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Popular President Lifted Campus Standards, Morale

In 111/2 years, Robert C. Maxson has raised Cal State Long Beach's academic reputation and graduation rates. He is retiring in January.

November 21, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Robert C. Maxson was an embattled president when he stepped down from the helm of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, in 1994.

He was still drawing criticism over his long-running feud with the hugely controversial but extremely successful basketball coach, Jerry Tarkanian, whom he ousted two years earlier.

Today, the story is vastly different. Maxson, 69, is preparing to step down in January from the presidency of Cal State Long Beach, but he is leaving as a widely admired, even beloved, leader with nary a public critic. And he is getting widespread praise for lifting the academic reputation of the school he has headed since leaving Las Vegas.

"I don't know of any other case in higher education where someone has stayed on the good side of virtually everybody for 11 1/2 years. It just doesn't happen," said Margaret Merryfield, chairwoman of Cal State Long Beach's academic senate and a chemistry professor.

Another sign of Maxson's popularity: When student leaders around the California State University system started picking a "university president of the year" in 1999, Maxson was the first to win.

He won three more times in the next five years. Finally, in 2004, student leaders renamed the honor the "Robert C. Maxson President of the Year Award" and took Maxson out of the running so that the 22 other Cal State presidents could have a better chance.

Student leaders from other campuses might initially be skeptical of the praise for Maxson, said Danny Vivian, the student body president of Cal State Long Beach from 2002-2004.

"You probably think he's some sort of sly schmoozer from what you hear," Vivian said. "But when you meet him, you see how genuine he is and how warm he really is. You can't help but be a Bob Maxson fan."

Maxson's shining image in Long Beach partly stems from his outgoing personality and his folksy Southern manner.

He and his wife, Sylvia, who has a joint appointment as an English and an education professor at Long Beach, often invite students to their university home for dinners. Maxson is a constant presence at campus activities, often sitting with undergraduates.

"There are three priorities here," Maxson is fond of saying. "No. 1 is students, No. 2 is students, No. 3 is students."

Maxson brought extra marketing savvy to the 34,500-student school, which is the third-biggest public university in California, behind UCLA and Cal State Fullerton.

He is credited with popularizing the school nickname, "The Beach," and he regularly finishes his speeches with an emphatic "Go Beach." As he explained, "You tell me about any student who doesn't want to go to a university called 'The Beach.' "

One sign of the university's improvement is the school's rising graduation rate -- the percentage of freshmen who earn bachelor's degrees there within six years. According to the latest figures, Long Beach's rate has reached 48.5%, up from 36.7% four years ago.

Likewise, the SAT college entrance exam scores of entering freshman have climbed. The scores for students who enrolled at Long Beach this fall averaged 1023.5 out of a possible 1600, up from 895 a decade earlier.

Maxson said advancing a school's academic reputation not only lifts the morale of a campus but also gives graduates "a fighting chance to get into medical school, into law school, into PhD programs and to take their engineering degrees and go to work with the big engineering companies."

Elizabeth Hoffman, a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach and an associate vice president of the statewide faculty union, praises Maxson's willingness to hear different constituencies out.

She recalled showing up with other faculty members at a Cal State board of trustees meeting to protest a contract dispute in the late 1990s.

After the protesters left, Maxson followed the Long Beach group out to shake their hands, while other campus presidents stayed inside.

"It was a kind of show of respect for us as faculty," Hoffman said. "He didn't let the fact that there might be disagreements come between the common interests we had."

Maxson also pushed for a President's Scholars program resembling one he had at Las Vegas to recruit top students.

The program offers full-tuition scholarships, housing, book stipends, extra academic counseling and even such perks as free parking for California high school valedictorians and for other students who ranked in the top 1% in the National Merit Scholarship competition.

Merryfield said many professors, herself included, initially "were very, very skeptical" about a program that would compete for students against University of California campuses and leading private colleges.

But the program, which started with 10 students, has now grown to about 375, and Merryfield said the faculty generally has been impressed.

"The president's scholars are only a very small fraction of the student population, but the average student's academic profile has improved as the perception has grown that this is a place for good students," she said.

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