Two weeks into her new job as San Jose State University’s newest president, Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson welcomed the campus community to hit her up with their questions and concerns with a phone call, email or even a DM on social media.
After years of tumult and turnover on campus, the university’s latest leader insisted she was ready to listen.
Many in the campus community are hopeful that Teniente-Matson — the school’s first Latina president and fifth leader in the last 10 years — will bring increased stability, trust and accountability to the founding campus of the California State University system.
“I’ve seen so many emails about different presidents — interim presidents, new presidents,” said Kayla Solano, a student at San Jose State. “It’s great that we actually have a (fixed) president now.”
Teniente-Matson’s appointment comes in the wake of a decade-long sexual harassment scandal at the university, one that led to a $5 million settlement with more than two dozen student athletes. University President Mary Papazian announced her resignation in October 2021 amid complaints of the administration’s mishandling an investigation of former sports trainer Scott Shaw.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice found that SJSU failed to respond to reports of sexual harassment against Shaw — and that “despite widespread knowledge and repeated reports of the allegations,” the university failed to protect students from Shaw for over a decade.
Teniente-Matson is taking over for interim President Steve Perez, who took over from Papazian. Teniente-Matson said Tuesday that listening to students will be her top priority.
“The safety, health and well-being of all of our students is of utmost importance to me,” she said. “I want to make sure we remain transparent, visible and vigilant (to ensure) we don’t have inappropriate behavior occurring on campus.”
Teniente-Matson comes to San Jose State after 30 years in higher education, including her most recent post as president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where she is credited with launching several strategic initiatives and programs to foster higher learning, inclusion and diversity, including the Mays Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement, the Cisneros Institute for Emerging Leaders, the Institute of Water Resource Science and Technology and the Cyber Engineering Technology/Cyber Security Research, according to an announcement by California State University.
And she’s not new to California. The SJSU president was previously at Cal State Fresno from 2004-2015, serving as vice president for administration and chief financial officer. She also earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Fresno State. Teniente-Matson is the first in her family to go to college.
Since taking over Jan. 16, Teniente-Matson has gone on a “listening tour” of campus, she said, meeting with the student body president, her leadership team, student athletes, the university newspaper, and other student-run groups and clubs.
She’s also encouraging students to reach out to her — even through direct messages on social media — to share their experiences. Students have already messaged her on both email and Instagram, Teniente-Matson said, and she hopes such communication will continue flowing.
“I want to stay connected to the students, and to hear from them,” said Teniente-Matson. “I want to learn about their experiences here, and what they need from the university to be successful. The best way to do that is to be in front of them.”
So far, that’s gone over well with the student body. Asma and Aisha Almasarwa, who are sisters and San Jose State students, said they were impressed by what they’ve seen so far.
“I looked into her mission and goals for the university, and I agree with everything she said,” said Asma, a 20-year-old junior.
Staff, too, are hopeful that Teniente-Matson’s leadership could lead to a new chapter at the university, one grounded in trust and accountability.
Dr. Jason Laker, a professor of counselor education, said the successive presidential turnovers have been exhausting and demoralizing. But after raising concerns to Teniente-Matson in a recent staff meeting, he felt that her responses to his thoughts were good — and that he is looking forward to seeing “good action go along with those good words.”
“I am certainly eager for her to be successful, and I hope that’s how time will play out,” said Laker.
In the months ahead, Teniente-Matson is looking toward other new chapters for San Jose State. In March, the university will be opening up its first new building in more than 30 years, one that will house interdisciplinary science programs and the university’s wildfire research center.
She’s also working to modify the SJSU’s strategic plan to help the university adapt to the world post-pandemic. She’s also looking at a new housing project to provide affordable accommodations for faculty, staff and students in the years to come.
At the same time, Teniente-Matson is also leaning into what she feels the CSU system stands for: an accessible, affordable, and quality education.
“It’s an exciting time here at San Jose State University,” said Teniente-Matson. “We will continue to be at the heart of innovation, and will continue expanding our reach to a more diverse population.”
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