If two words could summarize Interim California State University, Stanislaus President Joseph Sheley’s first month in office, they would undoubtedly be “building bridges.”
That’s a stark contrast from past president Hamid Shirvani’s tenure, when rocky relations between the administration and faculty led to a vote of no confidence in Shirvani’s leadership in November 2009. Later, that dispute drew admonishment from college accreditors Western Association of Schools and Colleges who called for a reaccreditation follow-up in 2011 due to “long-simmering tensions between faculty and the senior administration.”
But everything starts with relationships, Sheley said. The former provost and vice president for academic affairs at CSU Sacramento, is “big on inclusiveness,” in his own words.
So in between long hours spent reading up on CSU Stanislaus’ history, budget, and programs, Sheley has been making the rounds on campus. He’s been meeting staff and professors, learning names and faces.
“They have been exceptionally welcoming,” Sheley said. “I can understand what goes on in those buildings through their eyes.”
Sheley said he’s actually excited for the rest of the university’s professors to return from summer break so he can meet them.
With experience as a former professor, department head, academic dean, and past faculty head of the Tulane University Senate, Sheley said he believes strongly in shared governance — the process by which university faculty and administration work together to make decisions and improve the college.
He cites the shared governance fostered at CSU Sacramento as among his greatest successes. Sheley wants to bring that strong shared governance to CSU Stanislaus, working to keep the entire campus informed of issues, to listen to concerns, and to explain why decisions are ultimately made.
Sheley admits that CSU Stanislaus is very different from Sacramento State. Though the campuses are roughly similar in physical size, Sacramento State crams in three times the student population.
The differences add up to a more intimate community, a different sort of scale than Sheley is used to.
“You do have this feeling that you can meet people here,” Sheley said.
That feeling extends into the community, Sheley said, lauding downtown Turlock’s charm. And Sheley hopes to extend CSU Stanislaus more into that community as well, meeting with members of the business community.
Soon, Sheley expects to start meeting with elected officials, ranging from state legislators to local elected officials. He’s pledged to meet every local mayor before summer’s end.
“They’re part of our region, and they’re part of our university community,” Sheley said.
Sheley hopes to build relationships with even the average Turlocker, and said he’s taken note of how many people say they miss the annual fireworks at CSU Stanislaus – for some, their only interaction with the college before the event’s 2009 cancellation due to budget woes. Though the budget probably won’t allow the event’s return, Sheley expressed a desire to look into what’s possible.
Three years later, the CSU budget presents more challenges than ever.
“There’s always a lot of work to be done,” Sheley said.
Should voters not approve a tax increase this November, all of education will face massive “trigger cuts.” CSU Stanislaus, already lean from years of shrinking budgets, would have to absorb between $5 and $6 million in cuts.
Those cuts will have real impacts, Sheley said, but he will work to minimize their impacts on the students. He said it’s unrealistic to pretend that program cancellation couldn’t happen, as it has at other universities, but he views termination of entire majors as an absolute last resort.
“It’s not surprising that people are worried, but that’s not where we want to go,” Sheley said.
No specifics are available about cutbacks at the moment, but proposals should come soon. Those proposals will take into account feedback from the faculty-led University Budget Advisory Council, Sheley said.
Almost more important than the trigger cuts, though, is positioning CSU Stanislaus to benefit once the state budget recovers.
“Whether I’m here five weeks or 50 years, I’d still be focused on positioning this university in the CSU and the State of California,” Sheley said.
The economy will likely never return to the boom years, Sheley said, but some recovery appears to be underway in the business sector. The state budget lags about three years behind the rest of the economy, though, so this period is all about positioning the university to benefit once the state starts spending again.
“I do not intend to have us be last in line,” Sheley said.
A lot of that, again, is building relationships. Sheley said he sees it as the university’s job to spread the word about its world-class education, gorgeous campus, and top-notch facilities. CSU Stanislaus needs to be thought of among the best, not as a “hidden gem.”
“I’ve got to get hidden crossed off that,” Sheley said.
It remains uncertain how long Sheley’s tenure as interim president will last. The CSU System has yet to begin the search for a permanent president.
But as long as Sheley holds the post, he said he’ll work hard to make CSU Stanislaus a better place, and to carry on the tradition of a college which has a positive impact on the community.
“I’m gratified to be a part of this university, even in what are difficult times,” Sheley said.