Ending months of speculation, California State University officials announced Wednesday that it had found a successor for Cal State Bakersfield President Horace Mitchell — and that she came from within the ranks of CSU. We spoke with Lynnette Zelezny, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fresno State, who was selected for the role, to discuss her vision for the university, graduation rates, undocumented students, philanthropy and more. (Responses have been truncated for length.)
Q: You’ve been at Fresno State for your entire career, and it seems this would likely be your last stop before retirement. What informed your decision to apply for the top position at Cal State Bakersfield?
A: I have a real passion for serving the Central Valley and that's mostly because the students and people who live here. I'm not a native of California, but when my husband and I were thinking about where we wanted to spend our careers, the Central Valley was our first choice. We knew if we came to work here, every ounce of energy would be valued and make a difference. Going to Kern County will continue to energize me, and it's a beautiful city. The calling is one that's professional, but also very personal.
Q: What’s your vision for Cal State Bakersfield?
A: The vision has to be a shared, collective one with faculty, staff, students and community partners as we move together to build a strategic plan for the future. There's a real opportunity here to further connect the university with regional issues and particularly those related to water, agriculture, energy, transportation and food. That's the core of what the Central Valley represents and so there's great opportunities to align the research and curriculum for students to move into a workforce and have professional opportunities.
Q: As you know, CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White set out a goal of increasing graduation rates by 10 percent over the next decade. How do you plan to achieve that at CSUB? (Note: CSUB currently has a six-year graduation rate of 39 percent. Its goal is 56 percent.)
A: When I started as provost at Fresno State, we were at 48 percent, and now we're at 59 percent. We still have a way to go — we're trying to get to 70 percent. Some strategies to increase those rates are high-impact learning, which is actively involving students in learning and establishing internships and professional opportunities. Another way — and CSUB has a very prestigious recognition as a Carnegie-engaged university — is embracing a strategy and investment in teaching students to learn by serving. Service-learning is a win-win. Students become more engaged in the curriculum and it benefits the community economically. The third is a real point of pride for CSUB, and that's amazing faculty that are involved researchers who can get big grants and put undergraduate research opportunities into their curriculum.
Q: One of the priorities CSU trustee John Nilon said he wants emphasized is bolstering philanthropy for CSUB. How are you planning to do this, and what are some of your past successes?
A: This is one of the things I'm very eager to participate in with the foundation and also in meeting our community partners and alumni and friends in Kern County and beyond. I've been part of two campaigns and our last one was very successful. We had a goal of $200 million and we exceeded that at $214 million. I came from the college of science and math and our culture is one of always being aggressive with grants, especially being a Hispanic-serving institution. We have more opportunities for big grants in the millions of dollars. As provost, this has been part of my work ethic, and I have been very successful in grant awards. Our college of extensions is also an opportunity to offer programming that the public will benefit from, but actually brings revenue back to the university. Those are strategies that have worked well for me at Fresno State.
Q: I know that you were part of an effort in the early 2000s to grant AB 540 scholarships at Fresno State. Talk to me about your commitment to providing education for undocumented students and what more, if anything, could be done for the undocumented population at CSUB.
A: It's an important population, and our mission is to serve deserving students and offer access to educational opportunities. Our DACA students and "Dreamers" are important to that mission and that is the mission of California State University. I stand strong in making sure we provide privately supported funding for our students, and as we move forward in discussions at the political level, to advocate for consideration of our DACA students to receive state and federal funding in the future so they can contribute back to the state that they very much want to serve.
Q: When we talked with Horace Mitchell last year, he emphasized the importance of a college president not only serving the university in the present, but also planning for its future. How will you plan for CSUB’s future?
A: As we move forward, we need to be thinking about how we align our strategic mission at the university with workforce development in the community. I'll be working with faculty, staff and students to engage in conversations about planning our priorities and strategic plan so that we can really leverage the goals of Kern County and really be aspirational and dream big about what Cal State Bakersfield can be.