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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

"She's not Don Shields," Mandel said. "She's not one of the good old boys. She's different. She has another style."

It was that style that took a little getting used to. "Socially, she's absolutely charming, but she's tough on the staff and impossible to argue with," one faculty member said.

"We'd give her all the reasons why something couldn't be done," said another. "She'd listen and then say, 'I'm sure you can solve those problems. Let's do it.'

"We've learned you have to be cautious in what you say to her. No trial balloons, no political discussion about what will go over well with this or that group. She tends to make snap decisions that are not always the best. One wastes a lot of time trying to talk her out of them. And she tends to take criticism personally."

Cobb concedes that she has trouble with criticism. "Doesn't everybody?" But she said she has tried to learn to deal with it.

Frustration built among the faculty until two years ago when Lee Bellot, a history professor who served on Cobb's search committee, publicly told of his regrets at having hired her. At the time, there was considerable resentment because Cobb was pushing professors into research and publishing in addition to regular teaching assignments.

And there was criticism too of Cobb's commitment to building a hotel and her push to establish a satellite campus in south Orange County that some felt would drain resources from academic basics.

In face of the protest, Cobb took the gamble of allowing the Faculty Senate to vote on both issues. She won on both counts, and even Bellot concedes that things are looking up.

"She's been more attentive in the past several years. I have been on the Academic Senate and on the Executive Committee, and she has been listening more than I recall in the past. I think she got some pretty good advice from people like Miles McCarthy (former acting president) that perhaps she took to heart."

"From all the signs I've seen, she's doing very well," McCarthy agreed. "She's been reviewed twice by the chancellor's office, and her second review was said to be highly laudatory."

Cobb expresses concern about the school's lack of minority recruitment, although school officials say the number of minority students has been steadily increasing (the 1987 figures were 71% white, 15% Asian, 10% Latino, 2.5% black and 1.5% other).

As for faculty, "I'm not pleased with the number (of minorities) we've been able to find," she said, "although next fall we will hire a number of interesting minority faculty."

In the face of continued opposition, Cobb still demands more research and publication from her faculty.

"Inquiring scholars, that's what they chose as a profession," she said. "There's a tendency to burn out and get bored after 20 years of teaching. The excitement of research is kind of revitalizing."

Most will grant that Cobb pushes herself even harder than she does the faculty. With her son, Jonathan, now finishing his residency at NYU Medical School, the college president's family duties are minimal and so is the time she devotes to hobbies such as gardening and reading for pleasure.

One of her favorite places on campus is the 25-acre arboretum maintained jointly by the university and the city of Fullerton. Sometimes she goes there to relax, but even then she is a professional, viewing its many flowers in terms of sepals, pistils, ovules, stamens and petals.

"I'm still a biologist," she said. "For vacations I go to my house by the sea on Cape Cod because it's near the Marine Biology Lab at Wood's Hole, which is sort of the capital of biology in America. I enjoy the lectures. And I still keep up with the journals in my field." In addition, Cobb serves on 11 major corporate or governmental boards, service that at least one CSUF insider says has paid off in a big way. Bill McGarvey, a Fullerton real estate broker who launched CSUF's first fund-raising drive in 1965, jokingly observed that he is the only "peasant" now serving on the university's advisory board.

"She's attracted people who have big experience on the outside world," he said. "Since she got her team in place, things have settled down."

On the whole, Cobb appears to be pleased with her job and the way the university is shaping up.

At the moment, she is excited about expanding with a satellite campus in Mission Viejo "because demographics and forecasts clearly indicate that the county's population group is in its southern section." Plans have been approved to offer upper-division and possibly graduate courses at Saddleback College. Although the governor's tight budget stymied funding this semester, Cobb is confident this dream will soon become a reality.

"As the largest public university in Orange County, we are prepared to give the 'best bang for the buck' in this decade and beyond it," she said.

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