Robert Corrigan plans future after stepping down as SF State president

After serving 24 years as president of SF State, Robert A. Corrigan is looking forward to the days when he can read a book for pleasure, work on writing a history of the University and just take a few hours to think.

Corrigan came to the University in 1988, the year that the first “Die Hard” movie hit theaters, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” topped music charts, and Ronald Reagan made a visit to the U.S.S.R – and before many of this week’s graduates were born.
In the 1980s, the school was not necessarily the presence that it is in San Francisco today. Corrigan credits the faculty and the research programs that are now firmly established as part of the community with helping to change that viewpoint.

“We, unfortunately, at the time that I arrived, we didn’t have a strong following in the local community, people didn’t see us as an important educational institution, whether or not we were the city’s university. As I’ve said often times I couldn’t find any people in the media or in the business community or generally who really felt that we were the city’s university,” said Corrigan. “That’s changed. That has changed significantly.”

For now, Corrigan is looking forward to some time off after he hands over his duties to Wong in August. He said he will get to spend some more time with his wife, and his two grandchildren who live in San Mateo.

A former English literature teacher, Corrigan plans to complete a long-time-in-the-making biography of Ezra Pound, as well as work on a book about the history of the University.

“It’s the period beginning in ’69 that you begin to see the fruition, the results of the strike, which was to open up the institution to new populations, to bring faculty in who really engaged the concept of social changes and saw universities as a way to help make that happen,” said Corrigan.

When he was hired, Corrigan was given the status of a trustee professor, so after some time off, he plans on returning to the University in some capacity, probably at the Downtown Campus.

But leaving doesn’t mean that Corrigan can let go of all the challenges facing the public higher education system, especially the budget. “Where are the people going to go? We’re not going to get them educated,” he said. “I’m hoping we have a legislature that is able to distinguish the need for public education.”

Corrigan also presided over a wide-ranging expansion of the physical campus, including the construction of the Humanities Building, the Village student residences, the new J. Paul Leonard Library and the Cesar Chavez Student Center.

“Look at the campus. First Humanities, then Fine Arts, complete rehab or seismic upgrade to (Administration), a complete rehab of the library, Child Studies Center, which morphed into the Children’s Campus, the day care center… expansion, the addition to Burk Hall, and housing,” said Corrigan, noting the changes that have taken place since he first came to SF State.

That growth of housing was part of a greater plan to make the school a destination campus.

“The whole of the Centennial Village, The Towers, the apartments, and then you add to that the apartments that we purchased from Parkmerced and the shopping buildings and we’re up to 2,400 beds,” he said. “What you’re seeing now, with the housing, is that we can now have students who can come in.”

In his time at the school, Corrigan sought to cement a commitment to diversity, something that initially attracted him to San Francisco.

“We have a commitment to social justice,” he said.

While in recent years he has often been away from the campus, mired in fundraising and legislative efforts advocating on behalf of public education in the wake of devastating budget cuts, Corrigan said that creating a top-notch learning environment for students has always been one of his goals.

“When you’re in a classroom, with somebody who is on top of his or her field, is actually involved in the literature that you’re working on, commenting on it, doing original research, then that makes that person so much more vital in the classroom,” Corrigan said. “And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Some of those who have worked closely with him say that it is his commitment to social justice and student access to the school that inspired them to come to work at the University.

Robert Nava, vice president of university advancement, said that it was Corrigan’s reputation as an advocate for public education that initially attracted him to a possible position in San Francisco, where he joined the administration in 2010.

“He’s been a wonderful advocate for supporting public education,” said Nava. “He has gone to Sacramento and communicated with Governor Brown. He has advocated for not eliminating Pell Grants. He has a great commitment to access for all students.”

Nava also recalled a day last year when students were protesting tuition hikes on campus, and Corrigan decided to leave his office to meet with them.

“I remember last year very vividly, and President Corrigan, on his own, went down there to talk to them. As a result, he met with some of those students and created the Student Voices website to voice their concerns. It was his way of translating their pain and anger into action,” Nava recalled.

It is these same commitments to students and social justice that Corrigan’s soon-to-be successor is hoping to continue.

“What an honor and a privilege, and I hope that when I call him in a panic, that he’ll talk to me. I have tremendous respect for Bob’s legacy at SFSU. I think President Corrigan has done something that very few presidents can do,” said Les Wong, the president-select.

“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,” he continued.

Corrigan had a note of advice for Wong, though. “Don’t be beholden to the calendar and the card,” he said, chuckling, referring to the 3 x 5 card that he is given each day that keeps his schedule.

He also urged Wong to maintain the commitment to social justice and open access to education for students. “Do not walk away from that brand.”

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