Golden Gate Xpress

Q&A: Les Wong on being ‘catalyst for a new vision’ at SF State

I’m curious what action you would like to see from the trustees and the chancellor, Charlie Reed now and whoever comes in to replace him, that is going to be able to ensure that the CSU can provide a quality education that is accessible to all, especially in light of the in-state graduate student freeze that was recently passed by the trustees?

LW: The trustees have to, and they certainly are, working to find a successor to Chancellor Reed who understands not only the scale and scope of CSU and the 23 campuses, but it really needs to be an individual who is committed to good teaching and learning and scholarship. To me, that goes back to a commitment to student experience at all 23 campuses. The chancellor of today’s large systems are really special people. They have to see the big picture, they have to be an astute politician in Sacramento. They’ve got 23 presidents who they’ll work with and 23 campuses that are really different from one another. I’m only beginning now to understand and appreciate that. As a young person, when it used to be Cal State Hayward and I was a young Chinese Mexican kid on the streets of Oakland, college was a just a big dream and all the universities in many ways were the same. Then I got older and smarter as the years went by and I realized how Cal State East Bay is different from SF State and how we’re different from Chico State and San Luis Obispo and that represents the diversity we have in California. I’m kind of blabbering right now, but you’re touching on what might be the most critical challenge to the system, which is to get leadership in position to face the next economy.

Are there specific qualities that you’re looking for in that kind of leadership?

LW: You know, that’s a question that has no possibility of a good answer for you. The pressure on the new chancellor will be immense — that is where that person will have to have a good sense of teamwork. He’ll have a huge staff, 23 presidents, 400,000 students, a couple thousand faculty, hundreds of thousands of faculty members. But that’s what makes the job such a prestigious one and that’s what attracted me to SF State. The CSU is an emblem of what a state and a higher ed system can do for the citizens. The work done by CSU campuses is unparalleled. I don’t think there is any comparison in the country.

Measuring Device
University President Leslie E. Wong showcases his collection of antique measuring devices in his office. Photo by Sam Battles.

I’ve got one more hardball question, if you’re ready. Is the rumor true that you collect antique measuring devices? And I’m wondering how does one get started in such a seemingly obscure hobby?

LW: It goes along with this kind of thing, I always felt it was pretty egotistical of our species to create measuring tools and then think we’ve mastered whatever it is we’re measuring. Have you ever asked yourself “What is a minute?” or “What is an inch?”

I’m a philosophy minor, so I actually have.

LW: And so, I’ve just been reveling over the notion of the Higgs-Boson discovery a few weeks ago, that they had to build special tools just so that they could measure this thing and be pretty sure about it. Then it dawned on me that, historically, you almost get a sense of the evolution of cultures by the instruments we create to measure things and so when you look at a couple of the things that have found me, at the heart of them are springs. You measure an envelope by how much it compresses a spring. Some of the weights I have are from the gold rush days. I always thought it was one of the great abstractions we’ve created, the measurement of things. My favorite is one of the slide rules, which we literally use those to send people to the moon. So its been that kind of thing, they find me. I don’t go looking for them. My favorite one is the brass piece. I went out to North Dakota because I wanted to see one of the last prairie grass National Parks where the grass still grows eight to 10 feet high. I walked into this place and here this thing was sitting on the counter and I said “Gosh, are you willing to part with that?” And they used that when they thought there was going to be gold in the Dakota prairies. It was just a lucky thing, I walked into this tiny little store to get something to eat and there was this device.

My last question is: Do you have any sort of general statement that you want to pass along to our readers?

LW: I hope that students will see that I’m really about their experience. Whether it is in the research labs, dancing, playing volleyball, throwing a ball, ballet, doing physics. That, for me, I can honor their work by being present. I’ll be at volleyball games, I’ll be at theater presentations. To me, that’s important. This sounds kind of hokey, but when I was young and playing baseball, my father worked his buns off creating opportunity for us, and for him to be dog-tired and to show up to watch me play baseball, that was all I needed. I think in many ways I learned that with students, I would be disrespecting you if I said, “I’m proud that I’ve never read the Xpress.”

Well, let us put out our first issue and you won’t have to say that anymore.

LW: I was chuckling because I thought to myself “I could never wear aviators and skinny jeans” after I read the article from last year about advice for the new president. Maybe I’ll show up at your offices in aviators.

Full disclosure, that was actually written by the editorial staff from last semester. As far as I’m concerned, you can wear whatever you want.

LW: (laughing) It was a great article.


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Q&A: Les Wong on being ‘catalyst for a new vision’ at SF State