Cobb’s Cal State Legacy: Minority, Campus Growth


When she took over as president of Cal State Fullerton in October, 1981, Jewel Plummer Cobb found herself one of the few women and the only member of a minority in the top ranks of the university’s administrators.

She also discovered crowded buildings, no campus housing for students, no women’s studies program, few women and minority faculty members, and little minority or community outreach and fund-raising efforts.

Next week, as Cobb hands over the presidency of Orange County’s largest university, she leaves behind more women and minority staff and students, tougher academic standards, a student-housing complex, a satellite in fast-growing South County, the first luxury hotel on a college campus and private fund-raising that soared from $200,000 in 1982 to $5.5 million last year.


Affectionately dubbed the “Queen of Concrete,” she has presided over the longest sustained period of construction since orange groves gave way to a campus in 1959. She leaves even more brick and mortar in the wings, including a $10.2-million sports complex to be financed with income from the hotel.

“She’s done a darn good job,” said William D. Campbell, chairman of the California State University Board of Trustees. “Jewel has been a fine president. She’s not only a great woman, but a fantastic leader.”

The first black woman president of a major West Coast university, the 66-year-old Cobb didn’t finish everything she set out to do in her nine years as president, a term cut short by former Chancellor Ann Reynolds’ decision that presidents 65 or older should retire.

A cash-strapped athletics program, meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student body and recruitment of qualified professors to replace a graying faculty in high-priced Orange County are perhaps the biggest challenges facing her successor, Milton A. Gordon, vice president of Sonoma State University.

Gordon, who takes over next month, comes during one of the most financially troubled times in state history, with the 20-campus California State University system facing a possible $125-million budget cut this year alone.

“This is a very crucial time to lose a magnificent leader like Jewel Cobb, but even Jewel could not work miracles when there isn’t the fiscal support,” said Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes (D-Los Angeles).


Campbell said Gordon’s challenges will be “to do a much better job garnering the financial support of business in Orange County.” And as more older professors retire, “we have to find the best faculty in the country. You have to go out and hustle.”

As for the school’s athletics program, which has suffered recent cutbacks and the loss of some key coaches, Campbell added that Gordon, a 54-year-old mathematician, has a strong background in sports. “The trick is to have community support reach a level where programs are self-sustaining,” he said.

That is easier said than done in sports-rich Southern California, where championship college teams, professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey are just a television channel away.

But it is Cobb’s oft-stated belief that sports programs are the “front porch” of the university: “If you get people onto the front porch, they’ll be interested in seeing the rest of the house,” she has said.

“You’d be surprised how many people have never been on this campus until they come to one of our sporting events,” Cobb said as she strode through the gymnasium on a recent trek across campus.

Gesturing to a swarm of more than a hundred raucous children taking part in the Titan Youth Sports Camp, she said: “Isn’t that beautiful? Their vibrancy and youth takes me back to when my son was their age.”


Minutes later, she pitched a shovel full of dirt at ground-breaking ceremonies for the controversial sports complex, a unique partnership between the city and university that is expected to host its first football game in October, 1992.

Friends and supporters of Cobb say she had planned to stay on at Fullerton a few more years when Reynolds approached her to resign last fall under a new retirement policy set by trustees.

“I think it’s an example of age discrimination,” said Jack Bedell, 1989-90 chairman of the Faculty Senate.

CSU trustees were “appalled” at former Chancellor Reynolds’ mandatory interpretation of that policy, which was aimed at easing the transition rather than forcing out individual presidents, according to several sources familiar with the issue.

Angry trustees queried Reynolds about Cobb’s resignation, sources said, but in the end felt it was too late to reverse the decision.

“It was as lousy a deal as any I’ve ever seen in all my years in education,” one official said.


Still, CSU officials said that Cobb’s forced retirement--which by everyone’s account was because of her age and not because of dissatisfaction with her performance at Fullerton--contributed to Reynolds’ subsequent ouster last May.

Since then, honors have been heaped on Cobb.

Congratulatory letters have come from President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle, from California Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and a host of others. And Northeastern University just added one more degree to her stack of 17 honorary doctorates.

She has dormitory complexes named after her on both coasts. In New Jersey, where she was dean of Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers University, a dormitory for science students is named for her. At Fullerton, trustees have suspended their own rules against naming buildings for current or recently departed presidents and gave her name to the campus’s first student dormitories, a three-building apartment complex to house nearly 400 of the Cal State’s 25,000 students.

CSU trustees also named her President Emeritus and awarded her a special professorship that will allow her to continue her research as a cell biologist, and teach or work on educational issues of concern to her in the coming year at a salary of about $91,000.

At a June 3 retirement dinner for Cobb at the Disneyland Hotel, John M. Rau, head of Davis Industries and a prominent Cal State Fullerton supporter, announced a fund-raising drive for a $500,000 endowed chair in the sciences to be named for her.

“It will be tangible, concrete, permanent evidence of our regard for her and the values she has espoused and will continue to espouse in her career,” Rau said at the dinner packed with colleagues and a vast circle of longtime friends, many of whom traveled across the country to pay tribute to Cobb.


For now, Cobb is planning a long vacation at her summer home in Falmouth, Mass. In the fall, she will settle in a condominium in midtown Los Angeles and work out of nearby Cal State Los Angeles. She said she plans to continue her work on various corporate and community boards of directors and may do some consulting work.

Many people assumed that Cobb would have to deal with widespread racial prejudice in conservative Orange County. But the granddaughter of a slave-turned-pharmacist said: “I have had warm receptions since the day I got here. And I’m not being Pollyanna about that, it’s true.”

Some say sexism may have been a bigger hurdle at a university dominated by white men.

“I think some of the academic departments were very resistant behind closed doors to diversify their faculty,” said outgoing Academic Senate chairman Bedell. “They would not come out with it because they did not want to be labeled as racist or sexist.”

But Cobb was determined to promote diversity and that will be the mark she leaves on Fullerton, say her supporters.

“Besides the buildings, I’d have to say her legacy is affirmative action, always tied to quality--a striving for breadth plus excellence,” said political science professor Barbara Stone, who served on the search committee that recommended Cobb in 1981.

“Jewel didn’t just say it, she did it. She made a commitment in terms of attracting students and hiring personnel. This institution made an effort to search out quality people. . . . That is Jewel’s lasting legacy to this university--an attitude.”



Age: 66

Born: Jan. 17, 1924, in Chicago.

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

Professional history: Biology professor at Sarah Lawrence College, N.Y.; dean of Connecticut College and zoology professor, and dean of Douglass College, formerly a women’s college within Rutgers University, N.J.

Scientific study: Cell physiology, melanoma cancer.

Tenure at CSUF: Took office Oct. 1, 1981; retires Tuesday.

Marital status: Divorced.

Children: A son, Roy Jonathan Cobb, 33, a radiologist.

Corporate boards: Travelers 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; U.S. State Department Advisory Committee on Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs; state Department of Commerce Advisory Committee on Competitive Technology; Boy Scouts of America, Orange County Council; Orange County Pacific Symphony; Newport Harbor Art Museum; Board of Governors of National Conference of Christians and Jews, Orange County.