Being Impactful as an
Academic Leader


DR. LYNN MAHONEY

-Written by Juhee Bashir

ABOUT THE PRESIDENT

Dr. Lynn Mahoney, the 14th president of San Francisco State University, a historian by training who loves to study history and literature, and “accidental administrator” is the first woman to take up the position in a permanent capacity in over 100 years. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Stanford University and earning her Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University, she finds herself reminiscing about the years as an instructor at the State University of New York where she taught classes and advised students. While she has been with the CSU system for 13 years, her most memorable and rewarding moments come from her time in the classroom as a faculty member.

President Mahoney had various leadership roles that gave her the opportunity to learn directly from students what they needed to succeed and graduate. Her research led to understanding that students were failing to graduate on time because they were entering the 4-year systems with too many of the wrong classes that didn’t add up to earning a degree.

In her advising appointments with students, she learned they struggled to find their unique path to graduate. It was through these discussions Mahoney determined faculty members, staff, and administrators needed to do more to support a student’s ability to graduate on time. In 2005, Lynn conducted a project with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a national organization in Washington, D.C. The charge was to examine why some institutions graduated more students than others, disregarding colleges like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale. The study focused on the California State University (CSU) system and the State University of New York (SUNY) because these institutions are moving the needle in inclusivity and equity by opening the door to education for more students. The study identified that leadership, in particular administrators, need to focus their attention on how student success impacts graduation and that an institution’s culture must be more equitable and inclusive. 

“The CSU system… is an institution creating a change in the world by admitting the most students.” 

Through this study, she learned that it was in fact CSU systems like CSU Northridge, CSU Long Beach, Cal Poly, and San Diego State University that were most effective and were finding success in addressing these systemic changes. In her advising appointments with students, she learned they struggled to find their unique path to graduate. It was through these discussions Dr.Mahoney determined faculty members, staff, and administrators needed to do more to support a student’s ability to graduate on time. In 2005, President Lynn conducted a project with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a national organization in Washington, D.C. The charge was to examine why some institutions graduated more students than others, disregarding colleges like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale.

 The study focused on the California State University (CSU) system and the State University of New York (SUNY) because these institutions are moving the needle in inclusivity and equity by opening the door to education for more students. The study identified that leadership, in particular administrators, need to focus their attention on how student success impacts graduation and that an institution’s culture must be more equitable and inclusive. Through this study, she learned that it was in fact CSU systems like CSU Northridge, CSU Long Beach, Cal Poly, and San Diego State University that were most effective and were finding success in addressing these systemic changes.

Dr.Mahoney realized that this is where she wanted to be; she wanted to be part of and contribute to these changes. Soon she accepted her first job offer from CSU Long Beach to serve as the Associate VP of Undergraduate Studies and then became the Vice Provost. While there and thanks to her leadership, CSU Long Beach was able to improve graduation rates by 12 percent in three years despite the recession—a time when all universities were experiencing the worst budget cuts in CSU history. For Dr.Mahoney, her aim has always been to follow positions where she can create an impact by emphasizing that great things can happen once leaders align their values with their goals to serve students.  

Motivated for Career in Leadership

President Mahoney was motivated to choose leadership positions because she wanted to be the most impactful leader and the timing for her to serve SFSU couldn’t be more right. SFSU needed someone who was committed to social justice and student equity along with skills and experiences in collaborative and inclusive leadership. She could care less about the salary or the title; it’s about creating a strong impact.

She could care less about the salary or the title; it’s about creating a strong impact.

However, her journey didn’t start with her degrees. At the age of 16 her aunt gave her the book, “How to choose a medical school”. And her mother, a single mom who majored in computer science, wanted her to pursue a practical degree. While she was not big on studying science or chemistry, she changed her major to human biology in hopes to please her family. However, her true passion was for history, and it took her a solid two-three years to change her major to American Studies. She is the first one in her family with a concentration in history for her doctorate.

Moment that Stands Out

President Mahoney was quite surprised with the responses she received when announced as the first female president of SFSU. The media picked up her story and reacted to the news with excitement, as did the students on campus who stopped her all the time yelling “Madame President”. She shared how an international student from Persia spent an afternoon with her when she caught Mahoney on campus because women in Persian culture were not allowed such positions of power.

The student gifted her an orchid as a “thank you” in Spring of 2020, something that Mahoney sees as a symbol of faith in the goodness and commitment of others. Shortly after receiving the flower the pandemic hit and we went remote. As a result, the beautiful orchid shriveled up. However, a person in Lynn’s office who knew how important the flower was to her began taking care of it which caused it to bloom in the Fall of 2020 and again in the Fall of 2021.The thoughtful gift from the student and the kindness of the person who maintained care despite everyone else leaving reminded Mahoney of her own efforts to never lose faith in the students that had faith in her. These actions inspired her to remain positive and to strive for eventually seeing the joy on students’ faces when they’re back on campus despite masking and smaller classes with social distancing.

Author of a Biography

Dr.Lynn Mahoney is an author of the biography named Elizabeth Stoddard and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Culture. She is a social historian and believes that history is a collection of people’s lives; she loves to read stories of people who have pushed to make a change. She had read the novel, The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard, which was published in 1862. Lynn was enamored by Stoddard’s attempts to negotiate her reality to prove her life was better and stated how modern she sounded in her writing.

A Proud Achievement

Students are the reason for her career choice. It’s hard enough for students to attain their degrees and President Mahoney believes institutions should not make it harder for them to attain their degrees or achieve their dreams. Her goal is to remove obstacles for students so they can commit to studying and have an enriched experience outside of the classroom.

For example, this commitment was evident in the work she did at CSU Long Beach with the Black and Latinx students. The graduation rates for this demographic were under 48-50% percent in comparison to other demographics. However, thanks to her commitment, Mahoney found a way to reevaluate their services therefore increasing graduation rates Black and Latinx students. And this happened despite the solid four years of economic downturn as a result of the 2008 recession. Even though all CSU employees faced a ten percent budget cut, through their resilience and strong motivation to help students graduate, looked beyond the roadblocks to find creative solutions that encouraged everyone to preserve.

Qualities A Student Should Have

“Compassion is the first step to understanding, too often we fail to understand things from the perspective of the other person.

Dr.Lynn believes that students should stay open to constantly learning. She recalls a time when she met with an editor from the New York Times who was asking about what he would want from college students. He explained that he expects college graduates to remain open to lifelong learning and to understand that professional experience is not just limited to the job. Experience happens in both places and “…the more you lean in, the more you get, states Mahoney.

Career Advice

A piece of advice she’d give to someone starting their career would be to not worry about the salary and title. Instead, focus on the substance of what one is doing and don’t worry about how long it takes to achieve a goal or dream. She encourages students to pursue something they like doing for the right reasons.  Similarly, during the pandemic, Mahoney’s leadership skills were tested, and she too experienced reminders that she needed to approach decision making more inclusively. For her, it was important not to “…dawdle when a decision needs to be madeand that it was important to admit when we make mistakes. Ultimately, for President Mahoney, we need to “leave your ego at the door” because your ego is not what defines your position or you.