Regalia, traditions reign as CSU Stanislaus inaugurates president

California State University, Stanislaus President Dr. Ellen Junn speaks during the presidential inauguration ceremony at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, Calif., on Thursday, March 30, 2017.
California State University, Stanislaus President Dr. Ellen Junn speaks during the presidential inauguration ceremony at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, Calif., on Thursday, March 30, 2017.

California State University, Stanislaus, celebrated its roots and focused on its future in the inauguration of President Ellen Junn.

Thursday’s ritual came amid what the university has dubbed inauguration season, stretching from the mid-February homecoming to commencement May 25-26.

She took the presidential seat in July. At the ceremony she received its symbol. In keeping with installation tradition, CSU Chancellor Timothy White placed a presidential medallion around her neck, custom cast with the university seal. Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth presented her with the key to the city, citing her support for civic collaboration.

“This is my 10th one of these. It’s like a graduation – it brings the whole campus together,” said audience member Frank Borrelli, campus director of support services.

Junn is the 11th president in the university’s nearly 60-year history and the first Korean-American woman president at any university in the nation.

Amid all the ceremony, Junn put her own stamp on the event to highlight the importance of diversity and personal connections. Regalia-clad faculty marched in to the strains of “A Festival Prelude” as the Ballet Folklorico Anahuac danced before the stage. They walked out two hours later accompanied by gospel tune “Oh Happy Day!” sung by the Modesto Christian Center Choir.

U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera read a poem written for the occasion, slipping in familiar Spanish phrases, urging listeners to come together, create a new moment as a community.

Many of the 13 speakers were the first in their family to go to college, including Maggie White, CSU student trustee and a 2016 Stan State graduate, and student Jesus Alvarado, son of illegal immigrants who never passed fifth grade. His family was deported, but at 14 he came back to California alone to pursue his education.

“This is one of the most diverse CSUs in the system,” said Nicole Larson, president of the Associated Students Inc. “We are here today because we have grit, and so does she,” Larson said, referring to Junn.

“In the world of finance, I have often been the only woman of color at the table,” said State Controller Betty Yee. “And I hope that young women coming up behind me can see that a first-generation American, who entered kindergarten not speaking English, can become anything she sets out to be, even the CFO of the sixth-largest economy in the world.”

Junn, too, is the child of immigrants who came to America after the Korean War. She grew up in segregated Georgia in the 1960s. The experience changed her, she said, announcing the university will create a strategic plan for diversity and inclusion, to foster diversity in staffing, students and campus climate.

The initiative was one of five themes she laid out during her address. Building connections was the first, citing the importance of relationships with faculty to student success, and of networking with neighborhood schools and community colleges to ease the path to a 4-year degree.

“Another important area of relationship-building is to significantly expand and nurture the relationships we have with our regional business, industry, civic, artistic, cultural leaders and organizations, not just in Turlock, but also Modesto, Stockton and the greater Central Valley,” Junn said.

Imagining the future, her second theme, encompassed working with key businesses to develop relevant, cutting edge degree programs, and building so-called soft skills like teamwork and adaptability into college programs and internships. Harnessing technology to equip students for fast-changing jobs market was another theme.

All circled back to creating a supportive, forward-looking community for her campus, where 75 percent of its 9,700 students have parents who never went to college and 63 percent qualify for financial aid.

“Stan State is one of six CSUs that has not raised admissions standards. Thus, even though we welcome a larger share of underserved students who did not have the luxury of strong funding and support in their K-12 schools, we have students who work hard with our faculty and continue to excel and consequently they achieve student retention and graduation rates that surpass many of our other sister campuses,” she said.

Only 18 percent of Central Valley students go on to earn college degrees, Junn said, “Therefore, Stan State will continue to be committed to playing a pivotal role in improving the educational attainment of our region.”

To help make that happen, Junn announced the formation of a Presidential First-Generation Scholars in the Central Valley program, offering support to students who often arrive without the know-how to navigate university paperwork and systems.

“Universities should not simply train students for jobs. Instead, universities should educate students who will change the world for the better,” Junn said.

She also announced the university reflecting pond, a shallow pool set between Monte Vista Avenue and the quad area where ducks paddle and students sometimes row, will be named for Marvalene Hughes, Stan State president from 1994-2005, best remembered for adding campus lakes and landscaping.

Speakers spoke highly of Junn’s first eight months at the helm.

“She’s a listener. She’s someone who likes to work with people,” summed up CSU Trustee Hugo Morales. Speaker of the Faculty Stuart Sims called her a collaborative decision maker. Junn’s husband, retired physicist Allan Greenberg, called his wife’s position “more a way of life,” noting her passion for her work and long hours.

The long wait before the ceremony is a tradition dating at least to former President Hamid Shirvani in 2006. Junn’s predecessor, Joseph Sheley, held a standalone investiture to mark his shift to full president after a year as an interim leader.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin