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Female presidents now in the majority at Cal State

Female presidents now in the majority at Cal State
Lynnette Zelezny will be the first female president of Cal State Bakersfield. With her, more than half of the system's campuses will be led by women. (Fresno State University / UC Irvine)

When administrators invited Lynnette Zelezny, a budding psychology lecturer at Cal State Fresno, to apply for a tenure-track job, she was excited — but there was a catch.

She didn't have her doctorate yet, and tenure-track jobs required one. She was also a mother of three, and at the time, she said, there were no doctoral psychology programs in the Central Valley.

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"I had to make a decision: Did I want to move forward and leave the Central Valley?" she said. "Was I willing to take a risk with three young children?"

She went to Claremont Graduate University, where she took classes and managed a research lab while her husband, a lawyer, took care of the kids. Every week, she returned to Fresno by 2 a.m. on Fridays so she could be there when her kids woke up.

Her youngest son got so used to watching his mother studying at the kitchen table, she said, that he later studied, too — because that's what he thought his family did. He ended up becoming valedictorian of his high school.

Zelezny, 61, has been appointed Cal State Bakersfield's first female president, and she hopes her story will inspire her students. "My journey has been a unique one, full of challenges as well," she said. "That is a story that's important to share, particularly with women, who will be working toward their own leadership journey."

With her appointment, announced Wednesday at the Cal State trustees' meeting in Long Beach, more than half of Cal State system's campuses now are led by women.

Zelezny has been at Cal State Fresno since 1988. She currently serves as its provost and vice president for academic affairs. In addition to her doctorate in applied social psychology, she also has an MBA.

At Bakersfield, she said she will focus on boosting graduation rates and aligning the school's offerings with local workforce demands. She sees opportunities related to water, agriculture, food transportation and energy.

The trustees also appointed Thomas Parham, 63, a vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Irvine, to serve as president of Cal State Dominguez Hills.

They will receive the same pay as their predecessors: $324,029 for Parham, $313,044 for Zelezny.

Cal State trustees also appointed Thomas Parham as president of Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Cal State trustees also appointed Thomas Parham as president of Cal State Dominguez Hills. (UC Irvine)

Parham said he too, once broke new ground — as the first black academic in psychology hired at the University of Pennsylvania. After that, he was hired by UC Irvine, where he spent more than 30 years working as an administrator and adjunct faculty member. He earned his doctorate in counseling psychology and is licensed to practice in California.

Parham said he wants to make Cal State Dominguez Hills a "destination campus" and plans to spend his first 100 days in conversation with the campus community.

He sees himself as an "orchestra leader, an inspirational visionary leader to help create a collective harmonious sound that a university collectively will produce."

Parham grew up in L.A. and says his new job will feel like a homecoming.

"I'm a product of a single-parent family, where my mama and my father separated when I was about 3," Parham said. "I had a mom who raised four kids by herself, Sadie Parham. She never earned more than $18,000 a year ... but still produced two kids with PhDs, a third college-educated, nobody on drugs, nobody in jail, nobody in a gang."

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The school he will lead originally was named South Bay State College. An early location was in Rolling Hills Estates on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. But after the 1965 Watts riots, then-Gov. Pat Brown picked the Dominguez Hills site in Carson to try to bring opportunity to devastated nearby neighborhoods.

"My background is important because I am those students in the community. The only difference between me and the residents is I've been on the planet a little longer," Parham said. "I've been blessed with enormous opportunity. I want to provide them with the same opportunity and mentoring and guidance and support to help them realize the true promise of their possibility."

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