The founding president of California State University, Monterey Bay shares insight about starting a university.
As I continue to identify and discuss some of the bright spots in the California State University system (see ‘The Trick is Just Doing’ and ‘Make an Impact at the Core of People’s Life’ articles), I realized the recent founding of California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) was an opportunity to better understand the dynamics of starting a complex organization with substantial impact. This realization came through my attendance of the 2011 CSUMB graduation ceremony, where I went to support a good friend who was graduating. Having read about the school’s past, which includes the interesting historical note that the university campus grew out of a former army base named Fort Ord,  I set out to learn more about its start. That research led me to a wonderful and insightful discussion with the founding president of CSUMB, Dr. Peter Smith.
Having started his tenure at CSUMB in 1995, Peter served for over ten years in the role of President until his departure from the university in 2005. He describes the time there as exciting—an excitement based in large part on an opportunity to give life to a vision. Peter elaborates on the meaning of a living vision by stating that their team’s long-term goals were “not just on a wall in someone’s office.” The group of CSUMB founders, Peter believes, was ever focused on the vision of accomplishing a successful launch of an innovative university that would still achieve accreditation (CSUMB became Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation candidate in 1998 and achieved full accreditation in 2003 ). Thus, the education model of CSUMB was built around creating something new while adhering to an accreditation standard framework.
CSUMB works to provide students with a distinct environment including the promotion of service-learning opportunities. Peter recalls that the idea of service-learning, which is an integration of service in the community with graduation requirements,  as a new concept to many people and not always understood or embraced for the college environment. Another differentiating factor that CSUMB provides students is the required completion of a senior capstone project prior to graduation.  Upon approval, the self-selected project is a chance for students to explore and integrate various disciplines learned through their academic experience and apply that theory to a passion or interest. Peter boasts that the projects also give students valuable presentation practice because each project outcome is presented to an audience by the student. Betterment in learning outcomes is the stated driving force behind Peter’s passion for innovation and was expressed in his promotion of new ideas like the service-learning and capstone projects.
In an attempt to give context to the CSUMB start-up opportunity, Peter talks about the lessons learned from his prior involvement with the start of the Vermont Community College system. He says that being successful in these ventures requires the ability to stay proactive. While preparation is important, innovation necessitates strategic planning to give way to “doing” at some point. Peter warns against perpetually “sharpening your [planning] pencil” and never implementing a plan. “Innovation often requires the ‘ready, fire, aim’ mentality,” shares Peter, based on the practice of trying new things with knowledge that missing the targeted goal is a possibility. He goes on to try and explain the concept further through the analogy of building a bicycle while riding it—the process has to sustain forward movement while development is occurring.
Another important part of the innovative process is to take time to review what is and is not working, explains Peter. He stresses the concept with an example from his time at CSUMB where the university broke from class sessions for a full week in the first semester to assess the university’s progress. Taking the time to troubleshoot issues, align resources, and, as Peter states, “collect our wits,” was believed to be a critical component of CSUMB’s administration and growth as an institution. This brief timeframe was also important because it allowed the faculty to realign their activities and efforts toward what was successful and to stop doing what was not.
It is Peter’s opinion that finding faculty members who would provide the highest likelihood of success was a very important step in the process of developing CSUMB. He went on to relay that the newly formed organization needed instructors willing to help “invent this university.” To locate the type of person willing to be an innovator, Peter describes the selection process as “looking at the trees and not the forest,” meaning the qualities of the individual were most important in their selection as instructors. Peter needed faculty who could understand and embrace the idea that their work was creating something new and he would communicate this idea often.
Leading an educational start-up such as a university requires the careful communication of expectations, shares Peter. This type of innovative work is fundamentally different than managing an established institution, and Peter believes that everyone involved had to rise up to the task with the knowledge there would be various issues encountered along the way. He describes how important it was to consistently “broadcast to people” the unique and challenging nature of starting a university, and, to increase their resolve, he would often state to administrative colleagues, faculty, and students that “this is a pioneering task.”
Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.