After two decades, Corrigan looks back
September 22, 2008 7:05 PM
Dressed in a charcoal suit, SF State President Robert Corrigan smiled at the group waiting for him in the fifth-floor conference room of the Administration building.
He mentioned that his flight had been delayed coming in from a CSU meeting in Long Beach and that he was supposed to hop another plane to Chicago for a diversity conference the next day.
“My biggest job is to keep the place going,” he said.
Corrigan, the 12th president of SF State, celebrated his 20th year of administration this month.
“When I first came, most of the people working here looked like me: white, male and having English as their first language,” he said. “Now, 73 percent of all tenure track hires have been women and people of color. We’ve changed the face of the campus to make it more reflective of the student population.”
Corrigan was in his ninth year as provost at University of Maryland when he was nominated to become president of SF State. The nomination came as a surprise, he said. “I hadn’t intended to go into another university. I wanted to go back into full-time teaching and research.”
SF State was a big change of scenery from University of Maryland. “I went from a major research university to a very urban institute,” he said. “But I got very excited about SF State’s mission and what it did in the 60s and 70s,” referring to the founding of the college of ethnic studies as well as other diversity efforts made by the students and faculty.
Out of about 100 nominees, he was selected for the presidential position by a search committee made up of faculty, staff, students and trustees in 1988.
Augustus White, a personal friend of Corrigan who has known the president since their freshman year at
During school, Corrigan was not considering work in the educational field. “I never really planned much about my own life,” he said. “I certainly did not think about being an administrator.”
Like many in his generation, he wanted to serve his country when the Korean War broke out in the early 1950s. But when the draft got cut back only months after he received his notice, he changed his plans and sent applications to graduate schools.
After his appointment to SF State, Corrigan immediately began making improvements to the school, beginning with the beautification of the campus. “It was pretty disheveled when I first came,” he said. “The buildings were shoddy inside and outside. And we were the smallest CSU campus back then.”
The Fine Arts and Humanities buildings are among several structures added since Corrigan’s arrival.
“We’ve tried to create an oasis that shows we respect the students,” the president said.
He also worked on making SF State known to the Bay Area community. “One of the challenges was that they called SF State the city’s university, but city leaders didn’t think so,” he said. “Most of them had no sense of what SFSU was.”
He achieved recognition for the school by serving on committees in the city, such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and by working with people from local groups and organizations.
David Fischer, SF State’s current diplomat in residence, was one of the people Corrigan worked with in the community in the early 1990s.
“He did an excellent job promoting the school and making it better-known in many places,” said Fischer.
“I am particularly impressed by his programs in diversity development,” his friend White said. “Robert is very forward-looking and assertive with his principles.”
Corrigan helped found one of the country’s first black studies programs while he was on the faculty at the University of Iowa.
He is known for his efforts to encourage both students and faculty to get involved in the community through volunteer work and political involvement.
The best part of his job, Corrigan said, is bringing faculty together. “I think of the university as large family, sometimes dysfunctional, but a family nonetheless.”
What he least likes about his job, he said with a chuckle, is having to worry about the budget.
Corrigan lives with his wife Joyce and has four children – three of whom live out-of-state – and four grandchildren. He calls himself a “great movie buff” and a fan of jazz music, which helps him to relax when he’s stressed.
Although he won’t be retiring for a couple more years, he’s thinking about life after SF State, particularly about a couple of books he’d like to write – a book on American poet Ezra Pound, who Corrigan deeply admires, and another about SF State and how it has changed since the strike in the 1960s.
“There’s been a big difference, and I think the president provides the spark for that,” he said. “In many ways, it is a better place and I feel really good about that.”
“If [you’ve spent] as many years as I have as president, you’ve got to believe you’ve made a difference, that the place is better than when I first found it,” he said.
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