CSU Bakersfield Lynnette Zelezny: Using Diversity as a Superpower

Health Care July 2023 PREMIUM
Dr. Lynnette Zelezny, the president of California State University, Bakersfield, emphasizes that, as homogenous ecosystems are fragile and, given time, fail, the same is true for college ecosystems. “If you lose diversity, you lose the ability for nature to thrive.”

As an undergraduate, Lynnette Zelezny was studying ecosystems in biology when she came to a sobering realization: homogenous ecosystems are fragile and, given time, fail. Diverse ecosystems, on the other hand, enjoy a far better fate and almost always flourish. The same is true of the college ecosystem. “If you lose diversity, you lose the ability for nature to thrive. Similarly, in human behavior and cultures, diversity is a superpower,” says Zelezny, PhD, president of The California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB).

Diversity is not just a word Dr. Zelezny tosses about because it’s trendy. It’s her credo. When she was appointed president in 2018, she immediately surrounded herself with a diverse cabinet of individuals, all of whom were first-generation college students. Her current cabinet comprises one Latina, one Latino, three African Americans, and two women. “That’s by design,” she says.

The key to being a strong leader, according to Dr. Zelezny, is the ability to delegate. “It’s not all about you doing all the work yourself. The important thing is that you be an inspiring person, a person of character, a person of vision that can seek out others who really buy into that and really want to be part of the greater good,” says Dr. Zelezny. At CSUB, an HSI with 67 percent of its students identifying as Hispanic, she’s assembled a team of individuals who believe in her mission and can leverage their own strengths. “I just get out of their way and let them apply those strengths and make progress happen on those big goals that we have at the CSUB,” says Dr. Zelezny.

Solving Problems with Social Psychology

Dr. Zelezny was appointed CSUB’s fifth president in 2018. Although she’s the first female to hold the position, CSU has a fairly good track record of hiring females, especially in leadership. Currently, the system’s workforce is 55 percent female, with women holding several top leadership positions. Eleven of the system’s 23 presidents are female. “There’s a very strong intentional recruitment of diverse leaders in the CSU to represent the student body that we serve. We’re almost half-a-million students. CSU is inspiring,” says Dr. Zelezny.

Dr. Zelezny has a PhD in social psychology and an MBA, two disciplines that, at first blush, may seem incongruous, but share theories. In social psychology, Dr. Zelezny has performed extensive research on how individuals navigate their social and physical environments and published literature on student success that’s helped inform her presidency. “I use this work every single day as president. I particularly use it when I think about challenges I’m facing because it allows me to reframe those challenges (and turn them into wins),” says Dr. Zelezny.

Unprecedented Growth in Hispanic Enrollment

In 2000, Hispanic students comprised just 27.5 percent of CSUB’s student body, a number viewed as discouraging at the time given the region’s large and flourishing Latinx population. Twenty-three years later, 67 percent of CSUB’s roughly 9,500 students are Hispanic. Of the 6,439 Hispanic students enrolled at CSUB in 2022, 3,546 were first-generation, or 55 percent. Dr. Zelezny owes this unprecedented growth to CSUB’s Pledge to Students, a partnership between CSUB, K-12 regional schools, and community colleges. “We’re working as regional partners starting in the primary grades, so those students know they are being tracked into pathways open to them and obtainable for them. We’re eager to give them the financial support they need (and to let them know) we have a seat waiting for them,” says Dr. Zelezny.

Impressive though these enrollment numbers may be, they don’t paint the entire picture of CSUB’s success. Over the years, CSUB’s graduation rate for Hispanics has improved, mainly because students know that CSUB offers them a path to success. In 2000, the six-year graduation rate for Hispanic freshmen was 42.3 percent. In 2016 (the most recent cohort available), it was 49 percent. In 2000, the four-year graduation rate for Hispanic transfer students was 64 percent. In 2018 (the most recent cohort available), that number rose to 76.4 percent.

Shortly after her appointment in 2018, Dr. Zelezny began working with Sonya Christian, then president of Bakersfield College, to eliminate barriers to CSUB. Working in tandem, they designed and built the Bakersfield College Southwest Center, giving 3,000 Bakersfield College students a pathway to transfer their associate degree to CSUB. “They’re on our campus, they’re already using services and the library, they feel comfortable,” says Dr. Zelezny. The center established a seamless transfer to a guaranteed four-year program at CSUB. “We’re really proud of that innovation,” says Dr. Zelezny.

Another innovation she’s proud of is CSUB’s Dreamer’s Resource Center, offering undocumented students and their families free legal services as they continue down their education path and seek permanent residency. “It has been very successful and well utilized,” says Dr. Zelezny.

Welcoming and Nurturing a Student Body

To ensure CSUB’s Hispanic first-generation students succeed, Dr. Zelezny recruits and hires faculty members who focus on the first-generation experience and student success. “We recruit faculty members that have lived that journey,” says Dr. Zelezny. “We understand what it takes in terms of extra support for those first-generation students. We have to embrace the responsibility of being their extended family,” says Dr. Zelezny.

One of her top priorities each semester is learning every student’s name, a practice that puts students at ease and allows her to gain their trust. She even encourages students to ask her questions. “I don’t know who to ask this question to. I don’t know where to get this answer. Well, when in doubt, just write the president an email. I’ll know where to get the answer,” says Dr. Zelezny. “This may not be protocol at an Ivy League school,” she says, “but it is at CSUB.” “They’ve probably met me, so they feel comfortable reaching out to me…They don’t have anybody in their family that went to college to ask, but they know we’re here ready to support them,” she says.

CSUB is a member of Excelencia in Education, whose mission is to support HSIs and help them offer support systems that lead students to success. At CSUB, these include hiring additional faculty with cultural competencies and thinking about identity and belonging. This year, faculty and students will collaborate on a culturally relevant mural celebrating Hispanic culture. “These are just a few ways Excelencia really supports institutions like ours to become better Hispanic Serving Institutions in terms of student success,” says Dr. Zelezny.

Her favorite part of CSUB’s commencement ceremony is when she asks all those in attendance who were the first in their families to graduate from a university to rise. “Nearly everyone stands. It’s the most poignant, sole-enriching moment for our faculty, staff, students, and for the community,” says Dr. Zelezny. “It is a huge pride point, and we love that moment with our students.” •

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