to President Barack Obama’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, she has a long history of distinguished service on regional and national boards that help shape educational policy through published reports and their counsel to decision-makers.
García brings to Cal State Fullerton a national perspective and a continued focus on diversity – both of which make her an excellent fit for the job. Continually ranked in the Top 10 in U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of public master’s-granting institutions in the West, CSUF is steadily increasing its national profile. And Cal State Fullerton is one of the country’s most diverse universities, designated a Hispanic- and an Asian- American and Native American/Pacific Islander-Serving Institution, and ranked ninth in the nation in terms of baccalaureate degrees awarded to minority students by Diverse Issues in Higher Education, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education.
“Fullerton is a community committed to learning,” García observed. “It’s committed to being student-centered for a diverse population. What a wonderful place to work with faculty and staff who are committed to what is essentially an educational laboratory, where students learn to work, study, live together and become leaders within a diverse world.”
García greets, from left, President’s Scholar Leah Espinoza, military veteran and criminal justice major David Lien, and speech communications major Kayleigh Ocampo during a recent campus visit.
That diversity reminds her, again, of her parents. “They were smart individuals who strongly believed in diversity and getting along with others,” García recalled. She vividly remembers when, shopping for clothes, “there was my father speaking in English with his Spanish accent and the proprietor speaking Yiddish, back and forth, teaching us so much about getting along with others.”
She and her family also lived in housing projects alongside African-American and other diverse families. “My parents would say, ‘Yes, we are different, but we’re all the same. People are people and you learn to work with each other.’ ”
As she looks to leading Cal State Fullerton into the future, García acknowledges the challenges. “California has disinvested in public higher education. We’ve been abandoned,” she said. “We are at a point where Fullerton is enrolling more than 36,000 students – students who have kept their promise to do well in high school and junior high. We’ve said ‘There will be a seat for you.’ But we’re not keeping up with our promise.”
Moving forward, she said, will require that university leaders be strategic and use resources even more wisely, raise more funds from private sources, be creative and entrepreneurial in finding new sources of funding, and better compete for grants for faculty and student research.
Initially in her work at Cal State Fullerton, García said, she wants to focus on listening to determine how she can lead the university. “I want to listen to all the voices, and to the silences. The people who don’t speak up – I want them engaged. Their voices are as important as the louder voices. I want to know what they love about Fullerton, how they would like it to be improved, how they can be engaged in moving us into the future.”
Secondly, García said, she wants to make sure the university has a strategic plan that sets priorities, is focused, and is based on limited resources.
Then, she wants to go out into the community. “I want to make sure the community knows we’re here and what Fullerton is all about. I want them to know the excellent Fullerton story. We want them to see Cal State Fullerton as their institution among the many communities in Orange County. We need to strengthen and build new friendships.”
She is interested particularly in the university’s partnerships with K-12 institutions and community colleges. “We bring in more community college transfers than any university in California,” she noted. “When they come here, how soon do they graduate? We need linkages to help prepare them before they get here.”
Cal State Fullerton is similar, García said, to Cal State Dominguez Hills in that they are both welcoming institutions. “The culture at Fullerton, as I see and read it, is that its faculty and staff really care about students and their success,” she said. “It’s a collaborative place, a place that’s looking outward and saying, ‘How can we improve?’
“Everyone is committed to students and concerned with the student experience. Faculty are committed to teaching and research. The academically excellent faculty, even during these difficult fiscal times, are totally committed to ensuring that students are engaged in their research, and they take extra steps to make sure our students are learning and receiving the very best educational experience. Alongside the faculty, staff and administrators are also educators contributing to the success of all students. It’s an institution moving forward, an institution that knows what it means to help students graduate into the world and reach their dreams.”
At Dominguez Hills, García was especially proud of meeting enrollment targets with strong, qualified students; obtaining the university’s first endowed professorship from Wallace Annenberg in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education; raising alumni donors by 400 percent; increasing retention to 77 percent; and creating the University Advisement Center. “All of those things were done collaboratively with faculty and staff committed to the university,” she said.
At left, Dr. Mildred García – the California State University’s first Latina president – meets a reporter for the Daily Titan on one of her first official visits to the Cal State Fullerton campus in January.
Right, García models a CSUF T-shirt.
At Cal State Fullerton, measuring success will be critical, and she will use metrics and accountability to ensure that the strategic plan and goals are met by all the members of her team. “There will be accountability for everyone, including the president,” she said. The demands before her are great, García acknowledged, but she is full of energy, ideas and enthusiasm for Cal State Fullerton’s future.
As a busy professional, García relishes what little down time she can eke out. When she is not on the clock, García works out with a trainer three times a week, loves to read, dance and travel, and presently is reading a book of Spanish poetry. “I try to read one book in Spanish and one in English. I’m reading books on leadership, fiction and also fun novels. I’m not ashamed to say that I loved the ‘Harry Potter’ books for their imagination.
“I skim through the news, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the L.A. Times and the Daily Breeze,” she added, “to find out what’s going on in the world as well as any references to our institution.”
CSUF’s incoming president has traveled throughout the globe and makes time each year for three long weekends to New York City for visits to see family, the opera, Broadway plays and museums. Her most recent international voyage was to Morocco in May for the International Women’s Forum and a brief vacation.
With all her accomplishments, García believes that her proudest career achievement comes every spring during commencement. “Graduations make me most proud,” she said. “Seeing the extended families attending ceremonies, the joy of the parents and grandparents, godparents and cousins – to me that is the most joyful day, the culmination of what the university has done to transform lives.”
What They're Saying...
Interim President Willie J. Hagan: “Dr. Mildred García is a seasoned and experienced chief executive and has made access to higher education a central concern of her distinguished career. After watching her in action as president of CSU Dominguez Hills, I can report that she carries the mantle of executive leadership with the confidence born of more than a decade as a university president, first at Berkeley College and, since 2007, in the CSU.”
Jack Bedell, chair of the Academic Senate and emeritus professor of sociology: “We look forward to working with her as we tackle such issues as academic quality; online education; access; threats to the classroom, such as increasing student-faculty ratios; and the need to prepare the future workforce through studentfaculty research projects.”
Paul Carter ’82, CSUF Alumni Association president, partner at Bergkvist, Bergkvist & Carter, LLP and member of the Advisory Committee to the Trustees’ Committee for the Selection of the President: “Since I graduated 20 years ago, Dr. Gordon has transformed CSUF. Dr. García is the right choice to amplify Dr. Gordon’s hard work and to take CSUF to the next level.”
Henry Mendoza ’81, managing partner at Mendoza, Berger & Company and member of the California State University Board of Trustees: “Dr. García is very warm and outgoing, but she’s also tough, and with the economically tough time we are going through now, we need a tough person who can get us through.”
Eric Niu, past president of CSUF’s Associated Students Inc. and member of the Advisory Committee to the Trustees’ Committee for the Selection of the President: “In my interactions with her, she has demonstrated great leadership and puts students first. My hope is that she can stand with students during this economic downturn – with students facing tuition increases – and that she will be an advocate to legislators and the Chancellor’s Office on behalf of students.”
Loui Olivas, president of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education: “AAHHE has been privileged to have Dr. García serve on the board, providing leadership, synergy and guidance. On a personal note, I have known Millie for the past 25 years and I have always admired her vision, passion and commitment for improving the academic access/graduation rates for students in higher education.”
Doug Simao, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s Philanthropic Foundation Board of Governors and member of the Advisory Committee to the Trustees’ Committee for the Selection of the President: “Personally, I found Mildred García to be warm and visionary, articulate and clear in purpose, committed to excellence and to fulfilling the promise of higher education as the great equalizer.”