After 22-years, Cal State Fullerton president Milton Gordon retired last semester. Mildred García, Ed.D., who grew up in the Bronx, New York, has risen to take his place and take the reins at the highest position at CSUF.
García’s parents immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico and worked as factory workers under harsh conditions. Her parents, she said, always inspired her to do well in school as a means of success.
Her family’s strong emphasis on educational success was the driving force behind her throughout her studies. She holds five degrees in business, education and higher education administration. She said she is excited to work with her new staff and to get to know students and their needs by “engaging all voices.”
Previously, García was president of nearby Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she became the first Latina president in the CSU. She was also recently appointed to President Barack Obama’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
As a person who has been in education all over the country, García said she has the diverse background the university needs to continue growing to become a national leader in public igher education.
On Thursday, García met with the Daily Titan to discuss her personality, purpose at CSUF and overall goals for her office and position, where she has the power to steer the university through rough waters of mounting student debt and crippling budget cuts.
Daily Titan: So you’re new here at Cal State Fullerton. How are you getting acclimated? How is everyone treating you?
García: I’m doing some walkarounds and I’m trying to visit as many buildings as I can. I just got through two buildings—not enough, but I will get there. I’m also having small meetings with faculty, just to get to know them, 10 to 12. We’re planning some open houses for students so that they can come in and see. I sent out a survey; I think you all saw that survey, when I first got here. I had over 2,000 responses. I’m going out almost every night to get to know Orange County and our community partners. So I am very busy, but everybody at Fullerton and in Orange County has been very welcoming. They’re really giving me an opportunity to get to know them, them to get to know me and they’re offering their help in so many ways.
DT: How do you feel your experience in education has prepared you for the top spot here at Cal State Fullerton?
G: Throughout my entire career, I’ve been at different types of institutions that have prepared me to be here at Cal State Fullerton. I have worked both on the academic side of the house as a faculty member and as a senior administrator to also being the chief student affairs officer on another campus, which has helped me tremendously. So I’ve taught, I’ve also been at research-intensive institutions, which gave me the opportunity to (learn) about research and grants, as well as worked at community colleges and comprehensive universities, and I was a president at a private institution, which really operate in a different way because they get no state support. So you really need to know how to manage a budget and really use dollars efficiently. So all of those experiences, I call them my tools in my knapsack that I’ve picked up along the way, have helped me to be here at Cal State Fullerton.
DT: What were you like as a kid? What were your parents like?
G: My parents came to Brooklyn, New York (from Puerto Rico) in the ‘40s, with five of their seven children, and they, like most people who come to the United States, were seeking a better life for their children. They always said to us, “The only inheritance a poor family could leave you is a good education.” My brother and I were born later in Brooklyn, so we’re “Newyoricans,” as they call us.
My parents worked in factories. They both had eighth-grade degrees from the island and their parents couldn’t afford to send them to high school—they just didn’t have the money. So they really struggled to give us the opportunity to have a good education. So we lived in these tenement homes surrounded by factories in a place that is now called DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), which is very expensive now because all those factories are now lofts overlooking Manhattan, but they weren’t then when I was growing up. It was just these two tenements with six families that lived there. I used to go to school and I always loved school, I did love school. Some people said I was a teachers pet—maybe I was—and I loved to study.
Unfortunately, my dad died when I was 12, and so my mother, on a factory salary, had to support us, and we moved to the housing projects… and that’s where I finished my growing up. I always remembered their motto, “The only inheritance a poor family could leave you is a good education,” and I wanted to prove to them that they were right.
DT: How did people respond to your questionnaire?
G: (The responses) were wonderful… They included things like, “We don’t need to have our tuition increased anymore, please help to have tuition not be increased anymore,” to people talking about how we should get more coverage for Fullerton, you know, the whole thing of promoting Titan Pride, “friendraising” and fundraising, it’s about marketing and branding our institution. We are not as prominent as we should be in Orange County when you compare it to other universities in Orange County. They told me that we don’t get enough press. One person wrote in something like, “I want us to be an IOU institution for our community,” that the community members say, “It’s Our University (IOU)…” Students would talk about how much they love the faculty and staff… Also recommendations, things to look at and giving advice to a new president.
DT: What were you hoping to accomplish by sending out the questionnaire?
G: The questionnaire and the responses gave me a little feel of what people were thinking about, what they were proud about, what they were worried about and what they thought were our opportunities as we move forward in these very challenging times… We don’t get enough money and giving me that feel of where Fullerton was at that moment.
DT: What are your concerns about students leaving Cal State Fullerton with more and more debt? How do you help them?
G: Obviously I wish we didn’t have to raise tuition because it’s not good. I also had student debt as I went through college and it’s not easy. You have to work and pay off these debts and it’s not an easy thing that I know that the chancellor and board struggled with. We are continuing to work toward ensuring that we don’t raise tuition. The voters now have it in their hands with Proposition 30. If Proposition 30 passes… then tuition will not be raised—tuition will be brought back to what it was before. But now it’s in the voters’ hands and now we need people… to talk about (the opportunities).
We need to educate people. When we educate over 37,000 students at Fullerton, you go out into our communities and pay taxes, become our community leaders, the workers, the innovators, the scientists, and you give back more than what they give us to educate you. So we need to start educating the public about the great work that (alumni) do when you graduate. We need to continue to advocate to the legislature and the governor that they have cut us enough. These are the reasons why we should not raise tuition anymore and why we need support to move forward.
In order for us to have the revenue stream that is needed to run a university, in order for us to not raise more tuition—we are a state university, so the state should be contributing to us, so that tuition doesn’t need to go up. We are also looking for efficiencies… For example: I know we share a position in workmen’s compensation with Cal State Dominguez Hills, so that’s saving money because one person we’re paying half and half, and those are the kind of efficiencies (we are pursuing). We are looking at technology; how do we do technology more efficiently?… Twenty-three campuses—that’s a lot of people. So how do we buy things in mass instead of campuses buying computers on their own? You get a discount when you buy for 23 campuses, so we’re looking for those efficiencies as well. Then of course we need to do what I call “friendraising and fundraising”: raising dollars for the university so that it goes back into the institution.
DT: Is that similar to what you did at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where you raised the number of alumni donors 400 percent?
G: Of course it’s something similar. I think we have such illustrious alums who are making wonderful dollars, and they got their beginnings here at CSUF. Our alums came here and we should train students to be alums the minute we admit them, and we should say, “You’re graduating at such and such year and congratulations, this is the first year of your alumni experience.” (We should) teach students about giving back, and giving back to an institution that has given them so much. Once you graduate and you look at the types of alums that we have here, from actors and opera singers and business people—all of these individuals we should tap to come back to help us give that same opportunity to future students. I think it’s alumni, it’s community, it’s business, it’s not-for-profit funders… That’s what we need to do in order to bring in more dollars, and commitment… giving back to a place that gives you so much.
DT: Some have criticized a $30,000 raise that you took in the CSU. How do you address those critics?
G: I don’t see my salary here as a raise. My salary here is a new job. When I went to Dominguez Hills and you can check the records, I took a pay cut from my presidency at Berkeley College. Nobody put in the press that I walked away from a pay cut and a yearly bonus. But this was a new job, I wanted to work with a diverse student body and Dominguez Hills gave me that at that time. Anybody that would have applied, and there were other people that applied for this job, were applying for a new job. This is not a transfer, this is not a raise. I am in a new position, a new institution, with over 37,600 students, almost triple the size of Dominguez Hills. It’s a new job, it’s not a raise. I’ve never gotten a “raise” in California.
DT: So you would tell those critics that this is a new position, a new job and that’s it?
G: Right. And it could have been someone from outside the CSU that would have gotten this salary as well.
DT: If you had the opportunity to tell every Cal State Fullerton student just one thing, what would it be?
G: If I had the opportunity to tell every Cal State Fullerton student just one thing, I would tell them, “Get your degree. Finish school and get your degree.” In listening to the top economic forecasters in this country, they say that unemployment for those who do not have a bachelor’s degree is 11 percent. But those who have a bachelor’s degree, it’s four percent. That’s huge—in addition to what a degree does it opens doors, you become leaders in your communities, you vote more, you become writers and journalists, and so a degree is so important; and for me, it’s about getting the students to have an wonderful academic learning experience and graduate and go out and do great things and give back to Fullerton.
DT: What’s it like being on President Obama’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics?
G: I think it’s one of the highlights of my career. No matter what party you belong to, being on President Obama’s Commission on Educational Excellence and meeting the president firsthand is absolutely awesome. And then being able to give advice to a president on issues of Latinos in education is quite an honor. It really is. I’m meeting people on that board who are nationally-known experts. And so it really is an honor and I’m humbled that I was chosen.
DT: What do you believe sets you apart from other CSU presidents in the system?
G: Well, we’re all different. All 23 presidents are different. Having lived across the country, having worked across the country. I’ve worked in New York City, New Jersey, Arizona, and here gives me a different perspective—being a different institution, being a different type of institution gives you a different perspective.
I think, and many of the other presidents are, but I think one of the things I bring is that I’m a first-generation college student who comes from a very poor background, whose guidance counselor told her she would never get through college.
And it’s wonderful to be able to prove that person wrong. I also bring the perspective that I’ve worked throughout my entire education—I started working when I was 14. My mother gave me the best education possible: She allowed me to go and work in the factory one summer with my cousins. And that’s when I knew I needed an education because I never wanted to work in a factory again and I wanted to get my mother out of a factory. I bring that perspective as well. So, I’ve worked and gone to school, so when students tell me, “I’m working,” I get it. I understand it. Because you need the support to help the family. And those things are not easy.
DT: So you feel you can relate to students from a wide variety of backgrounds?
G: I feel that I can relate to a wide variety of student backgrounds. I’ve had the honor of working at institutions and I’ve met students from all over the world and all over the country. And I love talking to students because they keep you young. That’s the reason I’ve never left: Students keep you young.
DT: Is there anything that we missed, is there anything that you’d like to add?
G: Only that I look forward to getting to know more and more students. The reason that I’m here is because of student success. I really love talking to students. Because quite frankly, the truth of the matter is when I get a little down or feel terrible about the economic crisis, I go to the student center (Titan Student Union) and I see the students and I walk around and I see this is why we’re here. It’s not about getting the policies published or cutting budgets or trying to find more money—it’s about student success. And for me, that is the most important thing, that is the reason we are here, to give students a fabulous education.