Alexander Gonzalez wanted to take Sacramento State to “a higher level” when he became the university’s president in 2003, vowing to transform the sleepy commuter campus into the centerpiece of the state capital.
Gonzalez added student amenities designed to attract students from across California, including a splashy $71 million fitness center that overlooks Hornet Stadium and a suite-style residence hall.
His grander plans were put on hold as the recession thwarted his efforts to build a new science building, hundreds of new dorm rooms for students and a 5,000-seat events center for sporting events, concerts, lectures and graduations.
“It’s all about timing and, apparently, I’m not very good at it,” Gonzalez said recently from his office in Sacramento Hall. “I came in when it (state funding) was really bad ... and now I’m leaving when things are hopefully looking up.”
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Gonzalez, 69, will step down Tuesday as president of California State University, Sacramento, handing the reins to Robert S. Nelsen. Gonzalez is one of the longest continuously serving presidents in the 23-campus California State University system with 17 years of service between the Sacramento and San Marcos campuses, CSU officials said.
Gonzalez will be remembered by some for his broad vision for the Sacramento State campus, one that may still be realized if funding and political support proves strong enough in the coming years. His tenure was also marked by constant tension with faculty members who criticized him for his use of a campus nonprofit arm and for misplaced priorities during the lean years of the recession.
Gonzalez reinvigorated the CSUS community when he became president, said Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra. “There was a passion that was missing, and he brought the passion back to campus,” he said.
Guerra, who is a former president of the alumni association and was on the selection committee that chose Gonzalez, credits him for strengthening ties to the community and the school’s alumni. The result: $160 million in donations from alumni, businesses and the community since his tenure began.
“His outreach to the community has been stellar,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, noting as an example that Gonzalez has visited churches to encourage minority students to enroll.
Gonzalez learned almost immediately that he would face scrutiny as president of the CSU system’s sixth-largest campus.
Within a month of taking the job, he was criticized for spending $165,000 of the university’s money to remodel his office. That same year, University Enterprises, a private fundraising arm, paid $27,615 for a kitchen renovation in his home. The organization also gave him a home loan at a below-market interest rate.
Gonzalez paid back the loan with interest and defended the renovation, saying he used the kitchen for university events he hosted.
Then there was the flap about the chickens, which regularly roamed the campus for years. Soon after Gonzalez arrived, they were gone. The disappearance of the unofficial mascots angered many community members.
Then-CSU Chancellor Charles Reed told Gonzalez to have the chickens removed, said campus spokesman Phillip Garcia.
“It was his first assignment,” Garcia said.
In 2007, Gonzalez drew the ire of the Humane Society of the United States and other animal advocates when he wrote a letter to help potential donors hunt exotic animals in Tanzania in order to stock a campus natural history museum. He later abandoned that plan and said he regretted the letter.
That same year, a faculty no-confidence vote passed with 77 percent of the vote, and professors questioned the president’s use of school funds.
“I think the president was really chagrined about that,” said Kevin Wehr, president of the California Faculty Association Capitol Chapter.
Gonzalez now says he believes the vote was part of a larger propaganda campaign by faculty that he says also targeted presidents at CSU campuses in Humboldt, Sonoma and Stanislaus. He said faculty at CSU campuses were “unhappy with resources and unhappy with the chancellor.”
“On this campus they came after me because I represent change,” he said. “It’s the ebb and flow. Educational institutions are like any organization. There are always politics.”
This May, the CSUS Faculty Senate put the past aside and offered a resolution of commendation to Gonzalez. They praised him for raising the the profile of the university, being a champion of higher education for the disadvantaged and underrepresented, and praised him for collaborating with the faculty.
Wehr, one of the president’s most vocal detractors, said Gonzalez did “some good things for the campus. My assessment would be that we can do better.”
Other accomplishments include establishing the first doctorate programs at the 28,500-student campus. Doctorate degrees in physical therapy and education were added, as was an international business master’s program that serves students in Singapore. Sacramento State also built a field house and converted a former CalSTRS building into a nursing school during his tenure.
Gonzalez will spend one semester on the faculty after he steps down. He said student relationships were most important to him, and newfound pride in the campus is one of his biggest accomplishments.
“It’s palpable,” he said. “They are glad to be here. They know it’s a good campus, there are good programs, good faculty, despite the fact tuition has gone up.”
Outgoing student body president Lauren Lombardo, a 20-year-old from Ventura, said she has been told that in past years most Sacramento State students took classes and went home. She sees the campus now as vibrant and busy.
“I really do think that the president made that happen,” she said. “He redefined what being a Sac State student is. He took a campus that was pretty much a physical space for people to go and learn and he turned it into a campus community.”
Career: President, California State University, Sacramento, 2003-present; president, CSU San Marcos, 1997-2003; provost and vice president for academic affairs, CSU Fresno, 1991-97; professor, CSU Fresno, 1979-91; teaching assistant and instructor, UC Santa Cruz, 1976-79.
CSUS expansion: Folsom Hall, 2011; The Well fitness center, 2010; American River Courtyard, 2009; Broad Fieldhouse, 2008; Upper Eastside Lofts (off-campus), 2007; Hornet Bookstore, 2007.
Education: Doctorate, psychology, UC Santa Cruz, 1979; master’s degree, psychology, UC Santa Cruz, 1977; attended Harvard Law School, 1972-74; bachelor’s degree, history, Pomona College, 1972.