Nan Austin

University transition comes with Turlock’s star rising

Stanislaus State’s outgoing president, Joe Sheley, prepares to honor graduate Gladys Kiesz Duncan at a commencement ceremony Friday, May 27, 2016. Sheley will leave at the end of June after four years in Turlock.
Stanislaus State’s outgoing president, Joe Sheley, prepares to honor graduate Gladys Kiesz Duncan at a commencement ceremony Friday, May 27, 2016. Sheley will leave at the end of June after four years in Turlock. jlee@modbee.com

The collegial style of Joe Sheley was a breath of fresh air when he came to Turlock four years ago to lead California State University, Stanislaus.

He took the reins from a more contentious leader, Hamid Shirvani, best known in town for a costly and fairly pointless campaign to rename Monte Vista Avenue as University Way, and using $75,000 in university donations to bring Sarah Palin to town.

Before Shirvani came Marvalene Hughes, who also had a prickly relationship with the faculty. Years later she is best remembered for transforming the campus landscape.

Sheley never dug ponds or changed the campus address. He leaves only a modest physical imprint – improvements to the science building chief among them.

But what he did build was bridges.

Turlock’s downtown has revived, the most active hub near a studio and art gallery created by the university, the Art Space on Main. Stan State student Josephine Hazelton interned with the city of Turlock doing a transit study and recommended changes in city bus routes, in part with better routes to the university.

Stan State this year had a representative, student Maggie White, on the California State University Board of Trustees.

It got it own app, with maps, current events and student links.

Sheley also brought the university into a countywide coalition with schools and nonprofits to create pathways to college, the Stanislaus Education Partnership.

Those ties may well be more lasting and of infinitely greater impact than the grassy knolls and street signs of his predecessors. Turlock feels more like a college town now than at any time in memory, and I graduated from Stan State in 1979.

“We’re not simply here. We’re here making a difference,” Sheley said in a speech in August, ticking off high ranks on collegiate listings, regional sports awards and extensive student community service.

Over the past two years, the Princeton Review put the university among the top 15 percent of colleges nationwide. Money Magazine called it best in the nation for helping unlikely students succeed, and the U.S. Department of Education placed it among the top 12 Hispanic-serving institutions.

Sheley was among the first-generation collegegoers he championed from the third-floor office. As president, his writing initiative went to the heart of practical knowledge he saw students needed.

In retirement, Sheley said he will return to his longtime home of Sacramento, where he hopes to continue that work, helping “the B students” in local high schools get the scribe skills they will need to succeed. But first, he and wife Bernadette Halbrook will travel, decompress and learn to slow down.

“You miss having your mind that active,” he said before hopping in a golf cart to head to the graduation last week. But on the other hand, he added, “Always having so much on your mind – to go to a Giants game and you don’t know the score?”

That he will not miss. Still, he has a lot to do before July 1. Besides “bunches of lunches, bunches of packing,” there is a budget to finalize and some issues to wrap up.

With the ink now dry on hard-fought faculty raises, each CSU campus budget has to recalibrate to accommodate the expense.

An intracampus dispute over the future of a student support program whose grant had run out remains to be resolved. The PACE program served a small segment of the campus’s first-generation students. It provided a high level of counseling, peer grouping in an extended first-year English course and a clubhouse-type office where students could always find a friendly face and a free printer.

A tug-of-war over money allocated for student supports had broken out between PACE and other interest groups. Sheley said a committee tasked with finding a way to use what worked for PACE on a wider scale has submitted its report. Enough counselors to fill the bill will be a challenge, but finding a way to create a student hangout area might be possible, even with the space constraints of a campus built for roughly 6,500 that now serves 9,200 students.

How all the pieces will fit together has not been worked out. But Sheley said he likes the overarching goal of strengthening the university’s student supports, for all first-generation kids and for those with challenges outside the grant-circuit spotlight.

The University Student Union – funded and directed by students – will also be adding services, including a quiet area with napping pods, in a $52 million complete remake of the building. Construction is expected to start in 2017 and finish in 2019.

A study on the campus gender gap may be ready in the next few weeks. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Stan State students are female.

“We are way short on males,” Sheley said. While there is a gender gap nationwide, he added, the university is looking into where men are missing the boat here. Are fewer meeting high school course requirements? Fewer applying? Or are they leaving to support families midway through?

That report may not be finished on Sheley’s watch. If it comes after June 30, it will land on the desk of incoming President Ellen Junn.

Junn has helped put in place a number of innovative, practical freshmen support programs at CSU Dominguez Hills in recent years that have paid off in more sticking it out to become sophomores.

Her research has focused on effective teaching for higher education and early education, the before and after of K-12 systems, and on educational equity. Equity, meaning how best to help the low-income, first-generation, English-as-a-second-language students that are the majority of CSU Stanislaus and CSU Dominguez Hills students.

She speaks of the Central Valley as a place where good things can happen over the next few years, with collaboration and strong leadership.

And, I would add, with leaders who understand the challenges and have a passion for finding what works. Initial assessment: Turlock’s on a winning streak.

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