CSU Stanislaus president has a passion that shows

Fathy and Ham Shirvani prepare pasta to be served to Cal State Stanislaus students in their Turlock home.
Fathy and Ham Shirvani prepare pasta to be served to Cal State Stanislaus students in their Turlock home. Modesto Bee

TURLOCK -- A few years ago, the Cal State Stanislaus men's basketball team was losing a close game.

School President Hamid Shirvani was courtside on the VIP Warrior Row. After a few calls went against the home team, Shirvani was in the referees' faces. He was so caught up in the moment, he had to be restrained by the coach.

The spectacle helped energize the team, which rallied to win by a point. In appreciation of his support, Shirvani was presented the game ball.

Basketball players still talk about the incident, and it is one of student body President Andrew Janz's favorite stories to tell about Shirvani. The anecdote illustrates Shirvani's passion, zeal and animation, Janz said.

But those qualities also lead to combative outbursts that have intimidated some administrators enough for them to leave, according to some of Shirvani's current and former employees and colleagues. They say they felt strong-armed by the strong-willed university president.

Architects are sometimes referred to as engineers with style. Shirvani wears that flair proudly, whether it's in the form of expensive suits, vibrant silk ties, monogrammed dress shirts, a swank president's house on Quincy Road in east Turlock, or the dozens of framed diplomas and awards on the wall in his third-story campus office.

Although Shirvani, 57, commands a room, he's also low-key at times. He can disarm most with a goofy smile and an accent that turns the word "other" into "udder."

Born in Iran, Shirvani attended a Catholic boarding school in England and spent his early adult years on the East Coast of the United States. Shirvani still speaks with a Middle Eastern accent. His personality has the directness and aggressiveness he says carried over from his time in New York as a teacher and administrator. When he gets worked up, Shirvani speaks loudly, sometimes yelling; his hand gestures get wild.

"When you're too passionate about things and show your passion, some people like it. Here, they don't appreciate it. You get a reputation for pushiness, aggressiveness, that you're arrogant," Shirvani said. "In New York, if you're not pushy, you get left behind."

Can see the changes needed

That mix of style and directness is what CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed and the board of trustees were looking for in 2005 when they hired Shirvani, then provost of Chapman University, a private college in Orange County.

Shirvani is Stanislaus State's ninth president since the school opened in 1960.

His so-called bluntness is needed for Shirvani's main objective -- increasing the visibility of Stanislaus State by enrolling more Central Valley students. Shirvani also is focused on turning the commuter school into a prestigious university of choice for nonvalley residents, drawing students for its quality reputation, not just its proximity to home.

Because of his background in architecture, Shirvani "has a good eye for seeing what changes need to be made" within the university's administrative structure and how the college is perceived from the outside, said Carol Chandler, a CSU trustee and farmer in Selma, south of Fresno.

Shirvani considers himself an architect, a teacher and an academic first and foremost, shunning the bureaucracy of administration -- evident through his attempts to hurry the slow-moving academic clock. Although the process frustrates Shirvani, his approach can leave people feeling excluded, professors and students said.

"I want to go faster than (the faculty) want to go," Shirvani said. "We're meeting in the middle. There's been minimal disagreement on what to do and where to go."

Numerous professors contacted for this profile did not return repeated calls or refused to comment, citing the heated political climate found on most univer-sity campuses.

Success in structure, enrollment

Shirvani's biggest accomplishment has been splitting the university's three academic colleges into six to increase manageability of programs, classes, professors and students.

"Modifying the college structure has been talked about for many years, but no one ever moved a plan forward," according to his February evaluation by Reed, Shirvani's boss.

The performance review is done every three years.

Probably Shirvani's most observable achievement is boosting the university's enrollment. More than 8,800 students are taking classes at Stanislaus today, a 42 percent jump in total enrollment over the past decade. The CSU system average increase is 26 percent.

Business junior Omar De La Cruz said he and other students have noticed the additional bodies.

"More students are coming to our school," he said. "Hopefully, it's kind of getting on the map."

Eventually, the campus is expected to enroll 15,000 students. Although the campus is landlocked, the university's master plan calls for more buildings in the empty spaces and additional classes at the university's Stockton campus.

Shirvani plans to make CSI Stanislaus more attractive by building bigger and better facilities. Current campus construction includes a new student recreation complex with a running track, playing fields and larger fitness center, and expansion of the bookstore.

Students look for such amenities, and offering them will bring more foot traffic to the univer-sity, raising awareness about the campus among locals as well as out-of-towners visiting for tournaments or conferences held by the university, Shirvani said.

The president also wants to add majors and boost others, such as the sciences.

One of Shirvani's first actions,and one that made him popular with professors and staff, was increasing salaries. Stanislaus State was losing employees to other campuses, most notably the new and neighboring University of California at Merced, so Shirvani collected $600,000 in his first two years through cost savings to make pay for 325 professors and staff positions comparable to that at other colleges.

Fast pace a concern

While the improvements are good for Shirvani's resume -- and any legacy he might hope for at CSU Stanislaus -- the way in which he's gone about them has concerned some.

"He's not a big bureaucracy person," said Scott Harvey, student body vice president in 2005-06 and who now works in Monterey Bay parks and recreation. "... He's not a person that embraces some of the deliberative parts of the university atmosphere. He's very goal-driven."

Even Reed's recent evaluation noted Shirvani's haste.

"The review also found that President Shirvani's work habits, expectations, style and strategies for completing some objectives are too demanding," Reed wrote in the evaluation. "He prefers to see quick results and grows impatient with delays."

Shirvani slowed his changes during the 2007-08 school year in part to give the six new college deans time to settle in, he said. Others said the slowdown coincided with the last year of his contract and the year he would be evaluated.

Some faculty and staff said they are wary about Shirvani's background at a private university. They worry he wants to transform Stanislaus into a liberal arts college that would focus on academic knowledge over professional or vocational careers.

"I spent five years at (Chapman University); they're ignoring the 22 years of public higher education experience I have prior to that," Shirvani countered.

University and community goals

In his report, Reed established 10 goals for Shirvani. Among them are creating a "cohesive, well-functioning senior management team," continuing "efforts to improve the quality of experience for students," and developing "a plan to build an active alumni association."

Fund raising will continue to be a top task for Shirvani, whether to build up an endowment, collect money for student scholarships or supplement shrinking financial support from the state government.

One of Shirvani's proudest achievements has been establishing the president's and provost's scholarship programs, which give up to $320,000 a year to a number of high-achieving students in an effort to keep the smartest valley students here by offering competitive financial aid pack-ages.

Shirvani also must continue to work to improve relationships between the university and larger community, a common goal for most college presidents.

Community members said they like the fact that Shirvani is living in Turlock.

"The president reaches out to the (Turlock) community. That didn't happen with past presidents, who lived in Modesto," said Turlock Mayor John Lazar, who also noted that Shirvani attends more City Council meetings than past presidents.

But valley residents also want to see him reach out to Modesto, Tracy, Stockton, Patterson and Merced.

"He hasn't been as effective in the area of development as he could be, as he should be," said Stephen Mort, a Stanislaus State alumnus, member of the university foundation's board of directors and head of Modesto-based Don's Mobile Glass. "We need to do a better job in counties outside the city of Turlock, especially the business community."

Part of that is making sure Stanislaus State does its share to increase the number of high schoolers eligible for admission to college by sending counselors and university students to high schools and offering more campus visits for parents of local children and teens, Shirvani said.

As with his counterpart at the University of California at Merced, Steve Kang, Shirvani knows the choices and opportunities a college education can bring. Shirvani is an immigrant who learned English as a second language and who came from a working-class family -- like many of his students.

"The focus was education, not money," Shirvani said. "My father always said, 'You can lose anything you have overnight, but you can't lose your brain.' "

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

Related stories from Modesto Bee