Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez announced Thursday he will retire at the end of the academic year, ending a leadership run marked by noteworthy campus improvements and recurrent friction with faculty members.
Gonzalez, 68, broke the news to a crowd gathered at the campus union to hear his fall address, which turned out to be the final edition of his annual speech.
Since taking the helm in 2003, Gonzalez has worked to transform the 28,500-student commuter campus into a residential university by adding amenities and searching for ways to leverage private money. His Destination 2010 initiative brought a $71 million fitness center called The Well, a towering structure that overlooks Hornet Stadium, and a suite-style residence hall. The university also built a new field house along the south side of Hornet Stadium, conceived as a way to attract better athletic recruits.
“It was a difficult decision because I feel there is much more work to be done,” Gonzalez said. “And while I’d like to be the one to continue the momentum we’ve built, I also know that it is the right time for me to make the transition and let someone else lead this great institution.”
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Under Gonzalez, California State University, Sacramento, launched an international business master’s program that serves students in Singapore and has added other graduate programs in health and education.
Notable construction projects included a new bookstore, parking structure and converting a former CalSTRS building into a home for the nursing school. The school’s private nonprofit affiliate, University Enterprises Inc., signed a 15-year agreement in 2007 for off-campus lofts at 65th Street and Folsom Boulevard within walking distance of the campus and surrounded by student-friendly eateries. It was to create an adjacent off-campus neighborhood similar to those found in college towns.
“We are a destination, a valued educational resource and source of pride for the community that we serve,” Gonzalez said in his address. He said students “come not just to park and leave, but to stay and enjoy what we have built.”
Supporters lauded Gonzalez’s vision to expand the university’s reach and his ability to raise money, including $160 million through the Green and Gold fundraising event started in 2005.
“I think the university has really grown a lot under President Gonzalez’s leadership and I think he has expanded the campus is a very good way,” said Lauren Lombardo, president of Associated Students Inc., the campus’ student government organization.
“He does really love and care about the students,” she added. “He is very big on shared governance and making sure the students’ voices are heard.”
But others during his tenure said the president ignored rules to generate private money for his projects – and occasionally for himself.
Faculty critics criticized the hiring of his son to promote the Destination 2010 initiative. They seized on a $27,615 kitchen renovation of his home, as well as a 2003 home loan at a below-market interest rate, both paid by University Enterprises. Gonzalez later paid back the home loan in full with interest and defended the renovation because he said he used the kitchen for university events he hosted.
CSUS also relied on University Enterprises to purchase the nearby CalSTRS building for $35.3 million near the height of the real estate market in 2007. When the market tanked and University Enterprises could not lease out space, the university paid the nonprofit $5.7 million to rent empty cubicles in 2009.
The nonprofit’s actions ultimately drew an audit from the state attorney general’s office, which determined that University Enterprises should not have paid for the kitchen renovation but cleared the group on the home loan and CalSTRS deal.
In 2007, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal advocates rebuked Gonzalez for writing letters to help potential donors hunt exotic animals in Tanzania that could stock a campus natural history museum, a plan that was abandoned.
“He has certainly made some controversial decisions and decisions that have gotten him into hot water with the faculty and staff,” said Kevin Wehr, president of the California Faculty Association’s Sacramento chapter. Wehr called Gonzalez’s early tenure “contentious,” but said the president has taken the “criticism to heart” and made positive changes over the years.
In a 2007 interview, Gonzalez said he walked onto the Sacramento State campus with a target on his back – a comment on his relationship with the school’s faculty. Earlier that year, a faculty no-confidence vote passed with 77 percent of the vote. Like other public universities, CSUS saw faculty cuts and fee hikes, with tensions peaking in 2011 when students and the California Faculty Association held a four-day protest in the administrative building.
Wehr said the faculty is ready for a change, but “I don’t mean that in a pejorative way.”
“I think most folks on this campus appreciate his good qualities and are ready for a change,” Wehr said. “We congratulate him on his retirement and wish him well in whatever endeavors he chooses next.”
Tony Sheppard, chair of the faculty senate from 2009 to 2012, called Gonzalez “a good president.” He said the shared governance of the academic policies of the campus between the Faculty Senate and administration were “respectful and productive.”
Sheppard said he met with the other chairs of other CSU faculty senates regularly. “My impression is we had one of the most functional relationships between the 22 campuses,” he said.
Hiring a new president is expected to take about six months, according to the Mike Uhlenkamp, director of public affairs for the CSU Chancellor’s Office. He said the CSU board of trustees could announce a search committee as early as next month. The university system is likely to engage a recruiting firm to help with the search, Uhlenkamp said.
Wehr said he would like to see a new president who thinks of leadership as a cooperative venture – “a public servant, not a corporate-style CEO.”
Sacramento State also will assemble a group of faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community to act as an advisory committee. The two committees will hold a public forum to determine the characteristics the community would like to see in a president. The advisory committee will give input on selecting the finalists, and trustees will make the final choice.
Gonzalez’s total compensation was $370,000 in 2013, according to state data. That included a base $295,000 salary and $60,000 for housing.
He and his wife, Gloria, plan to stay in Sacramento. He said he plans to remain on the university’s faculty, teaching either education or psychology.
Gonzalez said Thursday that his retirement plans shouldn’t affect the campus initiatives he announced in his fall address. He said he will have a year to set a new 2020 strategic plan in motion before his retirement, noting that it could be adapted by his predecessor. The proposal sets goals for improving student performance, increasing faculty research and working with feeder high schools and community colleges to reduce the need for remediation by 2020.
Gonzalez is distinguished as one of the longest continuously serving presidents in the university system with 17 years of service between the Sacramento and San Marcos campuses, according to CSU officials. He also spent 18 years as a faculty member, department chair and provost at CSU Fresno.
“First through his service in the Central Valley and then at campuses both in southern and northern California, President Gonzalez has made an impact on my generations of college students across the state, especially those from underserved communities,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White in a statement. “He has dedicated his professional life to CSU.”
Gonzalez kept the mood of his announcement light, saying his wife would help him out with the transition to retirement by becoming his new chancellor. “I don’t know if I’m looking forward to that or not,” he quipped.
He said it was simply time to retire.
“This will be my 12th year at Sacramento State and my 36th year in the California State University,” he said. “That is a long time. To put it in perspective, when I started teaching at Fresno State in 1979, the first computer spreadsheet had just been released.”