Meet the President
On Aug. 1, Leslie E. Wong began his tenure as San Francisco State University’s 13th president. Previously, he served as president of Northern Michigan University. Nearly 100 days into office, he shares his thoughts on becoming SF State’s new leader.
Why SF State?
The chance to lead a campus with a brilliant faculty and a commitment to student success in one of the best cities in the world? This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
How have you spent your first weeks on campus?
Opening the University’s brain and examining it. I’ve been focused on the incredible depth of our faculty research projects, on the main campus and at places like the Romberg Tiburon Center. I’ve watched impressive student performances, and I’ve had the good fortune to meet our graduates who seem to be working in every sector of the community.
Any surprises so far?
I knew the University had plenty of creative talent but the number of alums who have won Pulitzers, Emmys and Oscars astounded me. The music performances by the wind ensemble are at a professional level. The student-athletes have shown me that we have a very competitive program and have impressed me with their intensity and quality of play. Student talent everywhere I turn.
What do you think SF State is doing really well?
Whether it’s advocacy for the aging, helping a nonprofit or feeding the poor, our students, faculty and staff make valuable contributions to the surrounding community. I’m proud to lead a campus where education is intellectually enriching as well as character enriching.
What do you think we could be doing better?
I think we have the potential to build much better bridges to the private sector, to the biotech industry in SOMA, to entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and to the new startups popping up everywhere in San Francisco. After all, we are training the talent that they need.
How do you view the role of University president?
No one person’s vision can move a large complex institution in effective ways. The president is the voice and the catalyst for campus-wide action that represents every student and employee. I have a responsibility to understand and represent their perspectives and distill them into a common vision.
What has prepared you for this role?
My tenure as a president in rural Michigan, where everyone knows you on day one, helped prepare me for dealing with public demands. And in Michigan, economic challenges were apparent much earlier than they were in California, so I’ve had eight years of budget and finance preparation to get me ready for the challenges we face.
Tell us about the role that books have played in your life.
My mother had a third-grade education and my father didn’t continue past high school, but they had great wisdom. My parents encouraged me to learn how to think for myself by reading anything and everything I wanted to read. In grade school I read every book that the Oakland Public Library had on the Civil War. Those books taught me a lot about human and race relations and led me to study psychology.
What motivates you?
Working on behalf of students who understand that education is the only way to create opportunities for themselves and their families. In Michigan I worked with a lot of children of miners and timber workers. I’ve worked in the urban core of Tacoma with Vietnamese refugees. In North Dakota I helped bring wireless broadband to the Standing Rock Reservation to make sure that children had access to all the benefits of information technology. I have always been guided by a desire to help young people realize their full potential.
Your wife, Phyllis, shares your passion for student success.
Yes, you’re going to find us all over campus. I hope students believe there might be four of us cloned attending various events. We’re here to cheer on students, listen to them, and do what we can to help them achieve their educational goals.
How do you continue learning?
Once a year I identify one thing that I know nothing about, and I spend the coming year learning about it, whether it’s women’s literature or outdoor survival skills. I’ve learned how to wire a house, not well but without electrocuting myself. One year I performed in an operetta, and I won’t brag about my talents there either. Right now I’m focused on learning about San Francisco State, but it might be time to see if a professor will let me sit in on a class. My younger brother, who passed away too soon, was a brilliant artist. In honor of him I’d like to learn how to draw.
Describe your leadership style.
Collaborative. We must include the voices of all parts of campus in every decision that we make. In tough times there’s a tendency by administrations to feel that they need to make decisions behind closed doors and in rapid ways, and I think that’s when you have to pause and bring in more people to find new ways to solve problems.
What role do alumni play in advancing the University?
Our graduates help today’s students to think about their future. So many of our alumni have overcome incredible hurdles to earn their diplomas. Students can take a look at them as examples. ‘You know what, if she did it, I can too.’
What is the greatest challenge SF State faces today?
Most people would say it’s our budget, the reduction in funding from the state; I don’t think it is. We have a lot of bright people ready to stand up and meet the financial challenges. I think that the greater challenge is losing sight of our mission. We have to make sure we stay true to our values of social justice, equity, community engagement and student success.
This is a new role for you but you’re not new to the Bay Area.
My formative years took place in the East Bay and in San Francisco.
It’s been a 40-year circle to leave and go to college, to raise three children in Washington state and serve in administrative positions at institutions in Colorado, North Dakota and Michigan before returning home. I went out to see the world, and I came home to be effective here.
Did you have a favorite spot back then?
Seal Stadium. My late father took me to my first professional baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He worked 16 to 18 hours a day, and somehow he found the time.
Speaking of baseball, who did you root for in the World Series?
My friends back in Michigan keep asking me the same thing. It’s the best-kept secret.
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