After seven years as the university’s game-changing, entrepreneurial president, Wong is ready to retire and leave California for a drastically quieter life out east.
When Leslie Wong took the helm of San Francisco State University back in 2012, he asked the senior faculty what they felt would constitute failure during his tenure as president. They told him they just didn’t want things to stay the same — they wanted to see momentum.
“I said, ‘OK. Then you better hold on,’” Wong says with a laugh.
And the school has seen that momentum. Wong, who is retiring next month after seven years as president of SFSU, kicked off the university’s first major fundraising campaign, implemented a campus-wide strategic plan and elevated the school’s athletic profile. From a new Liberal and Creative Arts building to a forthcoming Institute for Innovation in the business college, the university is poised to continue moving ahead, even after Wong’s tenure is over.
“He made us think anything was possible,” says Venesia Thompson-Ramsay, the school’s interim vice president for university advancement. “He just has big dreams.”
Working in San Francisco was a kind of homecoming for Wong, who grew up in East Oakland, graduating from Bishop O’Dowd High School before leaving the area for college in Washington. He found his way back to the Bay by way of the Midwest, having previously served as president of North Michigan University. “It was really kind of nice to come home again to a university that was willing to engage change in preparation for the future.”
“IF YOU’RE IN CONTROL, YOU’RE GOING TOO SLOW.”— Leslie Wong, on embracing change and new ways of thinking as a university president
When he arrived at SFSU, the school had never undertaken a major fundraising campaign. Raising money—$150 million, specifically—was one of his top priorities. An influx of cash meant that he could increase the university’s visibility, grow its endowment, and invest in the programs and networks that support the school’s nearly 30,000 students. “For me, fundraising is an effort in belief in the future,” says Wong.
The campaign, dubbed the BOLD Thinking campaign, is scheduled to continue for another 18 months, but it’s already raised more than 90 percent of that $150 million goal. Anchored by major gifts from Chris Larsen, an alumnus and co-founder of Ripple, and his wife Lyna Lam, and by George and Judy Marcus, also both alums, the campaign has not only improved campus facilities, but is also providing more scholarship money to students, increasing the number of endowed faculty chairs, and encouraging innovative programming campuswide, like the new Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies.
During Wong’s tenure, SFSU also invested heavily in the athletics department, with the belief that a strong athletics program can bring positive attention to a university. And the school has worked to strengthen relationships with businesses, nonprofits and other universities in the city and SiliconValley.
John Gumas, the chair of the fundraising campaign who also served on the committee that initially helped select Wong, says that Wong’s big-picture thinking was one of the things that attracted his attention. “He had a real entrepreneurial spirit to him,” says Gumas.
In taking the job, Wong, who served in provost and vice president positions at colleges in Colorado and North Dakota earlier in his career, was motivated to experience a large urban university. SFSU let him do just that. Although his administration at times clashed with some students and faculty, including members of the school’s Jewish community and the College of Ethnic Studies, Wong says he’s proud to have an engaged campus. “There’s an invigorating part to having faculty, staff, students being committed to the community,” he points out. It’s an idea that aligns with his leadership philosophy: Wong says he’s viewed his role as president as one of “managing evolution.” The goal isn’t to predetermine what will occur in the future, he says, but to set the stage for as much success as possible and let change — inherently lively and sometimes messy — happen. “If you’re in control,” he adds, “you’re going too slow.”
But after a long career, a slower pace of life beckons. Wong and his wife, Phyllis, will be moving to the East Coast after his retirement to spend more time outdoors and with their eight grandkids (all of whom are under 10—so that slow pace of life could be a touch optimistic). Thompson-Ramsay notes that Wong’s focus on fundraising and an interest in engaging alumni will continue to affect the way the school views its own potential even after he leaves. The tangible results of his tenure as president are already shaping the school. This year, all of the university’s athletic teams made it to the postseason in their respective sports. The creative arts building currently under construction is the university’s first new building in 25 years. More scholarship funding is available. In other words: There’s momentum.