As this year’s class of graduating seniors walk the stage, receive their degrees and flip their tassels, another familiar face will be departing campus for the last time as President Robert A. Corrigan retires.
Just as thousands of incoming freshmen will take the places of those seniors, a new president, Dr. Leslie Wong, will be stepping in to fill the shoes of Corrigan after 24 years of service.
“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.
Wong has served as the president of Northern Michigan University since 2004 and, although NMU and SF State differ in size by about 20,000 students, he said that his time there has prepared him well for his new position.
“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.”
Wong has made a habit of forging connections to both students and faculty in his previous positions.
“Wong helped everyone feel welcome at NMU, and he honestly cared about the students, staff and faculty,” said Delaney Lovett, editor-in-chief of The North Wind, NMU’s campus newspaper. “If a concern was brought up to him, he would always consider the problem and see if a solution was possible.”
As president of NMU, Wong was known for hosting impromptu “mini-forums” to get direct feedback from students.
“I’d head down to the residence hall with five gallons of chocolate around 11 o’clock at night and just tell the students ‘let the president have it,’ what do you like, what do you dislike,” he said. “Those talks would typically go until 2 a.m. and I learned a ton.”
Hopes are high around SF State with a new president coming in with such an intrepid reputation, but some on campus still have reservations about the selection process.
“I’m very intrigued by his Chinese and Mexican background, which I think fits the demographic of this campus very well,” said Wei Ming Dariotis, Asian-American studies professor and California Faculty Association chapter president. “But the process by which he was hired was non-transparent. The committee failed to get the buy-in of key constituents.”
Although Northern Michigan and Northern California have many differences, both states have been hit hard by the recent economic downturn, especially in the realm of higher education.
“In Michigan, just like in California, we are facing some serious budget issues,” said Cindy Paavola, a spokeswoman at NMU. “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.”
It is in this arena, finding innovative ways to augment public funds, that Wong excels, according to Marge Sklar, associate dean of the school of business at NMU.
“Les has worked devotedly to represent us with Michigan lawmakers in times of falling economy and decreasing support for higher education,” said Sklar. “Without his ceaseless efforts, I suspect that Northern Michigan University would be in dire straits indeed.”
In an era marked by rising tuition costs, Wong’s ability to raise funds from outside sources will play in his favor, according to Corrigan.
“Someone needs to tap into the friends that we’ve cultivated, because it’s pretty obvious that we are going to need to raise more private money,” Corrigan said. “What we’ve tried and succeeded with, in terms of building our brand and expanding access, social justice and equity, fits very well with what he’s done in Northern Michigan.”
Angela Raiford, Matt Maxion and Krissa Stanton contributed to this report.