Thomas A. Parham, 64, vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Irvine, was recently appointed the next president of Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson. The Southern California News Group sat down with Parham to discuss his vision and priorities for the campus.
Q: You have just become president of one of the most diverse universities in the Cal State system after a 33-year career at UC Irvine where you had a reputation for tackling social justice issues such as gender equity. As an African American educator, is this pretty much the logical final step in your career and a dream job?
A: I am uncompromising in my clarity about my African-centered roots and my pride culturally. In respecting the humanity of other people therein do I celebrate the best of my own humanity.
I am also a celebrated multiculturalist, who has been the president of the Association of Multicultural Counseling and Development.
I am honored, thrilled, flattered to be here. I have told folk this job is really not a job, it is a calling. And you have to be called to a position like this and embrace the social justice roots of this campus.
You have to be called to want to contribute to the intellectual and personal growth and development of students. You have to be called to want to engage in helping this campus to dream about the transformative possibilities.
And you have to be called to cultivate interest in investment in the campus from an external community that needs to understand the jewel this institution is in this community.
Two years ago I said I would retire in five years. Then this opportunity came up. But it’s special.
I’ve been invited to apply for presidencies – probably more than a dozen of them in the past three to five years. But this one was just a compelling opportunity I wanted to be part of.
Q: Do you identify closely with students at Cal State Dominguez Hills?
A: I’m an LA home-boy.
I was born in New York, my mom and dad split when I was three. We moved out here to LA, we lived in South Central, we lived in East LA in the barrio.
Statistically, I should not be where I’m at. How is it I’ve become this celebrated academic with a million awards? I became the first African-American academic psychologist the University of Pennsylvania ever hired in its 200-year history at age 27.
How does a mother who raises four kids by herself, who never earned more than $18,000 a year in the 32 years she worked for the government raise four kids, two with PhD’s, a third college educated? No one on drugs, in jail or in a gang. That’s just discipline and hard work of a magnificent woman.
My story is not different from the students on this campus.
Q: Has this campus been overlooked and underappreciated in the Cal State system and in the South Bay? Do you see a need to lift the profile of this institution?
A: Higher ed has done a good job historically of replicating privilege. It has done a good job of allowing access to those people who are legacy students because their parents went there. It serves as a gatekeeper to keep a whole swatch of folks out.
What we do is educate a broader swatch of the state’s citizenry that aren’t the top 1 percent. We have students who regress toward the mean. We have some very bright folks and some folks who haven’t quite performed. We have a larger mix of transfer students and not just freshman who are engaged in the work force every single day, but are still trying to educate themselves.
Might some people overlook this campus? That’s possible. If people don’t know we’re here yet, they’ll know.
Have we been neglected? Probably so. We might have been neglected in terms of visibility. We might have been neglected in terms of people understanding this is a jewel.
My job here is to make this more of a destination campus and not just a default campus for students.
Q: You have arrived at a particularly transformative time for this university with three large construction projects in the works that you have pictured on the walls of your office. What will they do for this campus?
A: The first picture you saw is the new Science and Innovation Building on the southwest edge of the campus. It’s up, they’re framing it. It’s due to open in 2020.
That building is the first they’ve built on this campus with state funds in 25 years. That building is a game changer because it will not only increase our instructional and research capacity, but it also improves the aesthetic ambiance of the campus.
The second building will go right outside my office that will replace some other buildings that are being taken down after the first of the year. That’s the Innovation and Instruction building. That building is going to house, among other things, our College of Business and Public Policy.
Then out on the horizon are residence halls. We’re in the process of expanding our residence halls and part of making this a transformational campus and a destination campus is we’ve got to improve our residential footprint, which in my opinion is too small.
We have approximately 647 bed spaces on a campus of 16,100-plus students.
We have a very diverse student body; we have a high unrepresented student population here. We’re not just educating privilege. These students come from families that are economically challenged.
We have a high degree of students who are first generation – first in their families to go to college.
That’s not simply about the replication of privilege, that is about the extension of an aspiration that these families have held for years to create a better life. And we have some kids who are still in need of some kind of remediation because of the education they’ve received.
Over 50 percent of our students meet those metrics. We have to find a way as a campus to engage them. The residence hall is certainly part of that. This project will add another 500 bed spaces, almost double.
But we need to put even more residence halls on campus. We still have to figure out a way to fund it and raise some money.
Q: Given the diverse demographics of this university, what role does it have to play in race relations and gender issues with the backdrop of the black lives matter movement and the recent debate over the Supreme Court nominee?
A: There are lots of people in the country who believe we live in an integrated environment. I think that in many parts of the country we live in desegregated ones. There’s a fundamental difference between the two.
In desegregation, people of different cultural mix have a right to occupy the same geographical space.
In integration, everyone who is part of that demographic mosaic ought to see them reflected positively within the fabric of every institution and agency and there is a level of respect for each other’s humanity.
That’s not what you have in the country. So, even as there is this struggle for power, for privilege, for influence, the people who are the haves struggle with what late Harvard scholar Derrick Bell called those faces at the bottom of the well.
The fundamental thing about black lives matter is the cry that says can you respect my dignity and humanity.
The problem is, we haven’t learned to be advocates for one another.
Sexism is not a women’s problem, but it’s not going to change fast enough until more men become advocates for cleaning up our own house. Racism is not a people of color problem; it’s a problem for our brothers and sisters in the white community.
If we can learn to bridge that divide and reach across demographic boundaries, then I think we can accelerate the process
Q: Shortly after you accepted the position in Carson, the Los Angeles Times published a story saying a UC Irvine investigation concluded you engaged in sexual discrimination by paying three women less than men who did the same or similar work. A university review of that investigation remains active, the story also said. What can you tell us about the investigation and the ongoing review?
A: I don’t know how long the investigation will go on. I can’t comment on some of the specifics that remain confidential.
I don’t think there has been a greater champion for women’s issues and equity and diversity than I have been over my career. That women’s center that exists there now was established at my direction.
The highest paid people in that whole division at UC Irvine I used to manage – there’s 32 units, probably 1,200 staff, $230 million budget – are women.
So, I can’t tell you why complaints were filed. What I can say is a pay equity issue among genders assumes someone received some money that someone didn’t get when there’s no evidence of that even though the report of this investigator – which I thought was a pretty poor job – concluded that there was an inequity.
I can’t tell you why they concluded that. I can stand on my track record. This is about stipends for doing committee work some people would consider volunteer work.
The vice chancellor is assumed to be a good steward of the state’s resources by refusing to pay highly-paid executives to do what is in the scope of their work.
Q: What are some of your priorities for the university that you want to tackle as soon as possible?
A: Right now I’m on a viewing and visiting tour. I walk the campus at least half an hour a day. I want to meet folk and engage folk. I haven’t developed my five-year plan because I don’t know enough.
Student success is going to be the mantra and principle in every dollar we spend, in every building we build. Every policy we create is going to directed at helping students maximize their success.
We welcomed the largest freshman class we’ve ever had this summer – 2,200 students. I talk to them about opportunities, challenges and responsibilities.
We’ve got crumbling infrastructure here we need to do something about. We’ve got buildings that need to give way to new. Part of what I’ve tried to do is to get people to dream with me about what’s possible and not settle for what’s predictable.
Source: Daily Breeze