The arrival of Cal State Northridge's new president, Blenda J. Wilson, was celebrated with a fireworks show Saturday night at the school's home football opener at North Campus Stadium.
However, a different sort of fireworks went off last spring when some faculty members protested the dispersal of CSUN Foundation funds to athletics and others demanded the athletic program move back from Division I to Division II.
In March, Black Student Union and Black Student Athletes Assn. members charged the athletic program with racism and decried the 9% graduation rate of African-American student athletes and the lack of minorities on the coaching staffs.
The problems in athletics appear overwhelming, but Wilson, 51, views it differently.
"I truly don't experience it as a lot of problems," she said Monday. "There probably are problems in this institution that have not been so identified that I need to be worried about more than those that have been laid out. Once you have identified the problem you can identify ways of reacting to it and solving it."
Although she acknowledges that she needs to familiarize herself quickly with the issues, Wilson, the first woman and African-American president in CSUN history, said she does not feel pressured by the BSU and BSAA to respond to their concerns because she is black. Nor is she concerned that whites will view her response as predictable because she is black.
"Whether I'm black or not, it's evident that this is an issue that has to be addressed," she said. "I do feel a particular sensitivity, and probably a sense of real pride, that neither the students nor the athletes nor the institution backed away from the kind of issue that I think in many places would have been hidden and pushed under the rug or would have resulted in incredible divisiveness."
With regard to minority hiring in athletics, Wilson is confident that future hires of coaches will reflect the diversity of the student athletes. She has instructed Vice President for Student Affairs Ronald Kopita, one of her first hires at CSUN, to focus on affirmative action hiring, student advising and student academic progress.
"I know he has begun to formulate plans to do that," Wilson said.
In response to the dismal graduation rate of athletes, including 33% of white athletes, Wilson is hopeful that academic programs designed to help student athletes will serve as pilot programs for other groups of students on campus. Those programs remain in the formative stages. Only 8% of CSUN football players graduate, and Wilson will be closely watching for improvement.
"I think it's regrettable," she said. "It's certainly something that will be corrected, and (knowing) the extent of the problem gives us a good benchmark to gauge our progress."
Unlike university presidents who believe that an institution gains a higher profile and increased donations to academics through athletic success, Wilson is not certain of the correlation.
"There is no research evidence that athletics--even big time, and I'm coming now from the University of Michigan perspective of big time--really does provide resources for the rest of the academic enterprise, though clearly it does provide resources for continuing athletics," said Wilson, former chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn.
"I think therefore the question here is, can there be a benefit to the entire campus of having intercollegiate athletics? At what scale? And that benefit not only needs to be measured by actual dollars, but in our circumstance by public support, by public interest, by a populace that is willing to make the well-being of CSUN a priority."
Wilson plans to use the market research capabilities of the business school to measure public attitude toward Northridge's future in Division I athletics.
Although Wilson said she will attend athletic events, she will not be a hands-on athletics administrator.
Kopita will oversee Athletic Director Bob Hiegert, whose stance on the issues raised by the BSU and BSAA was viewed by those groups as defensive.
"(Kopita) is aware of my views of his responsibility for oversight and monitoring of the athletic program," Wilson said. "So all of these issues raised--and pretty much acknowledged as valid--by the black students, and acknowledged by the community . . . he is going to develop goals and expectations about progress and hold accountable for achieving them those directors and coaches and others who are appropriately held accountable."