Jewel Plummer Cobb, who broke racial barriers as Cal State Fullerton president, dies at 92

Jewel Plummer Cobb in 1986. A biologist and cancer researcher, Cobb served as president of Cal State Fullerton during a time of rapid growth.
Jewel Plummer Cobb in 1986. A biologist and cancer researcher, Cobb served as president of Cal State Fullerton during a time of rapid growth.
(Gail Fisher / Los Angeles Times)

Jewel Plummer Cobb, the president of Cal State Fullerton during a time of unprecedented growth in the 1980s and one of the first African American women to oversee a major university in the western United States, has died at the age of 92. 

Cobb had been living in Maplewood, N.J., and suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

When Cobb arrived at the Orange County campus in 1981, she found a school bursting at the seams and lacking diversity — no campus housing for students, no women’s studies programs, few minority faculty members and officials who seemingly paid little attention to community outreach.

Cobb set about making changes, partially through the sheer force of her no-nonsense management style and constant 16-hour workdays, colleagues said.

“Jewel was an absolute dynamo. Her life was dedicated to helping the disadvantaged, long before that became a popular cry,” said Jack Bedell, professor emeritus of sociology and former chairman of the university’s Academic Senate. “Right away, she set an example for the rest of us that the university’s first responsibility is to students.”

Cobb, the granddaughter of a freed slave, told Bedell that her background compelled her to focus on the needs of those often ignored. She grew up in Chicago, raised by a doctor and a teacher. Though she came from a middle-class upbringing, segregation meant she had to attend underfunded public schools designated for African Americans.

Jewel Plummer Cobb in 1982.
Jewel Plummer Cobb in 1982. (Los Angeles Times)

While she was a student at the University of Michigan, African Americans were prevented from swimming at public pools and black students were isolated in one dormitory. She transferred to Talladega College in Alabama, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology. Later, she moved to New York University to study cell biology, earning both her master’s degree and doctorate in cell physiology.

A biologist by training, she never let go of her desire for lifelong learning, friends said.

“Once, my son opened up his sixth-grade science book and there she was, one of six people featured as leaders in her field,” Bedell recalled. “She always had high standards; she was classy in every way.” 

By the time she retired from Cal State Fullerton in 1990, her legacy would include rapid enrollment growth, the opening of new communications and engineering schools, the launch of a satellite campus in southern Orange County and a public-private venture to build a Marriott hotel on campus. She was dubbed “The Queen of Concrete” by some.

Cobb was also credited with recruiting more women and minorities, both as students and professors. She established the school’s first endowed professorships and launched partnerships with universities abroad, forming overseas student and faculty exchanges, along with getting state funding for a dormitory that now bears her name.

Cobb’s own research focused on skin cancer and zeroed in on the ability of melanin to protect skin from damage. She spent years documenting how hormones, ultraviolet light and chemotherapeutic drugs could cause changes in cell division. Her published works include 36 research-related journal articles, plus others dealing with the advancement of women in scientific fields.

“She often told me that she faced more struggles as a woman than as a minority,” Bedell said.

What Cobb left behind is an appreciation for affirmative action — tied to excellence, said Barbara Stone, former political science professor and a member of the search committee that recommended Cobb for the president’s post.

In 1990, when asked how she would like to be remembered, Cobb told Diane Ross, then-president of the Association for Women in Science: “I think I’d like to be remembered as a black woman scientist who cared very much about what happens to young folks, particularly women going into science.”

She is survived by a son, Roy Jonathan Cobb; a daughter-in-law, Suzzanne Douglas Cobb and a granddaughter, Jordan.


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