With degrees from both UCLA and USC, William Covino is well aware of the prestige of those higher education heavy-hitters.
Even before assuming the presidency of Cal State L.A. in September, the longtime educator was strategizing ways to add his new campus to the list of high-profile institutions in the region.
In four months on the job, Covino has already had several meetings with Mayor Eric Garcetti and other government and industry leaders to parlay the campus' central location east of downtown and its faculty and student resources into a hub of research and civic engagement.
Covino sees the university as an instrument of upward mobility — social and economic — for a diverse student population that includes many who are the first in their family to attend college. He also wants it to be a place to nurture new ideas.
"Cal State L.A. is uniquely positioned to address important issues, especially in a metropolis like this where we see every issue on the globe," said Covino, 62, in an interview. "We want to make the university a place where people turn for advice and support and the city a place where students can give back in ways we have not to this point."
Covino is joining with local businesses to create volunteer opportunities that students can turn into college credit, and he's connecting with East Los Angeles College and the Los Angeles Unified School District to provide local youngsters and their families services to ensure college readiness.
The campus is nearing completion of one of the state's few hydrogen refueling stations and is working with alumna Billie Jean King on a proposed tennis center.
Covino is also overseeing a major transition in the school's academic calendar, from a system of three quarters per academic year to two semesters per year by fall 2016. The move will align the Los Angeles campus with 17 of the 23 other Cal State campuses and the vast majority of other public institutions in the nation.
His is an ambitious agenda that has caught the attention of many community leaders.
"He is making a clear statement that Cal State L.A. not only provides for the academic needs for many students growing up in Los Angeles, but that he is also concerned and cares about the job they get after they graduate," said Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which Covino is set to join as a board member. "He's consistent in his message that he wants Cal State L.A. to be an active partner with business not only for the benefit of his students but to grow the number of jobs in the community."
Covino grew up in the San Fernando Valley after his family moved from Connecticut. He graduated from Reseda High School and was the first in his working-class family to attend college, earning a bachelor's degree in English from UCLA, master's degrees from Cal State Northridge and the University of Southern California and a doctorate in English from USC.
Covino's predecessor James Rosser retired after serving as president for 34 years.
Covino's background resembles that of many of the students who attend Cal State Los Angeles, said L.A. Board of Education member Monica Garcia.
"When he was selected, many community stakeholders reached out because we wanted him to know we had a community very much interested in working together to solve problems and connecting college opportunities with our LAUSD students and the resources of the university with our teachers and professionals," Garcia said.
The L.A. Unified initiative will involve a pilot project centered on Garfield High and its feeder schools to provide health, nutrition and other services; it is expected to launch next fall.
It may be a challenge to reach Covino's goal of making Cal State L.A. the first university that comes to mind when people think of Los Angeles.
But many would argue that the Los Angeles campus is quietly making a mark with a student population that is about 54% Latino, 16% Asian American, 11% white and 5% African American. Fall 2013 enrollment topped 23,000, the most since the 1970s.
Four-year graduation rates for transfer students have improved to 64%, exceeding the 57% systemwide target set by the chancellor. And the Washington Monthly named the school among 2013's top 20 master's degree-granting institutions (along with the Dominguez Hills and Fresno campuses) based on recruiting and graduating low-income students, research and service.
"We will need to create an atmosphere of shared enthusiasm," to build on that, said Covino, a scholar in the history and theory of rhetoric and persuasion.
In his previous position as provost at Fresno State, Covino won a national "re-branding" award, a track record that bodes well for the Los Angeles campus, some say.
"I don't think we're going to dislodge USC or UCLA, but we do want Cal State L.A. as a valuable resource in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley — and that hasn't always been the case," said Kevin Baaske, chairman of the Academic Senate at Cal State L.A.
Baaske said he's been impressed by Covino's openness to faculty perspectives, which includes regular meetings between the two, a leadership team and a visionary committee that is looking at future needs.
He said Covino sets a tone in meetings to put people at ease, making funny asides and talking about his past, when he played the accordion at weddings and bar mitzvahs during college.
But his style did not enamor everyone at Fresno State, where some faculty described a pattern of top-down decision-making that encroached on faculty prerogatives and was not inclusive of outside ideas.
A move to realign academic departments, for example, was rebuffed by faculty, alumni and others, said Lisa Weston, an English professor at the Fresno campus for 30 years.
"I don't want to paint him as Snidely Whiplash but … his tenure here was not a complete honeymoon," Weston said. "I would hope he did take away something from his experience here in terms of how to deal with faculty. He's a smart, very clever man."
Covino noted that his time at Fresno and his earlier tenure as provost at the Stanislaus campus coincided with steep cuts in state funding that strained budgets and created other stresses at nearly every Cal State campus.
"That kind of situation is bound to lead to concerns, frustrations and tensions we need to work out along the way," he said.
He said his aim at the Los Angeles campus is "transparency and visibility," to be "out and about, talking to students, eating with students and faculty and staff and making sure I hear what's on people's minds."
Student government President Hector Jacinto said Covino has been accessible to undergraduate leaders and has spoken of having a more student-centered campus.