Dr. James M. Rosser
Dr. James Rosser
An Engaging Dr. Rosser
The New Campus Look
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
“He continues to serve as the president of Cal-State L.A. after 30 years”
When Dr. James Rosser was appointed as president of California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State), he was already a noted scholar and had already been established as an academician. As the institution’s sixth president and the long-serving president in the California State University system, he is also a professor of healthcare management and of microbiology. Before coming to Cal State, Dr. Rosser had been the vice chancellor of the New Jersey Department of Higher Education for five years and also as its acting chancellor. Then while in New Jersey, he also served as a member of the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners.
The essence of Dr. Rosser’s role as a concerned educator could be gleaned from excerpts embodied in an open letter he recently penned entitled, “Breaking Down the Barriers to College,” which stated in part, “When I speak about how to get to college, I ask the audience to remember one word above all others: Algebra. Math is a primary hurdle to getting into and succeeding in college. If students take, and excel in rigorous high school math–with a strong foundation in Algebra I and II–they are more likely to find multiple degree and career paths open to them… What does it take to break down a barrier? You must first understand the nature of the barrier, then you must overcome it, and, finally, you have an obligation to assist others in eliminating the barrier.”
The length of his tenure/service at Cal State and the Los Angeles area education community dwarfs his legacy as an educator. Under Dr. Rosser’s leadership, Cal State has evolved into the prototype of a successful, urban university. The quality of campus life has improved dramatically during the past 30 years. Since many of the students come from under-represented communities and diverse backgrounds, he has worked to transform the hopes, expectation and career achievements of the individuals from those environments.
The results of his efforts can be seen through the resumes of Cal State’s alumni and the impact they have made not only in Southern California but throughout the state and indeed the country. A wide range of careers have been molded at Cal State during the last generations including public officials, scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, business people, educators and society’s movers-and-shakers, thanks to Dr. Rosser’s efforts.
Despite growing up in a tough East St Louis, Illinois neighborhood, [Dr.] Rosser attended Langston University on basketball scholarship–with strong support from his parents and teachers–and then transferred to Southern Illinois University (SIU), Carbondale where he earned a Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees in microbiology, and health education administration. At SIU, he founded the Black Studies Program and later on served as a faculty member. Early in his career, Dr. Rosser became the first Black research bacteriologist for Eli Lilly & Company Laboratories. Then he served as a tenured faculty member–in pharmacology and toxicology–and Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Kansas, and for two years, as Vice Chair of the Editorial Board of the University Press of Kansas before accepting an appointment in New Jersey.
His work at Cal State is well documented and it serves as a model for similar type educational institutions not only in Los Angeles, California, but throughout California and the nation as a whole. He has literally placed the California State University system “on the map.” And according to Dr. Rosser, though education is dominated traditionally by academic achievement, that alone is not the totality of the educational experience, there are many components to achieving true education including life experience, maturity, environmental impact and social upbringing.
Many experts in the field of higher education consider Cal State, one of the most diverse campuses in the nation under Dr. Rosser’s leadership; its diversity encompasses the student body, the faculty and the administration. It boasts a student breakdown of approximately 52 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Asian-American/Pacific Islander, 16 percent White and 9 percent African-American. While the full-time faculty is about 40 percent non-White, people of color comprised roughly 53 percent of the Los Angeles city population, according to recent U.S. Census data.
As an educator as well as an administrator, Dr. Rosser has promoted science and engineering education using his positions as a member of the California Council on Science and Technology, the Citizens Advisory Committee of the Congressional Caucus for Science and Technology, and numerous National Science Foundation and Academy of Engineering task forces and forums to influence state and national science policy. Cal State has one of the most aggressive engineering programs in the state university system. Some of the engineering students have been forging relationships with community schools to expose young students to the field of engineering and science.
In addition to serving on scientific and academic panels and forums, Dr. Rosser also served on the National Institutes of Health National Advisory Council on Aging, and the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources Advisory Committee, which he also chaired. Currently he serves on the National Academies Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable Council, the California Center Advisory Council of the Milken Institute, and the CSU Presidents’ Commission for CSUPERB–the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology.
A significant part of Dr. Rosser’s work is his written and/or edited writing in the field of higher education administration, including “Strategic Planning and Management: Methodology for Responsible Change” and “Libraries and the Establishment of Academic Strategy in Higher Education,” Journal of Library Administration, Vol. 13, No. 3 & 4, 1990. As a consultant to educational organizations, including the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the Commission on Institutes of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, the Educational Testing Service, and the Carnegie Policy Council on Higher Education, Dr. Rosser has exemplified how the role of academia, business, science, and philanthropy and community service are all inter-related in the pursuit of education. It is not only the three r’s (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmethic), it is all of the above and much more especially in this age of the explosion of knowledge.
Serving as a member and chair of the Education and Human Resources Advisory Committee of the National Science Foundation, the Board of Advisors of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority Institutions for the U.S. Department of the Air Force and as the chair of the Action Forum on Diversity in the Engineering Workforce, National Academy of Engineers, Dr. Rosser’s participation in these entities complements their value and add bona fide academic expertise.
Dr. Rosser’s involvement in community and philanthropic affairs has been as assiduous as his academic achievements and his pursuit of academic excellence for those who benefit from his leadership. His numerous outstanding awards and honorary degrees for civic and philanthropic endeavors over the years read like an encyclopedia of achievement.
Outstanding awards include: the SIU Alumni Achievement Award; the Brotherhood Crusade’s Pioneer of Black Achievement Award; the Los Angeles Urban League Volunteer Service Award; the Recognition in Education from Involvement for Young Achievers Award; City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission Certificate of Merit; the Leadership Award from the Department of Higher Education/Educational Opportunity Fund Program of the State of New Jersey; the Golden State Minority Foundation’s 1990 Medal of Excellence; the National Science Foundation’s Educator Achievement Award; the Institute for the Redesign of Learning’s 1995 Take Charge of Learning Success; the award as an Aspen Scholar for the 1995 Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar; the Education Award of the Watts Foundation Community Trust; and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, Inc. which at the same time also honored then President Nominee/Senator Barack Obama, California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Keith Black, Aerospace Corporation President Dr. Wanda Austin, and The Annenberg Foundation.
Honorary degrees include: Southern Illinois University (his alma mater), Doctor of Humane Letters; and Pepperdine University, Doctor of Laws.
In addition, as the fourth recipient of the Spirit of Philanthropy Award for his generous spirit and his contributions of time, efforts, energy and resources to the greater Los Angeles community, Dr. Rosser stated: “The ‘Spirit of Philanthropy’ being recognized today extends far beyond me, out of the spotlight. Through the work of hundreds of devoted individuals on campus-and with the support of countless foundations, private donors, corporations, partnering institutions and others in the community-California State University, Los Angeles has developed a culture that has helped to transform the lives of countless low-income students from many backgrounds. The culture endures and grows thanks to the commitment and connections brought to it by these countless individuals.”
As one of six university leaders on the 22-member National Academies Research Council, Dr. Rosser has championed increasing access to higher education among underserved communities–a recollection of his own humble beginnings–testifying before the U.S. Congress, in presentations at national meetings and moderating a White House forum that increased diversity in education and in the scientific community. He has said, “I think perhaps the most significant accomplishment is the general acceptance here now that diversity and excellence must go hand in hand.”
There are few greater rewards than those given to an individual by his colleagues, his peers and those with whom he has worked side-by-side. They are considered priceless and the quality of the man can be seen through the lens of others; here is what some has said:
Dr. James Lyons, former president of Cal. State Univ. Dominguez Hills and HBCU Jackson State University, Mississippi: “I have worked closely with Dr. Rosser and it’s been a good relationship. He’s kind of a senior statesman in the sense that he has been in the Cal. State system as president for  years.”
Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, former president of Bowling Green University, Ohio: “Dr. Rosser has done a marvelous job of transforming a sleepy campus that really didn’t have a lot of energy–no apparent specialized niche for itself and just serving whoever came–into a thriving campus with recognized programs in the engineering area, the sciences, in education and in the arts.”
Dr. John L. Cleman, a member of the university’s English department: “Dr. Rosser came in and had a different way of doing business … He was seen at the outset to be a stronger self-willed leader” than his predecessor.”
David W. Adamany, president of Temple University and author of a CSULA re-accreditation report in the early 1990s: “The faculty really had their heels dug in and Jim Rosser… brought them around towards accepting the need to change the curriculum and to make the institution more hospitable to change in the student body.”
In national rankings, U.S. News and World has consistently recognized CSULA for high quality engineering and business programs. In 2005, the Black Issues Top 100 undergraduate edition ranked CSULA as the sixth-highest producer of bachelor’s degrees among Hispanics across all disciplines. The college was ranked 17th in combined minority bachelor’s degrees awarded.
Described as a campus on a hill, Cal State is nestled on a hill overlooking a vast span of interstate freeway and the 175-acre campus has undergone a building and construction transformation since Dr. Rosser has been at the helm. Recently constructed have been state-of-the-art $80 million science complex; a $31.6 million student union; a $30 million bookstore complex; and several new buildings, in addition to campus dormitories and a $22 million Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex that includes the Luckman Gallery and an 1152-seat Luckman Theatre.
In his continuous efforts to attract diverse sections of the community, Dr. Rosser has initiated a unique set of initiatives that make strategic use of campus resources and community support. He spearheaded the establishment of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts on the CSULA campus and the Early Entrance Program. The latter offers the opportunity for gifted students as young as 11 to attend college and take regular college courses._ Jonathan Roberts, a 20-year old African American, who enrolled in Cal State at the age of 14. He was one of the beneficiaries of that program; he completed his bachelor’s degree in four-and-a-half years and then worked on his master’s degree in electrical engineering.
That is the product of the Rosser Revolution, a testament that diversity and excellence are mutually reinforcing qualities in an academic setting.