New SF State president looking forward to student engagement

WFU

Leslie E. Wong, the president of Northern Michigan University, discusses coaching opportunities in college and professional sports at the Losing to Win Conference at Wake Forest University on April 13, 2011. Photo courtesy of Wake Forest University News Center.

Dr. Leslie Wong is trading the snowy winters of the northern Michigan peninsula for the foggy summers of San Francisco as the incoming president of SF State.

Wong, 62, who prefers to be called Les, has served as president of Northern Michigan University since 2004, and was originally drawn to San Francisco because of its progressive reputation.

“The values that you find in San Francisco resonate with what my life has been, one of commitment to social justice and equity,” Wong said. “The diversity of the students is the number one attraction for me. I’ve done my homework on students there and I’m really looking forward to meeting them.”

Wong, a Bay Area native who grew up in Oakland, is known on his current campus for his accessibility, having taken part in student-run theater productions and going out of his way to hear from the campus community, according to NMU spokeswoman Cindy Paavola.

“I enjoy when students have a voice and use it,” Wong said. “I don’t know that I’ll always agree with it, but we’ll be honest with each other. One thing I’ve done (at NMU), I’d head down to the residence hall with five gallons of chocolate around eleven o’clock at night and just tell the students ‘let the president have it. What do you like? What do you dislike?’ Those talks would typically go until 2 a.m. and I learned a ton.”

The announcement was made after a closed meeting Monday of the California State University Board of Trustees, which was responsible for selecting the new president after a search committee narrowed the candidate pool down to three.

“We had six semi-finalists that we narrowed down to three, the three finalists,” said Maxine Chernoff, chair and professor of the creative writing department. “He seems to be a popular person there, and maybe a good manager. I don’t know a lot about his educational qualities for the job because I was out at a colleague’s memorial when he came to interview, but I wish him well.”

Although NMU only has an enrollment of 9,400 students, Wong feels his time there prepared him well for his position at SF State, which boasts an enrollment of more than 30,000.

“The scale of things will not only be something to learn from, but it will add to the excitement,” he said. “I clearly have to earn the respect and trust of the staff and the people there, and I hope to do that in a very genuine way.”

Although the size of the campuses differ greatly, California and Michigan are similar in that both states have suffered financially during the economic downturn.

“In Michigan, just like in California, we are facing some serious budget issues,” said Paavola. “He spends a lot of time in Lansing (Michigan’s state capital) trying to make the legislators aware of the problems facing NMU. He also played a big role in securing the largest gift that NMU has received: a donation from an alumni of $5 million. He’s a real hard worker who isn’t afraid to tackle big problems. He’s very team-oriented and he doesn’t make decisions without consulting those involved in the process.”

One of Wong’s main focuses at NMU has been the implementation of technology on campus, with a 4G WiMAX network that is owned and operated by the university, which not only covers the school, but also 40 square miles of the town surrounding it.

“We have a wireless and hardwired environment here that is truly something,” he said. “The big complaint I hear from students who graduate is that they’re moving down in life, in terms of service.”

Coming in as the successor of Robert A. Corrigan, who has served as the campus president for the last 24 years, Wong knows that he has big shoes to fill, but is looking forward to the task.

“I have tremendous respect for Bob’s legacy at SFSU. I hope that when I call him in a panic, that he’ll talk to me,” he joked. “What I hope to do is extend his work and his vision, but in my way. It’s Les Wong as part of SF State, contributing, facilitating and pushing student learning. That’s the dynamism of a good university.”

Angela Raiford and Krissa Stanton contributed to this report