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Excellence redefined: Dr. Sue Borrego's impactful tenure at CSU Stanislaus
Susan Borrego
Dr. Sue Borrego stepped into the role of acting president at CSU Stanislaus in August 2023 (Photo contributed).

Higher education has faced numerous challenges in recent years, not least a notable leadership crisis. The lack of effective leadership across universities and colleges has significant implications, affecting not just the institutions themselves but also society, which depends on these bodies to mold future generations of leaders, thinkers, and doers.

Leadership within the academic sphere is an intricate endeavor, demanding a delicate balance between academic integrity, financial sustainability, student success, and societal contributions. Alarmingly, the sector seems to be in the throes of a leadership vacuum, marked by a dearth of vision, inadequate succession planning, resistance to change, and difficulties in navigating the fast-evolving landscapes of educational technology, globalization, and shifting demographics.

A compelling, clear vision is indispensable for any organization, providing direction and galvanizing stakeholder commitment. Yet, in higher education, leaders often grapple with articulating such visions, constrained by bureaucratic inertia and the divergent priorities of faculty, administrators, and boards of trustees. The result is a tendency for institutions to need help to adapt to new realities or capitalize on emerging opportunities.

Enter Dr. Sue Borrego, who, in August 2023, stepped into the role of acting president at CSU Stanislaus. She was unfamiliar to many, but she was a recognized and respected presence within the CSU system.

From the onset, Borrego demonstrated a unique approach to leadership.  She wasted no time contacting community leaders to introduce herself and probe deeply into the community's needs and aspirations. Her inquiries led to meetings — in my case, occasional breakfasts at Huckleberry’s — that were less about checking boxes for the CSU chancellor and more about genuinely understanding the community’s "why." Borrego’s insistence on in-person meetings underscored her commitment to forging real human connections and first-hand understanding of the community’s diverse challenges.

But Borrego went beyond mere introductions and discussions; she actively sought out voices from parts of the community that the university had previously not engaged with, listening to their views and opinions without any underlying agenda. For Borrego, building trust, demonstrating commitment, and fostering collaboration were paramount, ensuring that Stan State was seen as a welcoming place for all, irrespective of background.

In an environment often characterized by its aversion to change, Borrego emerged as a beacon of progressive leadership, willing to dismantle barriers and extend bridges across political, social, or economic divides. Her tenure was a testament to the power of caring, courage, and commitment to making tangible differences in the lives of students, faculty, and the broader community.

Though Borrego was not chosen as the permanent president of CSU Stanislaus, her legacy is undeniable. Her time at Stan State was marked by incredible professionalism and a heartfelt dedication to positive change that resonated deeply with all who had the pleasure of working with her. To know Borrego is to understand the essence of authentic leadership — she embodied excellence, not merely in her actions but in her unwavering commitment to serve and uplift every individual she encountered. Her tenure, though brief, serves as a powerful reminder of the impact genuine, engaged, and visionary leadership can have on higher education and beyond.

— Jeffrey Lewis is the President and CEO of Legacy Health Endowment and the EMC Health Foundation. The words expressed are his own.