Cal State Fullerton’s Crown Jewel : Cobb’s Accomplishments Calm Critics, but Her Dedication Is a Two-Edged Sword

Lael Morgan is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared previously in The Times

When Jewel Plummer Cobb became president of Cal State Fullerton seven years ago, she likened the job to “walking through a forest where there are lovely trees and nice flowers and (where) every now and then you step on a land mine.”

Today, the mines are still there, but she has become considerably more adept at avoiding them.

However, because of what Faculty Senate Chairman Julian Doster tactfully calls Cobb’s “natural disadvantages,” she didn’t develop such dexterity overnight.


“She walked into a hornet’s nest,” said Miles McCarthy, a co-founder of the school and a member of the search committee that hired Cobb away from Douglass College at Rutgers University. “She didn’t know our education system. She didn’t know state politics. She hardly knew anyone here and was a black woman from the East coming to a largely white university in the West, one that had always been run by men.”

As the first black female president of a major public university in the western United States, she was under close scrutiny, and she was ambitious. Her hard-driving, no-nonsense work style often put her at odds with faculty, staff and the community. Discord echoed loudly in the press and then, it seems, turned quietly to mostly rave reviews.

She concedes that her own attitude may have changed a bit, that she “is learning to listen better,” but her accomplishments have gone a long way in silencing critics.

During her tenure, the school has grown enormously--in enrollment, academic prestige, recognition and actual physical structures--and Cobb must be given the credit for both managing that growth and raising the monies to accomplish it.

Private funding has gone from $200,000 in 1981 to more than $2.7 million last year, and she has been able to wheedle millions from the Legislature for everything from upgrading the library to construction of the school’s first on-campus housing facilities and a $7.2-million building for the new School of Engineering. In addition, a $6.7-million sports complex will rise without cost to taxpayers, thanks to a deal Cobb struck with an international hotel chain.

Then there are the two new schools (communications and engineering) that have been created with nationally recognized faculty, along with the establishment of the Intercultural Development Center and a new emphasis on international studies.

A triumphant Cobb touched on her record at the January dedication of the $7.4-million dormitory facility, one of her priorities for the commuter-oriented school. “They told me it couldn’t be done!” she said, recalling her successful 11th-hour lobbying efforts in Sacramento for the revenue bond issue that financed construction of the 2.5-acre complex.

She also spoke of her bleak first five months at the school, when she had to cope with not one but two spending freezes mandated by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

One of her first moves was to lobby the Legislature for additional funding and, despite the fact that she was new to California politics, she soon had CSUF moved up on the priority list of the 19-campus California State University system.

Then she managed to score a much-needed $740,000 appropriation from the Legislature for renovation of CSUF’s library system. State funding for the engineering building followed, and this year’s completion of on-campus housing for 400 students was a major coup.

“That really surprised me,” marveled Fullerton Mayor Richard C. Ackerman. “She’s got a good working relationship with the Legislature and some Fullerton graduates in good places.”

Tentative plans already had been made for a public-private partnership to build a hotel and conference center on campus, and Cobb moved swiftly to implement them. Early attempts to offer university land to a private developer through the city were stymied by a lawsuit that ultimately was thrown out of court. Cobb persevered, working closely with the city of Fullerton to sign an agreement with Marriott Corp. for construction of an $18-million hotel and conference center this summer.

Proceeds from the international hotel chain’s land-use and development agreements will fund the sports complex, which will include a 10,000-seat stadium for football, soccer and other activities, plus an adjoining 2,000-seat pavilion for baseball and track. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer.

“Eventually it will pay off with $700,000 to $1 million per year in the general fund,” said Ackerman, who believes that the 200-unit hotel is needed as much by the business community as by the school.

Alumni also have played a major part in Cobb’s planning.

“One of the things I discovered when I came here was that we did not have a very clear understanding of alumni possibilities, and I focused on trying to develop a strong alumni organization. It is now in place in each school and working effectively,” she said. The active alumni list, which numbered about 10,000 in 1981, has grown to around 50,000, and many are successful fund-raisers.

Another source of private support comes from a dozen or so groups of volunteers, many of whom never attended the university.

Continuing Learning Experience, an organization made up primarily of retired and semiretired people, recently led a drive to build a Gerontology Center, the first privately funded building to be completed on campus. Leo Shapiro, who led the group that raised close to $2 million for the pioneering research facility, gives Cobb considerable credit for their success.

Although she still considers herself somewhat of a newcomer, Cobb does enjoy a high profile within Orange County, largely as a result of her driving energy.

“The first several years she accepted practically every speaking engagement. We were afraid she’d burn herself out, but she didn’t,” said Judy Mandel, CSUF’s public information officer, who also served on Cobb’s search committee.

Cobb’s secretary, Carol Bugg, looks at her schedule on a seven-day-week basis and, at Cobb’s insistence, plans just a 24-hour turnaround for her boss’s frequent trips to the East Coast. A recent--and Bugg says typical--week’s schedule began with a Monday morning flight to Sacramento and wound up with a Sunday evening flight to the East Coast. In between were appointments, luncheons, speaking engagements and one additional trip to Sacramento.

“Her social life revolves around being our president,” Mandel said.

For precisely that reason, it is difficult to get to know Jewel Plummer Cobb on a personal basis, but a talk she gave recently at a seminar titled “Who Gets Ahead and Why,” for women re-entering the work force, housewives and students, is revealing.

“Your parents put you in little pink clothes, and you were groomed to passive behavior,” she said. “During the teen-age period you were expected to please the teacher and that wonderful boy sitting on the right side of the classroom. The message that was going out was that it’s not good to be smart. I can’t think of too many valedictorians who became homecoming queens.”

It is a difficult gap to bridge, Cobb conceded, but largely a matter of self-confidence. “It’s you who are going to determine where you’re going to go.”

Cobb winces at mention of early publicity correctly reporting that her grandfather was a freed slave. She says it is more important to point out that he graduated from pharmacy school in Washington, D.C., and that his son, Jewel’s father, received his degree from Cornell University in New York and became a doctor.

“I was raised to think that no career was out of bounds,” she said. “It was always understood that my friends and I would go to college. We were in the honor society. We were quite informed.”

Born in Chicago in 1924 and raised there, Cobb studied at the University of Michigan, where she quickly became disenchanted.

“For one thing, black students couldn’t live in the dormitories, and that was not a very pleasant thought,” she said. After 1 1/2 years, she transferred to Talladega College, an all-black school in Alabama, from which she graduated in 1944, and followed up at New York University graduate school.

After an $85-a-month stint as a high school teacher, she began doctoral studies at NYU, beginning a lifelong study of melanoma and cell physiology that took her to the University of Illinois and Sarah Lawrence College.

At 30, she married Roy Cobb, an insurance broker, had a son and embarked on a teaching career in biology at Sarah Lawrence. Twelve years later, she and Cobb divorced. Shortly thereafter, she moved from teaching to administration. Her first assignment was as a dean at Connecticut College. Then, in 1976, she was chosen to head state-run Douglass College in New Jersey, the largest women’s college in America.

At Douglass, Cobb became well-known on a national level, serving on the National Science Board, the Alan T. Waterman Award Committee of the National Science Foundation and as a member of several corporate boards.

Jim Rosner, a vice chancellor in New Jersey before taking the presidency at Cal State Los Angeles, recommended Cobb to CSU trustees after CSUF’s president, L. Donald Shields, moved on to head Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In June, 1981, Cobb came out to interview.

“I’d never been here,” she said, “but I was very pleased and delighted when I arrived. The welcome mat was out in many directions.”

She accepted the job in July and started in October, moving from a campus of 3,700 students and 240 faculty members to the administration of 22,000 students and about 700 instructors. CSUF staffers found Cobb surprisingly well-prepared on short notice, but Ackerman said it took her awhile to get up to full speed.

“A lot of it was being from the East,” Ackerman said. “I think it probably might have taken a little longer for her to learn the ropes and meet people because of that. Today she’s well-known in Orange County, but the past president was more visible in Fullerton. He showed up for everything.”

“She’s not Don Shields,” Mandel said. “She’s not one of the good old boys. She’s different. She has another style.”

It was that style that took a little getting used to. “Socially, she’s absolutely charming, but she’s tough on the staff and impossible to argue with,” one faculty member said.

“We’d give her all the reasons why something couldn’t be done,” said another. “She’d listen and then say, ‘I’m sure you can solve those problems. Let’s do it.’

“We’ve learned you have to be cautious in what you say to her. No trial balloons, no political discussion about what will go over well with this or that group. She tends to make snap decisions that are not always the best. One wastes a lot of time trying to talk her out of them. And she tends to take criticism personally.”

Cobb concedes that she has trouble with criticism. “Doesn’t everybody?” But she said she has tried to learn to deal with it.

Frustration built among the faculty until two years ago when Lee Bellot, a history professor who served on Cobb’s search committee, publicly told of his regrets at having hired her. At the time, there was considerable resentment because Cobb was pushing professors into research and publishing in addition to regular teaching assignments.

And there was criticism too of Cobb’s commitment to building a hotel and her push to establish a satellite campus in south Orange County that some felt would drain resources from academic basics.

In face of the protest, Cobb took the gamble of allowing the Faculty Senate to vote on both issues. She won on both counts, and even Bellot concedes that things are looking up.

“She’s been more attentive in the past several years. I have been on the Academic Senate and on the Executive Committee, and she has been listening more than I recall in the past. I think she got some pretty good advice from people like Miles McCarthy (former acting president) that perhaps she took to heart.”

“From all the signs I’ve seen, she’s doing very well,” McCarthy agreed. “She’s been reviewed twice by the chancellor’s office, and her second review was said to be highly laudatory.”

Cobb expresses concern about the school’s lack of minority recruitment, although school officials say the number of minority students has been steadily increasing (the 1987 figures were 71% white, 15% Asian, 10% Latino, 2.5% black and 1.5% other).

As for faculty, “I’m not pleased with the number (of minorities) we’ve been able to find,” she said, “although next fall we will hire a number of interesting minority faculty.”

In the face of continued opposition, Cobb still demands more research and publication from her faculty.

“Inquiring scholars, that’s what they chose as a profession,” she said. “There’s a tendency to burn out and get bored after 20 years of teaching. The excitement of research is kind of revitalizing.”

Most will grant that Cobb pushes herself even harder than she does the faculty. With her son, Jonathan, now finishing his residency at NYU Medical School, the college president’s family duties are minimal and so is the time she devotes to hobbies such as gardening and reading for pleasure.

One of her favorite places on campus is the 25-acre arboretum maintained jointly by the university and the city of Fullerton. Sometimes she goes there to relax, but even then she is a professional, viewing its many flowers in terms of sepals, pistils, ovules, stamens and petals.

“I’m still a biologist,” she said. “For vacations I go to my house by the sea on Cape Cod because it’s near the Marine Biology Lab at Wood’s Hole, which is sort of the capital of biology in America. I enjoy the lectures. And I still keep up with the journals in my field.” In addition, Cobb serves on 11 major corporate or governmental boards, service that at least one CSUF insider says has paid off in a big way. Bill McGarvey, a Fullerton real estate broker who launched CSUF’s first fund-raising drive in 1965, jokingly observed that he is the only “peasant” now serving on the university’s advisory board.

“She’s attracted people who have big experience on the outside world,” he said. “Since she got her team in place, things have settled down.”

On the whole, Cobb appears to be pleased with her job and the way the university is shaping up.

At the moment, she is excited about expanding with a satellite campus in Mission Viejo “because demographics and forecasts clearly indicate that the county’s population group is in its southern section.” Plans have been approved to offer upper-division and possibly graduate courses at Saddleback College. Although the governor’s tight budget stymied funding this semester, Cobb is confident this dream will soon become a reality.

“As the largest public university in Orange County, we are prepared to give the ‘best bang for the buck’ in this decade and beyond it,” she said.

Typical of Cobb’s driving philosophy and world view is the talk she gave to CSUF’s Chicano community earlier this month at an informal celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Cobb chatted and joked with students and danced with them too, to the music of a lively mariachi band. But when they gave her the podium she spoke in dead earnestness.

“I could easily regale you with all the injustices that now beset you and your friends and citizens, and we could probably compare notes about the injustices that I have had as a black and you have had as a brown,” she said. “But let us get on with what we have to do, which is much more important. And that is to get on with the solutions. To contribute positively. . . . “Your education must prepare you for changes that are unpredictable. Part of that obligation is to look for the most effective ways to utilize our talents and thus to perform. Part of my hope today is that you will begin to think aloud about the needs of our nation as part of the world family to which we all belong.”