Focus on Cobb at Cal State’s Graduation : Commencement: The university’s retiring president calls Fullerton ‘a rigorous school,’ despite beach balls and balloons at the ceremony.


Resplendent in academic regalia, Cal State Fullerton President Jewel Plummer Cobb smiled often as she shook hands with graduates during Saturday’s commencement.

Yet it was a moment of some sadness for Cobb, who is retiring after nine years at the helm of the university--a period marked by unprecedented growth in enrollment, prestige and construction.

Cobb, 65, the first black woman to head a major public university in the western United States, will step down July 31.

“It’s a happy and sad feeling at the same time,” she said Saturday, bidding farewell to the largest graduating class in Cal State Fullerton history. “I guess I haven’t really started thinking about leaving yet.”


Cobb, who presided over the ceremonies on the campus green, was presented with a plaque in recognition of her leadership. She told students to be proud of Cal State Fullerton.

“This is a rigorous school, and I am sure you will go out with all of the skills you need,” she said, addressing business and economics students. “Thirty percent of the accounting professionals in Orange County are graduates from our school of business and economics, and seven of our graduates are partners in Big Six accounting firms.”

Cobb seemed to enjoy her last commencement as president. And students put on a lively show. During the presentation of degrees, they tossed beach balls into the restless crowd. Whenever an usher confiscated one ball, another would mysteriously appear, punched across rows of eager parents and students.

Two male students received their diplomas on stage with balloons stuffed beneath their gowns.

But Cobb, known for her no-nonsense management style and and force of personality, remained unruffled as she bade farewell to the 5,700 graduating students.

Saturday’s ceremony was a fitting tribute for Cobb, Cal State Fullerton’s third president, who has been credited with boosting enrollment. Since she joined the university in 1981, enrollments have grown to nearly 25,000 students, two new schools have been founded (communications and engineering), there has been an unprecedented construction campaign and a South County branch campus in Mission Viejo has been established.

Tough and determined, Cobb also won millions of dollars from the state Legislature for a sorely needed dormitory, plus commitments for a $9.4-million computer science building and a $22-million science building.

She engineered a public-private partnership that brought a Marriott hotel to the campus. The hotel deal is expected to generate money to help build a sports complex estimated to cost more than $10 million.

Cobb is also credited with bringing in more women and minorities and has been particularly supportive of efforts to attract women in the sciences.

Cobb is a third-generation scientist, the granddaughter of a slave who ultimately graduated from Howard University’s School of Pharmacy in 1898. Her father was a physician in Chicago, where she was born in 1924.

A biologist by training, she said her plans include writing and working as an educational consultant. She will continue to serve on a dozen corporate and civic boards, while splitting her time between Los Angeles and her home on Cape Cod.


Age: 65.

Born: Chicago, 1924.

Degrees: bachelor’s from Talladega College in Alabama; master’s and doctorate in cell biology from New York University; 17 honorary doctorates.

Professional history: biology professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York; dean of Connecticut College and zoology professor, and dean of Douglass College, a division of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Scientific study: cell physiology, melanoma cancer.

Tenure at CSUF: Took office Oct. 1, 1981, scheduled to retire July 31.

Marital status: Divorced.

Son: Roy Jonathan Cobb, 33, a radiologist.

Corporate boards: Traveler’s Corp.; Allied/Signal Corp.; First Interstate Bancorp.; CPC International Inc.

Civic boards: Advisory Council of the African-American Institute; the American Assembly; American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities; California Afro-American Museum Foundation; State Department Advisory Committee on Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs; state Department of Commerce’s Advisory Committee on Competitive Technology; Boy Scouts of America-Orange County Council; Pacific Symphony; Newport Harbor Art Museum; Board of Governors for National Conference of Christians and Jews, Orange County.