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‘Intersecting Crises’

Erika BeckOrganization: California State University – NorthridgeBorn: Greenbrae, CaliforniaEducation: B.A. in psychology from the University of California – San Diego; M.A. in psychology from San Diego State University; Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of California – San DiegoCareer Turning Point: At Nevada State College, the school’s president encouraged her to become dean of arts and sciences.Most Influential People: “The incredible women in my family – my mother, grandmother and two sisters.”Personal: She has “a bit of a menagerie” at home, including two dogs, five fish, a turtle and a guinea pig.

Hobbies: Running, hot yoga and playing basketball with her sons.

Erika Beck, the new president of California State University – Northridge, is a career higher education administrator with a background in experimental psychology. Along the path to earning her Ph.D., Beck found her calling teaching courses at San Diego State University. Later she rose through the ranks of academia, landing several leadership positions at Nevada State University. In 2016, she was named president of California State University – Channel Islands. There, she began implementing policies and programs designed to close opportunity gaps related to class and race. Under her leadership, the campus achieved a four-year graduation rate of 30 percent, an all-time high for the school. And in 2020, despite the pandemic, Channel Islands’ freshman retention rate increased 6 percent. Beck will assume her new position at CSUN on Jan. 11, replacing Dianne Harrison who will retire after eight and half years in the position.Question: How are you feeling about the job change? Answer: It’s bittersweet. My work with Cal State Channel Islands has been so gratifying. But I’m very enthusiastic about joining CSUN and the possibilities that exist because of the turbulent times. I think the multiple intersecting crises that we are navigating right now make it clear that higher education is at an inflection point. So I’m looking forward to it.

What are the biggest challenges for a higher education administrator during COVID-19?Universities are pretty traditional places, and we completely changed the way we do our work, particularly the faculty, almost overnight. This is true of businesses as well. Moving into virtual spaces is an extraordinary challenge. You have to think through how to continue to engage students in critical thinking and problem solving, particularly in disciplines that don’t lend themselves to virtual environments. Also, how to keep students really close to the university. The heart of student success is relationships, so how you engage in virtual spaces is significant.

Any lessons learned from your time at Channel Islands that you hope to transfer to CSUN?Outside the classroom, looking at the ways in which we deliver support services for students virtually – things we never thought before that we would do virtually, like affinity groups or student government opportunities. Our students have had virtual block parties and movie nights and all of these different kinds of activities that build a sense of belonging and connection to the university that we’ve only ever done in person. Actually, since we’ve been doing them virtually, more students are participating. I think there’s an opportunity to increase student engagement. Also, CSUN has a large commuter student population, so we’re thinking about ways we can build a virtual community to enhance student success.

How does CSUN’s much larger student body compared to CSUCI play into your leadership strategy?What I find compelling about the size of CSUN is its 370,000 alumni, which is almost hard to wrap your head around. (Those alumni) are embedded into every corner of the future of the workforce in Southern California. I’m thinking about how to enhance those relationships between CSUN alumni and the business and industry workforce … and how to provide opportunities for student internships, networking and hands-on immersive learning experiences.

Do you think virtual work and other pandemic-time work trends are here to stay? It looks like telework is here to stay. Not necessarily in the way it’s manifesting right now, I don’t expect that to continue at the same level. But I don’t expect it to go away, and neither do business and industry leaders. What skill sets will our students need in order to thrive in those work environments? I think about how to build social capital and relationships at a distance when you don’t have the advantage of the water cooler, the casual interactions and collision with coworkers and employees. How do you build teamwork and teams that are highly productive and engaged with each other at a distance? There are cognitive and digital capabilities, and also social and emotional capabilities. I don’t think we have a handle on them yet, but one thing I plan on doing in the months to come is to try and get a hold of as much data as I can from human resources professionals throughout the region to try and understand what those competencies look like and then how to implement those into the curriculum.

During your time at Channel Islands, did you do anything specific for the business school?One of our big partners at the business school is The Trade Desk. It’s a really fast-growing advertising technology company based out of Ventura. Jeff Green, who is the CEO, was one of the first people I met when I came to Channel Islands. He had hired and continues to hire at The Trade Desk many of our graduates. We’ve worked together to do a number of things. One is to bring the business faculty together with the future of advertising technology. They’ve built out some coursework and curriculum opportunities within that industry – on its way to become a trillion-dollar industry.Are there any areas where you think you can make an immediate impact at CSUN?CSUN is already working on increasing graduation rates and eliminating equity gaps in student performance. That is something I’ve spent the better part of a decade and a half focused on. I’m an experimental psychologist by training so I’m all about data. One of the things that universities around the country have really struggled with is increasing graduation rates and reimagining the academic enterprise to serve a largely first-generation, historically underserved student population. That will be an area of emphasis for me – to ensure that students have a pathway to timely graduation and that we work together to look at administrative barriers that students don’t have an agency to remove.

What about your personality that makes you good at this job of university president?The success of a university is dependent on the people who comprise it. No leader accomplishes anything by themselves. It takes a collective effort. So, I lead to people. I lead to culture. I’m really dedicated to fostering a culture of excellence, passion and joy. At this space in time, the challenges that are ahead of us are clear. But it’s also a moment in which the nature of our work is consequential. It’s meaningful and noble. It facilitates our human potential. I always work to ground our individual work in its broader impact.

Was there a particular experience that pushed you to steer your career into academia?You’re going to think I’m a little bit of a nerd but that’s OK. When I was 12 years old, I picked up an intro to psychology textbook and I read it cover to cover. It just so happened it was left behind in a classroom. I knew at that point I wanted to be a psychologist. That was my first academic goal. Once I began teaching, I knew I wanted a life in the academy. I taught my first college class when I was 22 years old at San Diego State. I fell in love with the research mission and the teaching mission. But it was particularly the opportunity to impact students’ lives for the better that resonated with me – to help create a more equitable landscape.

What made you decide to become an administrator rather than a teacher?I had no interest in administrative work at all. I was pulled into it. I was a faculty senate chair and had finished my term and intended to go back to the ranks of the faculty. I had a president who had a conversation with me in which he said I should consider entering the search for the dean of arts and sciences. Why would I do that? I love the classroom. He said, “You’ll have the ability to impact more students’ lives in that space than you will in the classroom. And because we need outstanding teachers, leaders and scholars in administrative ranks as well.” It just resonated with me.

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