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Office of the President

Speeches and Addresses

Speech by Interim President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval
Delivered at the Spring 2021 Faculty and Staff Assembly

January 19, 2021

Good morning faculty and staff of Fresno State! I truly appreciate your taking the time to join us virtually today, and I am thrilled to launch our 2021 Spring Semester, with each one of you.

I want to begin by thanking you for your resilience, dedication, and focus during these challenging times.

To begin, the following campus leaders deserve recognition for their ongoing efforts: 

Professor Thomas Holyoke — with whom I’ve worked closely for years — for his continued and trusted leadership of the Academic Senate. Along with Dr. Holyoke, I’d like to recognize our Academic Senate’s work in becoming the first — and, as of the new year, the only — CSU to implement the Ethnic Studies policy.

Belinda Munoz, for her dedicated and creative leadership of the Staff Assembly;

Georgianna Negrón-Long, for beginning her tenure as Chair of the Joint Labor Council;

and Elizabeth Rocha Zuñiga, for her capable leadership of the Associated Students.

My immense gratitude goes to my colleagues in the President’s Cabinet for their expertise and partnership during these unprecedented and defining times in our University’s history; together we have risen to the occasion to implement processes and make decisions that promote the greater good of our students, faculty, and staff.

Specifically, I want to thank Dr. Xuanning Fu for serving as Interim Provost and Shirley Armbruster for returning to serve as Interim Director of University Communications.  And I’d like to thank all of you, who have supported me throughout my time at Fresno State. 

Especially, though, I’d like to take a moment for all of us to recognize Dr. Joseph I. Castro — the new Chancellor of the 23 campuses in the California State University system.

After his seven years of service to Fresno State and the region we serve, Dr. Castro’s appointment as Chancellor is historic. To have one of our own — a Valley native — selected as the first Californian, first Mexican-American chancellor to oversee the nation’s largest university system is an inspiration to our Valley, our California, and our nation. 

I feel privileged to have learned from Dr. Castro during the past seven years.  I admire the way that Dr. Castro led our University with the utmost integrity, humility and kindness.  He and First Lady Mary inspired us to be bold in thought and action.

Today, I stand before you humbled to be chosen to serve as your interim president. The responsibilities of this job are immense, especially at a time like the present. I am honored to embrace this role as I am committed to guiding our campus to reach new heights.

Though I’ve already had the privilege of meeting many of you over our years together at Fresno State, I’d like to take a moment to share a bit of my personal story with you.

I’ll start by thanking my wife, Dr. Mariana Anagnostopoulos.  Mariana is an Ancient Greek philosopher and a Fresno State professor in the Department of Philosophy.  Our children, Arion and Leo, are a continuous source of inspiration, as is my extended family, who have supported me in every step of my career.

My journey to becoming interim president at Fresno State began at home. Growing up in Mexico, I had two amazing parents who loved me, established clear expectations, and taught me the value of hard work.  I am also deeply influenced by my siblings. As the youngest of 8 children, I was exposed to music and reading by my five sisters; but more than anything, they taught me to face life with determination and optimism. From my two brothers I learned to explore art and nature.  I would spend entire afternoons with my oldest brother painting, or entire Saturdays going hiking with my middle brother.  And all of these lessons proved essential when I moved to Fowler in 1980; at that point, the entire family pulled together to ensure the success of our small family farm.

It was at the age of 10 that I learned to appreciate our fertile Valley land; it teaches us discipline because it requires intentional and constant attention.  Teamwork and community are built around it, because the success of the crop depends on our collective strength.  And this land of the San Joaquin Valley reinforced the value of labor:  After months of tending the land, caring for the plants, watering, and fighting off armies of hungry pests, all the work pays off, and the fruit that we harvest is beautiful, healthy, and satisfying. 

These lifelong lessons stayed with me. That’s why, after my Ph.D., and considering job offers from universities far and wide, I knew I wanted to return here, to a place of deep personal significance, where I felt I could make an impact. 

I give you this brief context of my personal life in order to frame the vision I have as interim president.  My vision, therefore, is not theoretical.  On the contrary, it is deeply rooted and grounded in my love for and connection to our Valley; I take joy in the energy I see in Fresno, with its many communities that have settled here and now call this fertile land their home.

Mariana and I are attached to this heartbeat of California, our Central Valley that offers so much to us - a warm community, bountiful fruits and vegetables, and a symphony of cultures.  As we have been members of the university community for over two decades, this commitment is a family enterprise for Mariana and me. 

I am passionate about Fresno State. It is the intellectual and cultural keystone of the Central Valley with a demonstrated power to transform individuals and improve the quality of life in our region. I take great pride in participating in this standard for excellence that guides our students to reach their fullest potential. 

The cornerstone of my vision as interim president begins with our students. Based on almost 15 years of teaching at Fresno State, I firmly believe in the unlimited potential of our students.  Our students come to us from varied backgrounds and experiences that create in them a thirst for knowledge and a deep appreciation for the opportunity that higher education represents to them and their families.

I know that you, like me, strive to excel and seek new ways to further our educational mission.  Life is about change, and change brings about the opportunity to become greater and stronger, and to collaborate in new ways.  We are continuously called to become even greater, by working in a uniquely cohesive and creative manner, in order to further our most noble cause of empowering every student for success. Personally, that’s what fuels me, to know and see -- first hand -- that we create good change in our students, who in turn make their families proud and become leaders in our communities. 

I acknowledge that these times have brought challenges of all kinds, but I applaud how you are facing adversity and are so passionately focused on your life mission to educate and to serve.

Our faculty, with the crucial support of staff, helped our students finish the spring 2020 semester with higher cumulative grades than the year before, and we had a record number of more than 6,000 graduates!   Here is a special shoutout to Terry Tumey, Director of Athletics:  All of our more than 500 student athletes have a GPA of 3.0 or above! 

I want to highlight the work of the Center for Faculty Excellence. In the summer, more than 700 faculty signed up for training to learn best practices for teaching virtually. 

Our IT team, led by Vice President Orlando Leon, was instrumental in supporting them with virtual teaching and virtual conferencing.

While many universities suffered a decline in enrollment in Fall 2020, we welcomed our largest incoming class — and that’s a credit to the level of engagement and creative lessons that every one of our faculty showcased and the unwavering commitment of staff to the students we serve.  Dr. Coon and her team, specifically Dr. Malisa Lee and Phong Yang, are to be commended for leading a concerted effort in recruiting our students. 

The work of our faculty is impressive.  You are incredibly creative, finding ways to reinvent the style, approach and concept of producing and assimilating knowledge. As we enter this new year, we will continue to make thoughtful, strategic decisions in the best interest of our students, faculty and staff as we make every effort to realize our goal—and the CSU’s goal—to return to mostly in-person instruction in fall 2021.

This spring, the majority of our students will attend classes virtually, but we anticipate offering more than 300 in-person courses on campus. This is about three times more than last fall.  These courses are necessary to ensure that our students are able to graduate in a timely manner and to meet our accreditation standards.

I am happy that we were the first in the CSU to offer COVID-19 testing.  As we begin our new semester, we will continue to encourage monthly testing for students, faculty, and staff who are approved to be on-site, and we strongly encourage our entire campus community to diligently follow all COVID-19 protocols. The more fully we adhere to these protocols now, the sooner we can return to our beautiful campus, enjoy each other’s company, and celebrate the activities, events, and sports that engage our students, alumni and community.  As you can tell, I’m excited to begin planning our return to campus.

We have much to celebrate as a campus community. This past year, even amidst the challenges we faced, the results of our focus on excellence was recognized with several distinctions, such as our No. 3 national ranking in graduation-rate performance among public universities, according to U.S. News and World Report.

During my time as interim president, we will continue to strive for excellence in all aspects of the University experience. I have several goals as part of my vision to position our campus for ongoing success.

Most important is a clear focus this Spring semester on maintaining a safe environment for the 11 percent of our students, faculty and staff who will be on campus. We also will work closely with Athletics to provide as many opportunities as possible for our dedicated student-athletes to practice and compete in their respective sports.  Likewise, we will work with departments, such as Chemistry and Music, to provide opportunities for their students to learn in a safe, responsible way.

I will charge our very competent and efficient Task Force, co-chaired by Vice President Debbie Astone and Interim Provost Dr. Xuanning Fu, to draft a plan to repopulate our campus in Fall 2021, and share details with you in the coming months.  We anticipate that about 70 percent of Fall courses will be in person, and about 30 percent will remain virtual, as we foresee that some students and faculty will choose to continue virtually during this transitional period.

Additionally, in partnership with you, I want to empower our students to open their eyes to the world of knowledge and graduate with a new understanding of their own value.  Primary amongst my goals is to elevate our four-year graduation rates.  The more students who graduate in four years, the more we can impact the quality of life in our Valley.  Indeed, a healthy economy is based on university graduates who infuse their knowledge into the community.  While 33% of 25 year-olds have a bachelor’s degree or higher in California, only 20% do in Fresno.  The growth of a more vibrant society, a stronger economy, and a more engaged and respectful citizenry is clearly aligned with a higher rate of university degrees.

In particular, four-year graduation rates will improve with intentional advising and tutoring in specific, challenging classes.  I know that this method works, because as a student, I, too, needed a boost in key classes that ensured my early academic success.

Moreover, I’m focused on strengthening the ties we have with our partners in industry to increase experiential learning, so that students graduate with degrees that will readily promote innovation and growth. 

*Together* we will highlight the value of Fresno State — both as a pillar of academic excellence in our region, and as a major driver of the Valley’s economy. 

Let us extend our efforts in sharing the University’s story and elevating our brand in a way that demonstrates Fresno State’s value and fosters a culture of philanthropy in our community and beyond.  In times like these, we especially rely on the private support of our generous alumni and friends to help us provide opportunities for our students and student-athletes, and continue to build and maintain a campus that will serve this region for generations.

Join me in showcasing the greatest story in the Valley:  We empower individuals to become leaders in our communities. Specifically, it is time to bring attention to our graduate degrees.  A graduate degree augments leadership opportunities.  We offer 47 graduate degree programs that are essential to the vibrancy and success of our Valley, including three doctorates: Educational Leadership, Physical Therapy, and Nursing Practice, as well as 13 certificates of advanced study.  As an example, close to 60% of the administrators in education in the region have a graduate degree from the Kremen School of Education and Human Development.  And how about a field as critical as any profession in the world right now? We continue to produce hundreds of healthcare professionals who will serve on the frontlines immediately after graduation—from nurses and speech pathologists to researchers and future doctors, such as Alyssa Rivera and Jennifer Phan, who were recently featured in Fresno State Magazine. 

The pandemic gave us the opportunity to slow down, reflect, and plan ahead.  And our Fresno State community responded like never before. From our brilliant engineering students who worked tirelessly to produce face shields and PPE for local hospitals, to our ag and water experts working on our world-class University farm, to our political science faculty sharing their expertise with media during an election year, to our next crop of business leaders and entrepreneurs, to our artists who shone brightly, to our social scientists and humanists who spoke with clarity to urgent issues of racism, Fresno State showcased its excellence in teaching our students how to face adversity with creativity, resilience, and innovation.   

Heartfelt thanks to Vice President Paula Castadio for championing a greater awareness of our noble purpose and mission, which increased philanthropic giving to Fresno State by 19 percent in 2019-20.  We are working campus-wide to meet our $28 million fundraising goal for this fiscal year.  Through rallying campaigns like our recent successful annual online Day of Giving, to major gifts such as the $5.5 million from The Perenchio Foundation, our alumni and friends continue to invest in our important academic and athletic endeavors, thanks to the stories of impact you deliver and share.

As you and I embark on our wide range of roles and responsibilities at the University, drawing on our diverse expertise in a multitude of specialties, we serve as the greatest champions of our Fresno State brand.

I’d like to recognize just a few of the many individuals and teams on campus who have done extraordinary work recently.

Philosophy professor Dr. Veena Howard has worked diligently to educate the campus and community through a newspaper editorial and webinars with civil rights icons and scholars in order to further the cause of peace and nonviolence. She introduced over two dozen new donors to our campus to create an unprecedented shared gift to support an endowment for a Jain and Hindu Dharma Chair, the first of its kind in the United States.  Dr. Howard’s relationship building and cultivation of resources highlight the importance of faculty in our community development and fundraising efforts.  Thank you, Dr. Howard!

Dr. Zhanna Sahatjian’s response to the quick shift to remote delivery of courses in the Management Department was exceptional.  She demonstrated and advocated for high levels of empathy in working with students during this time.  Facing her own challenges as a mother of two young children at home (with her husband as an essential worker in the food industry), Dr. Sahatjian immersed herself in the available literature and shifted her course delivery in creative ways that truly met students where they were, while maintaining teaching effectiveness with 4.9 to 5.0 student ratings. Dr. Sahatjian’s nimbleness and heart increased our digital learning relevance. Thank you, Dr. Sahatjian!

Dr. Joseph Ross has been a leader at Fresno State in the development and implementation of virtual/online learning.  By creating time-stamped videos, recording lectures, and utilizing tablet technology in classes, Dr. Ross is offering students even more ways to succeed. His video on how to record using Zoom has been a widely-used resource as faculty record their lectures and make them available on-demand for students online.  He also represented Fresno State at a CSUPERB conference, where he delivered a great presentation on his lab course that he transitioned to virtual mode in Spring 2020. Dr. Ross embraced technology and shared his expertise to advance our University. Thank you, Dr. Ross!

In addition to our faculty, we owe a great deal of gratitude to our staff.  I’d like to give a special thanks to a small Finance and Administration team of five within Vice President Astone’s division, led by Lisa Kao.  As we navigate the pandemic, they are keeping front and center the health and safety of all of us at Fresno State. Their work has been instrumental in establishing campus guidelines and protocols;  continuously coordinating with public health officials to keep our campus updated; and in providing training in COVID-19 contact-tracing. They manage the online reporting system 24/7 and lead all exposure investigations with care, compassion and attention to detail.  Thank you to the EHS team of Lisa Kao, Michael Burgess, Jamie Horio, Marissa Castillo and John Hung for your exceptional work during this time.

Lastly, I also would like to acknowledge the cross-departmental team led by Vice President Castadio, comprised of:  Nicole Traverso, Careen Wong, and Donna Moreno from University Advancement’s Alumni Engagement office, along with Asheline Beeson from University Advancement’s Brand Strategy and Marketing office.  Since the transition to working remotely, this team’s tireless efforts developed a virtual program platform highlighting the best of Fresno State, our faculty, and students.  These virtual programs have been reaching alumni and friends wherever they are, elevating and strengthening Fresno State’s brand. The spirit of this program truly embodies the Principle of Community, “We are Collaborative.”  They created toolkits, training sessions, and marketing materials for their colleagues to use in developing virtual education and entertainment programs, resulting in 92 virtual events –attracting over 3,100 attendees.  And, on Day of Giving, their work enabled us to deliver 8-and-a-half hours of Fresno State content highlighting the various departments, programs and initiatives that drive student success.

My sincere thanks to all of you and applause to them as well!

Colleagues, I believe the weeks and months ahead will be some of the most meaningful and impactful of our careers. Our efforts will be recorded in history. Together, we will get through this unparalleled time. That’s what Bulldogs do!

As I close today, I ask you to envision those who work alongside with you and those with whom you communicate day to day.  Think about how you can share knowledge, identify new ways to collaborate, and work most effectively.

Together, we will tend to our Fresno State, work hard, and celebrate the sweet harvest of our success.  What is it? Higher graduation rates of engaged graduates who will become agents of positive change in our communities. 

Let’s continue to Be Bold and embrace Bold Excellence!

Thank you for joining me today.