Milton A. Gordon, the former Cal State Fullerton president who fought for equitable access to higher education and transformed the campus into one of the state’s most prominent and diverse, has died after a long illness at the age of 81.
When Gordon took the helm in 1990, he was the fourth African American president in the nation’s largest public university system. At that time, about 60% of the student body was white. By the time he retired in 2012, the percentages had reversed, with students of color making up 57% of the enrollment. During his leadership, the school became first in the state and fifth in the nation in graduating Latinos.
“I am grateful that I’m able to call higher education my life’s work,” Gordon said in his final convocation address in 2011. His words then echoed the values he voiced in his first address to the campus: “By providing access to professional careers for the broadest cross section of Americans, including women and members of minority and immigrant groups, our university represents a pathway into the American mainstream for individuals and families who otherwise would not have the opportunity to make this step.”
All told, in his 22 years as president, he shook the hands of roughly 122,000 graduates — more than half of the university’s total alumni.
Gordon’s commitment to diversity and access took hold during his childhood in Chicago and his undergraduate years at Xavier University of Louisiana. He recalled sitting in the back of buses and the “colored patrons” section of movie theaters, deciding then that education would be his way to fight racism, according to the university.
“Some people wanted to confront physically,” he said in an interview with the Orange County Register in 1997. “Each person had a different set of tools. For me, I knew it was my mind.”
When he first joined Cal State Fullerton, Gordon faced the school’s worst financial crisis since its founding and had to make difficult decisions on cutting classes, athletic programs and staff. Like much of higher education at the time, the campus was also grappling with how to handle the nation’s increasing number of women and minorities entering schools and the workplace.
But colleagues and students were quick to note the tall, lanky man who loved math and disarmed just about everyone with his warm, easy style — arriving in people's offices, shirt sleeves rolled up, just to say hello or listen to their concerns. Students and faculty, who called him Milt, described him as “down to earth,” encouraging, genuinely interested in hearing what people had to say, and a leader with a big heart and a big vision.
At Cal State Fullerton, he pushed for better recruitment of minority faculty and staff at a time of enormous growth, the enrollment increasing from 25,700 students to more than 36,000. During that time,13 academic degree programs were added, including the creation of a doctorate in education, one of the first in Cal State’s 23-campus system.
Gordon also oversaw the university’s most ambitious construction period: More than $636 million in new and renovated classrooms, dorms, dining halls, parking structures as well as the performing arts center, the Pollak Library and the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics. He added 22 new buildings in all, opened satellite campuses in Santa Ana and Garden Grove and a branch campus in Mission Viejo that later moved to Irvine.
In the flood of tributes at his retirement, colleagues and peers pointed to the partnerships he forged with cities, the county and various foundations. The Guardian Scholars program, which became a national model for serving foster youth, was launched in 1998 with the Orangewood Children’s Foundation.
“He was an incredible inspiration and mentor to me,” current Cal State Fullerton President Mildred Garcia said in a campus-wide email. “He was a warm, compassionate, and generous man whose legacy will affect eternity through the millions of lives he touched and the tens of thousands of degrees this institution conferred under his leadership.”
A mathematics professor who rose through the ranks to become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Chicago State University, Gordon came to California in 1986 as vice president for academic affairs at Sonoma State. He earned his doctorate at Illinois Institute of Technology, a master’s at the University of Detroit — both in mathematics — and a bachelor’s in mathematics and secondary education at Xavier. He began his career as an elementary school teacher and was also the director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Chicago’s Loyola University.
Over the years, he held leadership posts with the Hispanic Assn. of Colleges and Universities, the National ROTC Program Subcommittee, the American Council on Education’s Commission on International Initiatives and other organizations. Locally, he served on the boards of the Orange County Business Council, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and the World Affairs Council Board of Trustees.
Gordon is survived by his wife, Margaret Faulwell Gordon; sons Patrick, Michael and Vincent; a sister, Dolores Gordon; and three grandchildren, Nathan, Chesney and Rabiah.