President Lynn Mahoney - 2023 Convocation Remarks

University Opening Convocation – Thursday, August 17, 2023

Welcome to Fall 2023! It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you today and to welcome those who join us virtually.

Welcome to our special guests: Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, Supervisor Shamann Walton and Ersa, president of Associated Students, as well SF State alum Sam Logan representing the office of Supervisor Catherine Stefani.  

I offer a special welcome to Neda Nobari, chair of the SF State University Foundation and a distinguished alumna, the recipients of this year’s distinguished faculty and staff awards, and the CSUs newest faculty trustee, Dr. Darlene Yee-Melichar.

I hope all had restful and productive summers—how is that for an academic oxymoron?

I would also like to welcome and acknowledge the newest members of the Gator Family:

    • Dean of LCA, Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo
    • Dean of HSS, Andreana Clay
    • AVP/Dean of Students Miguel Hernandez
    • AVP for Disability Access and Student Wellbeing Dai To
    • And 34 new tenure line faculty members, who will be introduced to us later this morning

Please join me in welcoming our newest administrators, faculty and staff member colleagues.

While on the surface a college campus may look quiet on many summer days, there is actually much happening to prepare for the subsequent year, as well as days when the campus was full of new students and prospective students. This year, we welcome 5,500 new students, almost half of whom will live on campus. Our newest students join more than 15,000 returning students and bring back to campus the excitement of student life.

It is so good to welcome all back for the 2023-24 academic year. We have a lot to celebrate as we reflect on last year and to look forward to as we start the year.

Provost Amy Sueyoshi will share highlights from Academic Affairs in just a few moments, so I note just a few. I am deeply proud of the ways in which SF State serves as a model of excellence in teaching, academic innovation, and research. Strengthening student learning is a priority for all here. Our Center for Equity & Excellence in Teaching and Learning is an exemplar of equity-driven work in pedagogy.

Initiatives like the College of Health and Social Sciences’ Teaching Academy demonstrate our commitment to support all SF State instructors to foster a culture of inclusive and intentional teaching practices.

The Graduate College of Education moves our commitment to excellence in teaching further upstream to improve the education our students receive before they even enroll at SF State by focusing on the preparation of and support for teacher candidates. Initiatives like the San Francisco Urban Teacher Residency program, a partnership between SF State and SFUSD, models the best in teacher residency programs supporting teacher candidates in math while student teaching. And we see across all colleges and departments the commitment to improving course completion rates and become more intentional about student learning outcomes.

Our faculty continue to exemplify the best of the teacher-scholar model--deeply engaged in both teaching and scholarship. Their professional activities from labs to archives to performance spaces reflect our commitment to student learning and to studying and solving the greatest challenges facing us as a species and a society. To name but two examples, Professor of Public Health Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh was awarded a $3.2M National Institute of Health grant to study the impact of public health nutrition policies on academic performance among California’s children. And Professors Ed Cheng and Ahmad Ganji of the School of Engineering were awarded a $3.75M grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish and lead the new Western Regional Center of Excellence to train a new generation of clean energy engineers and improve energy efficiency among manufacturers.

SF State continues to develop new programs to meet the social, economic, and climate challenges of the 21st century, including the new School of the Environment and new academic concentrations and certifications in Analytics and in Entrepreneurship, among others. And we continue to grow our strong partnerships with industry partners as the College of Professional and Global Education did with Genentech to create a professional certificate in Data Science and Machine Learning for Biotechnology Professionals.

Meeting the needs of our region is critical to us, as we saw when the College of Professional and Global Engagement developed an initiative to offer free and discounted courses to support unemployed workers who have been impacted by recent layoffs in the San Francisco Bay Area. And we never lose our focus on students.

Evidence of our strong support for students abounds, particularly as we intensify our efforts to increase our student success rates. To highlight but a tiny sample:

  • The Library Information Technology staff provide thousands of students with laptops with long-term and short-term laptop loans.
  • The Affordable Instructional Materials initiative provides support to SF State faculty to adopt free or low-cost materials for their students—last year students saved over $100,000 in instructional costs as a result.
  • And in larger numbers than ever before and with greater intentionality, students have access to peer mentors to help guide their paths at SF State in programs that benefit both new and returning students.

Nothing demonstrates the value of and robustness of a university more so than new buildings. I am happy to report that, as all can see, we have made great progress on our two newest environmentally sustainable buildings. The Science & Engineering Innovation Center will open in Spring 2024 and will provide our students, faculty, and staff with state-of-the-art labs and classrooms, as well as spaces for advising and informal gatherings. The building will also serve as the new home for the College of Professional & Global Education. And West Campus Green will soon be home to two new buildings—a residential community for 750 first-year students and a new home for student health services, counseling & psychological services, and health promotion and wellness. We expect to welcome students to the new residence hall a year from now, and with 65% of the project funded by the state, it also allows us to reduce the cost of housing for 750 low-income students.

Thank you to the administrators and staff in Administration & Finance for all the work to prepare the University for Fall 2023. We return to expanded and improved Wi-Fi coverage in SF State’s outdoor spaces, including parking lots—an improvement I know will be appreciated by all. And we return to a safer cyberworld, thanks to IT’s work to enable two-factor authentication—I thank, as well, all the students, faculty, and staff who patiently worked through the change.

I want to offer a special thanks to our groundskeepers, custodians, trades people, and all staff who spent the summer improving campus facilities for our students. I encourage all to take some time this fall and walk our beautiful campus.

I am grateful to our colleagues in University Advancement and the SF State Foundation who continue to work tirelessly to garner us the extramural funding needed to support our students. This year we surpassed our $20m fundraising goal for second consecutive year, including multiple commitments to the new science and engineering innovation center from new donors. We welcomed six new Directors to the SFSU Foundation Board, further extending our leadership in the CSU and nationally as having among the most diverse university-affiliated boards and rolled out the university's first enrollment-focused branding and marketing campaign.

The success of all this work is evident in the remarkable accomplishments of our talented students.

As always, we shone at the CSU Student Research Competition. Three of the ten students that represented SF State took home awards for their research—a reflection of both their hard work and their faculty mentors. I offer my congratulations to

  • Morgan Butler, Broadcast & Electronic Communication Arts
  • Daniel Dubrovsky, Quantitative Economics
  • Preet Agnihotri, Astronomy and Astrophysics

The success of our students—and by reflection the success of SF State—is best demonstrated by a small sampling the accomplishments of the Class of 2023. This includes:

  • Ki Singh who represented SF State at the American Forensics Association National Speech Tournament and earned third place nationwide.
  • Johan Casal who completed his degree while serving as a lead dancer for Netflix’s The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience and launching his own film company.
  • Michelle Fu who volunteered over 200 hours in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program—providing free tax preparation to lower-income Bay Area residents.
  • Wallace Lee Vincent who earned a 4.0 at SF State, served as a tutor and peer mentor, and is now at the University of Chicago earning a master’s in Public Policy.
  • And Maria Austin-Castillo graduated with a 3.8 GPA earned while also working more than full-time, doing her schoolwork after completing the midnight shift, all while separated from loved ones in Nicaragua.

I am proud to share that we find ourselves increasingly recognized for our mission and work:

  • Money awarded SF State 4.5 out of 5 stars in their “Best Colleges in America 2023” in recognition of the value of what we do and in recognition of the ways in which traditional rankings further privilege already privileged elite institutions.
  • US News and World Report ranked us #15 for “Top Performers on Social Mobility—” a ranking I value more than most others.

Our recognition comes at a moment when the U.S. is once again wrestling with the inequities that underlay our system of higher education.  

Much higher education news this summer was consumed by the Supreme Court decision to declare affirmative action in college admissions, unconstitutional. I was disappointed by the decision which ignores the reality that race matters, but I was also frustrated by the obsession with admissions to elite universities. It’s been refreshing to see legal lenses and media coverage increasingly turn to the deep inequities built into U.S. higher education. Embedded in this coverage is an affirmation of the value of the work SF State and the CSU do.

In late July, the SF Chronicle took a look at where California’s diverse population attends higher education. Half of CA’s undergraduates attend the CSU—25% attend UCs and less than 1% enroll at Stanford.

The CSU, without question, drives the state’s economy. And it is also the largest driver of the upward mobility of its diverse peoples:

  • 41% of CA’s Asian and Asian American students attend the CSU,
  • 50% of Black students,
  • And 64% of Latinx,

No education system in the US comes close to this! And SF State shines across the state for student diversity.

Out of the almost 200 institutions offering bachelor’s degrees in California, we rank

  • Fourth across all higher ed institutions in the state for Black student enrollment,
  • 12th for Asian and Asian American
  • and 12th for Latinx student enrollment.

I share with you all deep pride in our mission to serve to these students and our successes, but we must all embrace the need to do far better.

A recent report by the Campaign for College Opportunity demonstared that there is still much to be done to close equity and opportunity gaps in student outcomes. While lauding us for gains in graduation rates, the Campaign noted that SF State will fall short of the goals we set for ourselves for 2025. As I have said before, the greatest demonstration of our commitment to social justice starts here by increasing the success of our students, especially our Black, Latinx, and first gen students. And we can do this while continuing the hard work of aligning our enrollments and revenues with our costs. This will not be easy but we will continue to do this in the transparent and collaborative ways modelled by the University Budget Committee. Yes, we will be slightly smaller university but no less mighty in our service to students, the region, and the state. I know we can do this.

As I look forward to this academic year, I am energized by our work with Excelencia in Education and our joint effort with the CSU and USC’s Race and Equity Center to demonstrate our commitment to Black Excellence. I am enthusiastic about our new buildings, our new students and colleagues, and our continued work together.

Our primary focus remains on increasing enrollment through the implementation of our first strategic enrollment management plan housed on our Enrollment Management website. The plan focuses on both recruitment and retention. Retaining the students we already enroll remains our number one priority, but we also face some challenges as we start the new academic year.

While grateful for the additional $227 million in ongoing funding the state provided for the CSU, this falls far short of what we need to support our students and provide fair compensation to all CSU employees. While all are loath to increase tuition, we need a rational consistent approach to tuition in the CSU that allows campuses to create multi-year budgets. And we need the resources for campus operating budgets that ensure student success, support our workforce, and provide for basic campus operations.

We continue our advocacy for additional state support—and the Governor’s and legislature’s commitment to the compact with the CSU and UCs at a time of great deficits and reductions to many state agencies demonstrates the success of our advocacy. But even with this additional funding, the CSU is woefully short of what it needs—and SF State needs—to support our students, faculty and staff.

It is equally critical that we support the financial needs of our students. 60% of CSU students pay no tuition thanks to state and federal aid. The CSU has promised to commit 30% of any tuition increase to financial aid to ensure that students with great financial need retain access to a CSU degree. And the CSU has formed a workgroup, upon which I sit, to develop a comprehensive financial aid strategy and policy that better meets student need.

We must and can remain affordable, just as we must increase our revenues to support our faculty and staff.

Within this context, I am hopeful that the CSU and our unions will soon come to agreements that provide much needed compensation increases to faculty and staff. I am keenly aware that our students’ success rests on your success and I continue to support fair and competitive salaries for all SF State employees.

As we begin the academic year, I encourage all to look for ways to engage, to participate in our community:

  • Volunteer at one of our welcome tables next week—Victor Aguilar in my office would love to hear from you.
  • Check out GatorFest! There’s a link to all the Gatorfest activities on the New Student Programs website –
  • Come cheer on our student-athletes. I relish, in particular, an opportunity to chant Beat LA!
  • Join us for the 2nd annual Discover SF State for prospective students on October 21st, an opportunity to share your enthusiasm for SF State with prospective students.
  • Attend an exhibition, a performance, a lecture—including a reading by the poet Jessica Care Moore in October.
  • Or just enjoy our beautiful campus in community with one another--gather a group of colleagues or students for lunch at Cesar Chavez or a picnic on the Quad.

As always, I thank you for all you do to make SF State a world-class university and a great campus. And wish you all a wonderful academic year.