A Legendary President
Dr. milton A. Gordon
4TH PRESIDENT OF CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, FULLERTON (1990-2012)
The impact of Dr. Gordon’s leadership will forever be felt at this University and in the lives and family legacies of the approximately 122,000 Titans — more than half of the University’s total alumni — who graduated during his 22-year tenure as president.
And while numbers alone cannot measure the extent of the tremendous impact of Dr. Gordon’s legacy, given his love of mathematics and the growth of the University under his leadership, they are a good place to start. In August of 1990 when he arrived at Cal State Fullerton as the institution’s fourth president, 25,736 students attended the University. Upon his retirement in 2012, that number had grown to more than 36,000, a testament to his vision to prepare and build for a region that was rapidly expanding in both population and diversity.
Given the breadth of Dr. Gordon’s legacy, there are innumerable contexts through which to communicate the impact of his work, just a few of which I’ll touch on here. In addition to leading the largest construction period in University history with more than $636 million in new and renovated facilities that include the Performing Arts Center, Pollak Library, and the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics, President Gordon oversaw the increase of both academic degrees offered — from 91 to 104 — and programs that ensure those degrees are equitably accessible to the changing face of Southern California.
Indeed, in his first year as president, nearly 60% of the student body was Caucasian, and upon his retirement, the percentages had reversed with students of color making up more than half of our enrollment, mirroring the demographic shifts of the region. Because of his ability to lead the institution in adapting to these changes, Cal State Fullerton climbed to No. 1 in the state and fifth in the nation in graduating Latinos during his years of leadership, propelling the University into the national spotlight for providing pathways to the middle class for the new majority.
Dr. Gordon’s passion for equitable access to higher education partially stemmed from his upbringing in Chicago and his undergraduate years at Xavier in Louisiana. Forced to sit in the back of busses and in a “colored patrons” section of movie theatres, he realized early on that education would be his way to combat racism. “Some people wanted to confront physically,” he said in an interview with the Orange County Register in 1997. “Each person had a different set of tools. For me, I knew it was my mind.”
His mind was indeed an effective tool, and after earning a doctorate in mathematics at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he wielded its power first in the classroom, and then as an administrator. In his first academic post at Loyola University of Chicago, he created a program for underrepresented students long before such practices would become widespread. When he began searching for a director for the program, the students asked that he take the helm, a request he ultimately accepted. “I was going to stay for one year,” he told the Daily Titan of his experience at Loyola, “but I ended up staying seven.”
He stayed for the same reason he remained Cal State Fullerton’s president for more than two decades: to support all students, particularly those who would otherwise have little or no chance at achieving a college degree. That passion would be the running theme of his career — from dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Chicago State University, to vice president for academic affairs and professor of mathematics at Sonoma State University, to president of Cal State Fullerton.
Only the fourth African American president in the largest system of higher education in the country, President Gordon, like his predecessor Jewel Plummer Cobb, shattered glass ceilings for thousands of people, like me, who aspired to follow in his footsteps. He was an incredible inspiration and mentor to me and one for the first people to reach out to me when I came to the CSU. Like many of you, in addition to looking up to him, I had the honor of working with him as a colleague, a friend, and a Titan. He was a warm, compassionate, and generous man whose legacy will affect eternity through the millions of lives he touched and the tens of thousands of degrees this institution conferred under his leadership.
In his final convocation address at the University in 2011, he told the campus community, “I am grateful that I’m able to call higher education my life’s work.” I know that we, too, are grateful he made higher education, his students, and this University his life’s work.
In his memory, and in honor of his family and the tens of thousands of students he served over his lifetime, I am proud to join you in celebrating and building upon his legacy.
Dr. Mildred García , former President of California State University, Fullerton, 2012-2017