Cal State Fullerton’s Cobb to Step Down After 8 Years


Jewel Plummer Cobb, who has been president of Cal State Fullerton during eight years of unrivaled growth in enrollment, prestige and building construction, announced Thursday that she will retire.

Cobb, who recently turned 65, said she will step down on July 31 to relax and pursue scientific research that has been neglected during her tenure as president, as well as work on national educational issues.

“It’s a good time to leave, when the university is moving along very well,” said Cobb, who was the first black woman to head a major public university in the western United States. “I have also reached the time in life when I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do with the next 10 years. I need a little breather.”


Trustees of the California State University system are expected to initiate a national search for a new president for the 25,000-student campus at next month’s board meeting. The university has no mandatory retirement age for presidents, although a policy passed this summer states they should voluntarily step aside at 65.

Cobb, a tireless executive known for 16-hour workdays, insisted that she is not retiring, but “transitioning.” She plans to return to New England, where she lived for more than 20 years and where her son now resides, and will split her time between a summer home in Falmouth, Mass., and an apartment in New York City.

“The word retirement means retirement from the Cal State system, but not from life,” she said. “I intend to remain active in the field of education, and I want to write books and articles about higher education. I’ve still got a great deal to do.”

Word of Cobb’s retirement spread rapidly through the Fullerton campus after she informed her four vice presidents at a late morning meeting on Thursday. A memo announcing Cobb’s plans also went out to the university’s five deans and all department heads later in the day.

The news touched off speculation about possible replacements, including the presidents of two smaller Cal State campuses who are known to want to move up: Tomas A. Arciniega of California State College, Bakersfield, and Harold H. Haak of California State University, Fresno. Cobb’s second-in-command, Academic Vice President Jack W. Coleman, would be a favorite among Fullerton colleagues, but his age--66--makes such an appointment seem unlikely.

In addition, trustees of the Cal State system have shown a tendency to fill top spots from outside, plucking the last two presidents appointed from universities east of the Mississippi. Cobb’s announcement, nine months before she will step aside, appears timed to ensure that a new president can be selected before she departs.


“The history recently has not been to promote from within,” said one Cal State Fullerton executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I know of nobody on campus who is likely to get the job.”

A biologist by training, Cobb has transformed Cal State Fullerton through force of personality, insistence on academic quality and a no-nonsense management style. Her legacy will include enrollment growth that has made the university the sixth largest in the Cal State system, establishment of Communications and Engineering colleges at Cal State Fullerton and the opening of a long-awaited South County satellite that could sow the seeds for a new four-year campus.

Cobb has also presided over a public-private partnership that brought a Marriott hotel to the campus. The hotel pact, which includes the city of Fullerton, will generate funds for construction of a $10-million sports complex to be shared by the university and city. She also has secured state funding for a $9.4-million computer science building and a planned $22-million science building.

She also is credited with bringing more women and minorities to Cal State Fullerton, as students, professors and administrators, and with encouraging women to pursue careers in the sciences and mathematics. Cobb made academic diversity a priority, and the heightened awareness that she instilled is now a part of university life.

“President Cobb’s retirement means we’ve lost a friend and mentor for our campus,” said Joyce Flocken, chairman of speech communications. “She has given us eight years of strong leadership and a very strong commitment to the students and the greater Orange County area. Because of her efforts in affirmative action, minority student programs and recruiting, this university represents the people of our community on all levels.”

Flocken said she was so touched when she read Cobb’s philosophy in a newspaper article-- “Remember, everyone’s trying to get through this life the best way they can”--that she has saved the story for several years. Cobb, she added, has brought a compassionate touch to the job of president.


“We don’t always agree, but I have infinite respect for her as a human being. Reading her motto humanized her even more in my eyes.”

John Bedell, chairman of CSUF’s Academic Senate, called Cobb a “dynamic president.”

“When you walk around this campus, Jewel’s imprint is obvious,” he said. “She has made a significant contribution in construction of academic buildings and our first dormitories, and she set a tone that the university’s prime responsibility is to the students.” Julian Foster, a campus leader and prominent political scientist, said Cobb’s emphasis on research and scholarship may be her most important contribution. “She values quality and academic freedom and she relates well to every segment of the campus,” he said.

Cobb, who holds a master’s degree and doctorate in cell physiology from New York University, was previously dean of Douglass College, a division of Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey before coming to Fullerton in 1981. She serves on civic and philanthropic boards including the Afro-American Institute and the American Red Cross and corporate boards including the Travelers Corp., Allied/Signal Corp. and First Interstate Bancorp.

A third-generation scientist, Cobb is the granddaughter of a freed slave who eventually graduated from pharmacy school, and the daughter of a physician. Her son, Jonathan, is also a physician. Cobb’s scientific career has centered on her lifelong study of melanoma cancer.

Cobb, who said in a 1988 interview that she “was raised to think that no career was out of bounds,” said she is proud of all the accomplishments of her tenure at Cal State Fullerton. Leaving next summer will be difficult.

“I’ll miss my friends and I’ll miss the campus,” Cobb said. “I have loved every minute of this job. But I’m not going to miss it yet--I’m not leaving yet.”



Trustees of the California State University system are expected to initiate a national search for a replacement for Cal State Fullerton president Jewel Plummer Cobb at next month’s board meeting. Trustees have shown a tendency to fill top spots from outside, appointing the last two presidents from universities east of the Mississippi.