When CSUB President Horace Mitchell came to Bakersfield in 2004, he soon made it clear he wasn't in town to simply collect a paycheck.
He was here to bring about positive change. He was here to make a difference.
"Cal State will be the best campus in the CSU system by 2014," he told a Californian reporter not long after he arrived. It was a breath of confidence and determination that was welcomed by many who believed the university had not yet lived up to its potential.
After 14 years as the public face of Bakersfield's premier institution of higher learning, Mitchell, 73, is packing up his non-oval office to make room for incoming President Lynnette Zelezny, currently the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fresno State University.
At Friday's commencement, in what is sure to be a bittersweet moment, Mitchell will speak to graduates as university president for the final time.
And while there's no way to objectively know whether his vow to make CSUB "the best" was fulfilled, there is evidence that the university has evolved, grown and expanded its reach during his tenure.
In the years since his arrival, Mitchell has led CSUB to its highest graduation and enrollment rates ever, spearheaded a transition to a NCAA Division I athletics program, earned an invitation to join the Big West Conference, and moved the university from a quarter-based system to a semester-based academic calendar.
“Dr. Mitchell has been a visionary leader during a time of growth and transition at CSUB," CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said Thursday in an email. "The university and Kern County have benefited from his tireless efforts to develop programs and relationships that would support the region."
White lauded Mitchell for his steady hand as CSUB made those huge transitions in academic year scheduling and athletics. But Mitchell's work, he said, has also supported the entire CSU.
"Thanks to the relationships he’s developed with elected officials including Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the entire university has garnered support at the federal level," White said. "As one of our longest-tenured presidents, he’s also been extremely valuable as a mentor to myself and other leaders throughout the system. He leaves very large shoes to fill."
Mitchell was serving as vice chancellor at UC Berkeley when he first got the call from a search consultant that he was being considered for the president's role in Bakersfield.
So he and his wife, Barbara, did some research, took a trip to Bakersfield and visited the campus. He liked what he saw.
"When I got back, I called the search consultants and said, 'OK, throw my hat in the ring.'
"About a month later, when I was announced as one of the three finalists, I said to Barbara, 'You know, this could happen, so we'd better go back down to Bakersfield to make sure that this is what we want to do,' because it's about more than a position of being president. It's also about a new community, new colleagues, new possibilities."
The second trip only served to solidify Mitchell's sense that this was the right place for him, not only because of what it offered, but maybe more importantly, because of what it lacked, what it needed.
After 36 years in higher education, in both faculty and administration, Mitchell believed he had a background and a set of skills that would assist him in moving the campus forward.
"I wanted to do it," Mitchell said, "because my view has always been that I only want to move into positions where I feel I can make a difference."
Over his career, he's been in positions where his primary interest was making a difference for students, Mitchell said.
"But here I've had a chance to make a difference for students, for our university, and to also impact our community in partnership with others in the community like colleagues in K-12 education and community colleges, alumni and other supporters of the university, general community members, and corporate partners."
Earlier this year, CSUB was ranked as the sixth most affordable university across the nation by Best Value Schools, a group that ranks public and private four-year colleges and universities in the United States.
When this ranking on affordability is combined with CSUB's No. 3 ranking for upward mobility of its students in a separate Equality of Opportunity Project report, "it validates our commitment to access, affordability, quality and degree completion," Mitchell told The Californian.
There was a culture here, he said, that viewed higher ed as unnecessary, or even worse, a waste of time. In a community where boys could once skip a chunk of their high school years and still make a good living in the oilfields, such cultures are supported by experience.
But those norms have changed. Only by increasing the numbers of students and graduates could the university begin to fulfill its mission as he saw it.
"Our number of graduates has grown quite dramatically," he said. "And our enrollment has grown dramatically. In the time that I've been here our enrollment has increased by 35 percent — and that was intentional on our part because that's what we felt we needed to do to serve our community."
Sonya Christian, president of Bakersfield College, said Mitchell's impact has indeed been felt in the larger educational community.
"Generations of Kern County and Bakersfield students will benefit from the seeds of vision, hard work, and dedication planted by ... Mitchell," she said.
"The Kern County educational system has never been more connected, more efficient, or more collaborative than now. College transfer rates from Bakersfield College to CSU Bakersfield have bloomed significantly and collaboration between our institutions has strengthened and grown."
During the 2016-2017 academic year, transfers from BC to CSUB increased nearly 22 percent from the year prior, Christian said, and efforts made in collaboration with Bryon Schaefer and the Kern High School District to increase college attendance directly from high school have been highly effective.
"The Kern Promise and the newly adopted Finish in 4 program is substantial evidence of Dr. Mitchell’s footprint which will benefit this community and its students for generations to come," she said.
Mitchell is proud that the university's relationship with local industry has grown under his leadership, and not just in financial support. The university's very curriculum and structure has changed to support new majors, new degrees and even new directions in the areas of agribusiness, petroleum and associated engineering.
Yes, there were efforts that didn't come to fruition, including a planned business park and an on-campus hotel complex that died with the onset of the Great Recession.
But the university's growth and development, its outreach to junior high and high school students, and diverse members of the community point to a dynamism that didn't exist before Mitchell's arrival.
The university even has an office at BC to help make the path between the two institutions easier and more successful for students.
"It has truly been a privilege to partner with Horace during his presidency at CSUB," Christian said. "He has been a true champion for excellence and student success outcomes. His commitment and dedication to diversity and equity has made an indelible impact on our Kern County educational system and is the legacy of his presidency. His transition into a well-deserved and hard earned retirement is one to be celebrated."