By Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer
June 04, 2013 - After nearly seven years at California State University, Long Beach, President F. King Alexander is leaving The Beach this month to pursue a new leadership role. Local elected officials, business people and educators agree that Alexander has been a tremendous asset to the university and its students and to the community. He has bestowed a legacy of commitment to public education, student leadership and community involvement in Long Beach.
One of Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster's final actions during his tenure on the California State University Board of Trustees was to chair the search committee for a new president of CSULB. That was 2005. Foster told the Business Journal Alexander was "head and shoulders above anybody we looked at." Alexander had big shoes to fill – those of the beloved Bob Maxson who Foster said did a great job at the university. "King managed it his own way and his own style, and really kept the momentum at Long Beach State as well as become as, if not more, regarded than Bob was."
During the economic recession, which ran through most of Alexander's time here, he not only successfully led the university through difficult times, he continued advocating for state and federal funding of public higher education, often drawing the ire of state officials. During this period, the university experienced record enrollment, graduation rates increased, the endowment grew and new facilities opened, including the Hall of Science and the Student Recreation and Wellness Center.
Although Foster admitted the move to serve as president and chancellor of Louisiana State University is probably a good one for Alexander and his career, he said he would miss him. "The students love him. The faculty gets along well with him. He's been a real force on the trustees – to be able to improve access and keep the system affordable. He's a wealth of data on education and what it produces. He's a very accomplished man. I consider him a friend. He's got a great sense of humor. I understand why he's going. He's given us about seven years of great service. He's done an awful lot for the sports program, too. He really has brought it up several notches. You would not have the competitive basketball program they have without him. I'll miss him."
In an interview with the Business Journal, Alexander discussed the challenges and accomplishments during his tenure as president of CSULB.
LBBJ: What was it about CSULB that drew you to the campus in 2006?
Alexander: Its size. The scale of the operation. It's a beautiful campus. The diversity of Long Beach and of the campus' student body. It's been a real thrill to know and work with student government. They are leaders in more ways than they know. They are leaders as they represent students on campus but, more importantly, the demographics around here are 15 years ahead of the rest of the country. It is where the rest of the country will be 15 years from now.
LBBJ: You came on board during a time of financial hardship at the university and at the cusp of the economic downturn. What would you say has been your toughest challenge dealing with budget cuts?
Alexander: Managing the budget through the worst budget reductions in our history. Not being able to get the State of California to function like it should in supporting public education at all levels. Not being able to reward people for such a high level of achievement in terms of the largest graduating classes in our history – not just enrolling students. The last eight graduating classes have been the largest graduating classes in the university's history at an increase of nearly 2,000 from where we were a decade ago. Everybody has been remarkably supportive and committed.
LBBJ: What goals did you have when you were first brought on as president of the university?
Alexander: Certainly focusing on graduating our students, not just enrolling them [was a major goal]. I'm pleased to say this past year we are at our highest rate. It's almost 57 percent at six years and about 70 percent at seven years. You compare that to the last bad economy . . . in the early 1990s . . . those entering classes had graduating rates at 22 percent and 24 percent. When I got here it was about 44 percent. With the budget reductions that hit us, we were still able to maintain positive growth for our students.
LBBJ: CSULB has a growing number of scholars making the university a top choice school. How do you think CSULB achieved this national recognition?
Alexander: We have worked hard to expand our reputation beyond California. We are now one of the universities that is called by the New York Times, USA Today, Chronicle of Higher Education. When they think about California issues, they call us. It's not just Berkeley and UCLA. Previously, that wasn't the case at all. They just didn't even know all of the schools out in California, how big they are in scale and what they are doing. . . . We've been in their face in Washington. When they picked six public universities to meet with the President of the United States about who is doing a good job in public higher education, we were one of them. We sat at the table with University of Texas and the University of North Carolina. We were the only California institution to be at that table. I hope we maintain that momentum.
LBBJ: How do you see the state of education in California, and in the nation? Do you feel the leadership in the state has impacted the CSU system?
Alexander: I think the state has paid very little attention to public education and has forced not only our schools, but also public colleges and public universities to tread water while demand has never been higher from students. In some ways, we've had to tread water while losing our budgets. In California, just this last year, we fell from 24th in tax efforts to support education to 29th in the country. The only two southern states that are behind us are Virginia and Florida, which means support in California has fallen below Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama. People need to wake up. People like to think that California is at the top of its game all the time. But when this is happening to the next generation of students and children, then there is a quiet decimation of one of the best public school and university systems in the world.
On the national scale, things are continuing to erode. But that is the biggest issue in higher education – an overall abandonment on the part of states to fund their public education institutions. We are at 1963 levels nationwide in terms of funding based on the per capita wealth of the nation, which is a percentage of your income that goes to support higher education. That should be alarming to most people. That's why we spend a lot of time in Washington, to make sure that federal dollars have strings attached so the states have to behave more appropriately if they are going to collect federal monies. That proved very effective for us, especially for California, when the stimulus monies came out.
For instance, what the stimulus money did for us – besides save the Hall of Science and teaching jobs – is we attached a provision to the stimulus money. It passed by one vote, in conference, between the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. It was John Tierney, who chimed into my congressional testimony on this issue. I asked for a Maintenance of Effort provision. Maintenance of Effort says that if we are included in the funding, the stimulus funding, you need to put a provision in there that says the states can't pull their money out and supplant it.
In all three stimulus packages, the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds, the provision said you can only take stimulus money for education if you don't cut higher education below the 2006 funding level. California immediately cut it to the 2006 funding level but would not cut it any further in order to avoid federal penalties – to give back that money. So we sat there for about two and a half years at the 2006 level. If that weren't there, they would have cut us to 1996 levels. That's exactly what happened when the stimulus money stopped. There was no more federal leverage, so they dropped us to 1996 funding levels. Using federal leverage works so darn well. That's what I'm fighting for now.
LBBJ: What is the state of the university's relationship with the community? What more can be done?
Alexander: It's been great. I can't find anybody in Long Beach who doesn't like California State University, Long Beach. I think perhaps the biggest value of not just working with our civic leaders and others, has been our partnership with the schools. The Long Beach College Promise [helping local high school graduates prepare for, enter and complete college] and our relationship with [Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent] Chris Steinhauser and [Long Beach City College President] Eloy Oakley is absolutely a national model. We've met with so many cities and so many organizations to try to replicate this – from San Francisco to Des Moines, from Atlanta to Fresno. They just want to do what we're doing. The White House said it is the best urban partnership in the country. I think our community knows it.
LBBJ: If there were one thing you could have done differently, what would it be?
Alexander: I would say it's not getting the state budget to turn around and appropriately support us, because our success is not being rewarded. At the federal level, it's not getting the G.I. bill changed. I've been working on that since it came out. Right now it supports high cost institutions and gives institutions the ability to benefit by raising fees and tuition more. So we benefit the least. I'm going to keep fighting those fights. That's disappointing.
LBBJ: What has been your greatest achievement as president of the university?
Alexander: It is this university becoming a national model for what should be done the right way, and by that I mean our highest graduation rates, our largest graduation numbers, and doing it with the lowest student debt in America. The degrees we're granting are still very valuable in the marketplace. We have quietly become a national model. That's why we were invited to the White House, because we were able to do things a lot of schools say they can't do. We're not the cause of the college cost crisis. We are not the cause of the student indebtedness – the $1 trillion issue. We are not the cause of the problems that have been created in American higher education. We are actually one of the good guys in all of this. When they differentiate the good guys from the bad guys, we are standing there as one of the best in the country.
LBBJ: What were you anticipating your future to be when you came to Long Beach?
Alexander: Just building on the strengths of the university and tackling the weaknesses of it. We needed to build our endowment. We've gone from $24 million to $50 million. That's a first time for us. We've built up our research capacity. We nearly reached $50 million in research funding for the first time in our history last year. Those are just two highlighted weak areas that we had.
LBBJ: Did you think you would potentially be a successor to the chancellor of the CSU?
Alexander: There were a lot of inquiries about that but I didn't apply. I think the dynamics were changing a little too much. I'm glad Tim is there. I'm glad we got Tim White. At some point I thought about that a lot, but at the time of the chancellor's departure and the dynamics of state changes, I thought it was best to stay close to home here and stay on campus.
LBBJ: If you could leave a note for the next president, what are the top three things you would tell him or her about the campus?
Alexander: Don't forget about our students. Don't forget about our students. And don't forget about our students. Everything else falls in place. We have 36,000 students, but don't make it feel that way. Make it feel much smaller, a much better family.
LBBJ: What legacy do you want to leave at CSULB?
Alexander: I think that our campus has never been more attractive to students. Our students are achieving their goals in record numbers and record rates. I hope that continues. Our students have better facilities. They are here more often, and they want to be here more often. That is a combination of feeling safe on campus and getting what you want on campus. Ultimately, I hope that we have achieved a big part of the goal, which is to shake off the commuter crutch. I thought we used the crutch of being a commuter school for too long. It was a crutch that disadvantaged our students. Our engagement with the community has never been stronger. We moved the Southern California Special Olympics here. The Relay for Life is here. All of the thousands of hours thousands of our students put into the community – our students are everywhere.