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Cal State Fullerton's Crown Jewel : Cobb's Accomplishments Calm Critics, but Her Dedication Is a Two-Edged Sword

May 28, 1988|LAEL MORGAN | Lael Morgan is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared previously in The Times

When Jewel Plummer Cobb became president of Cal State Fullerton seven years ago, she likened the job to "walking through a forest where there are lovely trees and nice flowers and (where) every now and then you step on a land mine."

Today, the mines are still there, but she has become considerably more adept at avoiding them.

However, because of what Faculty Senate Chairman Julian Doster tactfully calls Cobb's "natural disadvantages," she didn't develop such dexterity overnight.

"She walked into a hornet's nest," said Miles McCarthy, a co-founder of the school and a member of the search committee that hired Cobb away from Douglass College at Rutgers University. "She didn't know our education system. She didn't know state politics. She hardly knew anyone here and was a black woman from the East coming to a largely white university in the West, one that had always been run by men."

As the first black female president of a major public university in the western United States, she was under close scrutiny, and she was ambitious. Her hard-driving, no-nonsense work style often put her at odds with faculty, staff and the community. Discord echoed loudly in the press and then, it seems, turned quietly to mostly rave reviews.

She concedes that her own attitude may have changed a bit, that she "is learning to listen better," but her accomplishments have gone a long way in silencing critics.

During her tenure, the school has grown enormously--in enrollment, academic prestige, recognition and actual physical structures--and Cobb must be given the credit for both managing that growth and raising the monies to accomplish it.

Private funding has gone from $200,000 in 1981 to more than $2.7 million last year, and she has been able to wheedle millions from the Legislature for everything from upgrading the library to construction of the school's first on-campus housing facilities and a $7.2-million building for the new School of Engineering. In addition, a $6.7-million sports complex will rise without cost to taxpayers, thanks to a deal Cobb struck with an international hotel chain.

Then there are the two new schools (communications and engineering) that have been created with nationally recognized faculty, along with the establishment of the Intercultural Development Center and a new emphasis on international studies.

A triumphant Cobb touched on her record at the January dedication of the $7.4-million dormitory facility, one of her priorities for the commuter-oriented school. "They told me it couldn't be done!" she said, recalling her successful 11th-hour lobbying efforts in Sacramento for the revenue bond issue that financed construction of the 2.5-acre complex.

She also spoke of her bleak first five months at the school, when she had to cope with not one but two spending freezes mandated by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

One of her first moves was to lobby the Legislature for additional funding and, despite the fact that she was new to California politics, she soon had CSUF moved up on the priority list of the 19-campus California State University system.

Then she managed to score a much-needed $740,000 appropriation from the Legislature for renovation of CSUF's library system. State funding for the engineering building followed, and this year's completion of on-campus housing for 400 students was a major coup.

"That really surprised me," marveled Fullerton Mayor Richard C. Ackerman. "She's got a good working relationship with the Legislature and some Fullerton graduates in good places."

Tentative plans already had been made for a public-private partnership to build a hotel and conference center on campus, and Cobb moved swiftly to implement them. Early attempts to offer university land to a private developer through the city were stymied by a lawsuit that ultimately was thrown out of court. Cobb persevered, working closely with the city of Fullerton to sign an agreement with Marriott Corp. for construction of an $18-million hotel and conference center this summer.

Proceeds from the international hotel chain's land-use and development agreements will fund the sports complex, which will include a 10,000-seat stadium for football, soccer and other activities, plus an adjoining 2,000-seat pavilion for baseball and track. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer.

"Eventually it will pay off with $700,000 to $1 million per year in the general fund," said Ackerman, who believes that the 200-unit hotel is needed as much by the business community as by the school.

Alumni also have played a major part in Cobb's planning.

"One of the things I discovered when I came here was that we did not have a very clear understanding of alumni possibilities, and I focused on trying to develop a strong alumni organization. It is now in place in each school and working effectively," she said. The active alumni list, which numbered about 10,000 in 1981, has grown to around 50,000, and many are successful fund-raisers.

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