As new president of cal state northridge, jolene koester must tackle a host of issues ranging from a north campus biotech center to the building of a football stadium The walls are bare and the shelves are empty in the president’s office at Cal State Northridge, a blank slate to be filled in by its new occupant, Jolene Koester. A nationally known expert in intercultural communications and a lifelong educator who has spent the last 17 years in the CSU system, Koester started at CSUN July 1 after being named to the post in November. She has spent the last six months brushing up on CSUN issues while finishing out the year at Cal State Sacramento, where she was provost. Koester takes the helm at CSUN at a pivotal time for the school. As president, she will have to make some tough decisions. Among them: should the university build a new football stadium on campus despite neighborhood objections? And how should the school’s 65-acre North Campus be developed? The university has been plagued with high turnover of its top staff and has also been criticized as being too insular. The campus itself is still in disrepair, thanks to massive damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. CSUN is still trying to shore up private funding to pay for equipment and technology in the new buildings, the last of which should be completed by mid-2001. Koester’s office is in a portable building, one of the many across campus intended to temporarily replace damaged structures. Despite it all, Koester is optimistic that CSUN has a strong enough foundation to overcome the problems. Question: What’s your first priority as president? Answer: I have for the first year identified three priorities I’m going to focus on internally. One of those is to build and establish a strong core leadership team. Fortunately, I have the beginnings of that in Louanne Kennedy, who’s done a tremendous job as interim president and who will stay with the institution working as provost. We have a new administrative vice president starting this month. He too has a lot of experience in CSU. And then we’re searching for a vice president of university relations and a vice president of student affairs. Those individuals are absolutely key to the establishment of a stable, collaborative administrative team. Another major priority is to build the contributed private funds for the institution. A third priority for next year is to work on continuing to develop the campus as a user-friendly environment so that students have easy access to what they need, so the public has easy access to the university and so that the people who work in the university find a service orientation from others who work in the university. It’s a very important part of what most universities need to do. Q: Your expertise is communications, and as I’m sure you know, one of CSUN’s past stumbling blocks has been the way it communicated or didn’t with the neighboring community. How do you plan to remedy that? A: I think this university serves multiple communities the San Fernando Valley, the Santa Clarita Valley, the Antelope Valley all of this larger region is served by California State University Northridge. Certainly, the neighbors are an important community and we want to be good neighbors. We have a mission and we will need to fulfill that mission. And as an educational institution, it means we’re going to bring large numbers of people to campus. Large numbers of people mean traffic and buses and a whole host of things that are difficult for those people who live contiguous to the campus. But we’re going to be as respectful as we can, recognizing that we still have to serve a mission and that mission includes serving other communities as well. Q: North Campus development has been an ongoing issue. While MiniMed has agreed to build a biotech complex there, finding other uses, like sound stages, has been a challenge. Have you made a decision on how the university should grow on North Campus? A: The North Campus development has been an issue for Northridge almost from its inception. My sense of that is, it’s going to take me a little bit of time to figure out what’s going on. I think we also have to have MiniMed get up and running and have them occupy the space and have them work with us in developing those important linkages and relationships back to the academic programs. Anything a university does has first and foremost got to be linked back to its instructional programs. Student learning is the reason that we’re here. So it’s a nice confluence of timing, for me to come on board the first of July, to have a little bit of time to understand some of the issues, some of the problems, some of the opportunities, but simultaneously let MiniMed finish their construction, move their staff over here and have the opportunity to work with our folks. We want to develop those internships, research partnerships, educational collaborations and see how that works before we make a decision with North Campus. Q: Another question is whether to build a bigger football stadium on campus, which neighbors have opposed. A: We’ve got a little bit of breathing room on the football stadium issue at this point. The move (by CSUN’s football team in May) from the Big Sky to the Big West (conference) changes the imperative in terms of the nature of this football stadium. Big Sky required a very large, much more elaborate stadium facility than the Big West does. For the 2000-2001 year, we’re going to play right where we’re playing right now (at North Campus stadium). After that, we’ve negotiated a temporary agreement for Pierce (College). We’re going to have to take this opportunity to look at our overall athletic program and decide what we need in a stadium, then we’ve got to worry about financing, which is no small issue and won’t happen unless we get a great deal of support from the community. Q: CSUN has begun a $10 million capital fund-raising campaign to pay for technology and equipment improvements. How successful has it been? A: The campaign is going very well. It is already halfway to its goal of $10 million. In addition to the very tangible results in dollars contributed, we had very positive reactions from corporations, alums and prominent members of the community. I’m going to focus a great deal of attention on that campaign and on solidifying the university’s ability to raise private money in the future. Q: How will you do that? A: Clearly, hiring a vice president of university relations is part of it. I’m going to be devoting a great deal of time in working with the other senior officers of the university and the deans. I personally am going to try to meet with CEOs of the major corporations in the Valley, to connect with the alums, working very closely with the CSUN Foundation, which is the major fund-raising arm of the university. Q: CSUN and other California State University campuses are expecting enrollment bulges in the coming decades. How do you plan to keep up with sudden expansion? A: This campus has a commitment to providing students with access to higher education. It historically has had that commitment, and I place a high value on assuring this university is open to those people who need and want higher education. Having said that, we are in a very good position to follow through on that commitment. First of all, California State University Channel Islands will gradually be up and running over the years, so it will be able to respond to some of that need. Second, this campus will use technology in ways that the faculty deem appropriate to try to increase access courses taught through technology, parts of courses taught through technology. That will allow us to be slightly more flexible in how we provide instruction. We will also as a campus depend on some alternative means of scheduling. We’re moving this summer in a limited way to year-round operation, which means that some students in some programs get to attend summer school paying state support fees rather than continuing education fees (which are higher). Q: Studies show that students who graduate now can expect to change careers five or six times in their lifetimes. As an educator, how do you think you can prepare students for that? A: Ironically, I think one of the strengths of an institution like CSUN is it allows us to handle these changes in the workforce and the evolving character of people’s careers, and it’s because an undergraduate education is grounded in the liberal arts. What that kind of education provides is two core things. One is solid education in basic skills writing, speaking, reading, problem-solving and critical thinking combined with what a liberal arts education does, which is teach you how to learn. What I always want to tell students when I meet with them during freshmen orientation or transfer orientation is that the most important thing a university can teach you is how to learn. That’s what you need to do your whole life. Q: What do you think about living in Los Angeles so far? A: So far it’s been fine. I’ve had a few experiences on the 405 where one small accident or car that’s in disrepair seems to block things for a lot of miles, but so far so good. It’s a very different environment, there’s a lot of things to add energy and excitement.
PROFILE — Head of the Class