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Lynn Mahoney: Being Impactful as an Academic Leader

Dr. Lynn Mahoney, the 14th president of San Francisco State University, a historian by training who loves to study history and literature, and an “accidental administrator,” is the first woman to undertake the position 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 or SUNY, where she taught classes and advised students. While she has been with the California State University system for 13 years, her most memorable and rewarding moments come from her time in the classroom as a faculty member.

Mahoney had various leadership roles that gave her the opportunity to learn directly from students what they needed in order to succeed and graduate. Her research led to understanding that students were failing to graduate on time because they were entering the 4-year university system with too many of the wrong classes that didn’t contribute to earning a degree. In her advising appointments with students, she learned that they were struggling to find their unique path to graduate. It was through these discussions with students that Mahoney determined faculty members, staff, and administrators needed to do more to support a student’s ability to graduate on time. 

In 2005, Mahoney 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 universities such as 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 effectively finding success in addressing these systemic changes. Mahoney realized that this is where she wanted to be; she wanted to participate 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 later became the Vice Provost. Thanks to her leadership there, 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 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.  

Lessons from Leading at SFSU

Mahoney has taken up many roles of educational leadership, such as being a Vice President for Student Affairs, a Provost, and a Professor. However, each institution is different and comes with its own sets of challenges. As a president, she has learned to remain flexible, which allows her to approach any situation carefully and thoughtfully, and is therefore how she was able to face the challenges that arose due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She states that everyone should be, “prepared to throw away the playbook you already have and draft a new playbook.” 

Mahoney believes we are only as smart as the people we surround ourselves with, so during the pandemic, she gathered a large group of people together to ensure everyone’s voice and opinions were being included in discussions. This team includes SFSU faculty, students from the Associated Student Organization, leaders from the Academic Senate, and her direct team to meet every other week to explore how to best support SFSU and the surrounding communities during the pandemic. In these meetings, she emphasizes the importance of flexibility and collaboration—approaches that lead to better decision-making.

 

Managing a university with about 4,000 faculty members and 30,000 students is like “being the mayor of a small city,” and being President of a university at the height of the pandemic became a tremendous responsibility that meant navigating a return to campus would be a challenge. Along with the faculty, Mahoney knew she needed to figure out how to document vaccination, implement a testing program, and manage a variety of experiences including people who were sheltered in place and people who acted like the pandemic was not a cause for concern. So in Fall 2020, when SFSU went fully virtual, a decision that many found difficult to process, Mahoney was adamant about her decision. While the university had 25% fewer freshmen, she placed her priorities on fully-remote learning because she did not want any of her students to find themselves hospitalized and put on ventilators due to COVID-19 from being on campus.

Motivation for a Career in Leadership

Mahoney was motivated to choose leadership positions because she wanted to be the most impactful leader and the timing for her to serve San Francisco State University couldn’t have been better. 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. However, her journey didn’t start with her chosen degrees. At the age of 16, Mahoney’s aunt gave her the book, “How to Choose a Medical School.” And her mother, a single parent who majored in Computer Science, wanted her to pursue a practical degree. While she was not thrilled about studying science, 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 to three years to change her major to American Studies. She is now the first person in her family with a concentration in History for her doctorate degree.

Memorable Moments: Madame President & An Orchid of Hope

Mahoney was quite surprised with the responses she received when she was 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 an appreciation gift in Spring 2020, something that Mahoney sees as a symbol of faith in the goodness and commitment of others. Shortly after Mahoney received the orchid, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everything went remote. As a result, the beautiful orchid shriveled up. However, a faculty member in Mahoney’s office who knew how important the flower was to her and began taking care of it. Due to this kind notion taken by Mahoney’s fellow faculty member, the orchid bloomed 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 the orchid 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 during the pandemic and to strive for a successful return to campus. She eventually saw the joy on students’ faces when they were able to come back to the SFSU campus, despite the necessities of wearing masks and smaller class sizes to meet social distancing standards. 

Authoring a Biography

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

Increasing Graduation Rates

Students are the reason for Mahoney’s career choice. It’s hard enough for students to attain their degrees and Mahoney believes that institutions should not contribute to the difficulties of earning their degrees and achieving their dreams. Her goal is to remove obstacles for students so that they can commit to studying and have an enriched experience outside of the classroom. For instance, this goal was evident in the work she did at CSU Long Beach with Black and Latinx students. The graduation rates for this demographic were under 48-50% in comparison to other demographics. However, thanks to her commitment, Mahoney found a way to reevaluate their services, therefore increasing graduation rates for Black and Latinx students. These results happened despite the solid four years of economic downturn as a result of the 2008 recession. Even though all CSU employees faced a 10 percent budget cut, through their resilience and strong motivation to help students graduate, they looked beyond the roadblocks to find creative solutions that encouraged everyone to persevere. 

Qualities a Student Should Have

Mahoney believes that students should stay open to constantly learning. She recalls a time when she met with an editor from The New York Times and asked him what he looks for in college graduates. The editor 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 Mahoney would give to someone starting their career would be to not worry about the salary and title. Instead, focus on the substance of what you are doing and don’t worry about how long it takes to achieve your goals and dreams. 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’s important “not to dawdle when a decision needs to be made” and to admit when she makes mistakes. Ultimately, as President Mahoney recommends, you need to “leave your ego at the door” because your ego is not what defines your position or who you are.