Photo of Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D.

Dianne F. Harrison, Ph.D.

President | CSUN

“I’m inspired daily by our students, who pursue their goals and ambitions despite financial hardships and societal struggles.”

Dianne F. Harrison, Ph.D., president of California State University, Northridge, has two favorite times of year: orientation and graduation. New students bring an infectious enthusiasm, while seeing Matadors in their caps and gowns on graduation day is the ultimate reward.

“My face hurts from literally smiling for four days straight,” she says. “Commencement is such a happy occasion for the students and their families. It is the culmination of all our efforts. That’s what inspires me.”

Another reason graduation means so much to Dr. Harrison is that she thinks a lot about where CSUN’s newly minted alumni will go next. “Our students will be graduating into a world in which it is important that they are global thinkers,” she explains. “The students we are educating now will be the leaders of tomorrow. We want them to be fully prepared for the future of work.”

Her expansive view has led her to China, Mexico, the Middle East and Europe to forge relationships abroad and boost CSUN’s global reputation: “One of my goals is that when our students graduate, there are not just good jobs waiting for them, there are great jobs waiting for them, with a global perspective.”

One of seven children, Harrison says her biggest influence in life was her mother. She impressed upon her daughter that women need to take care of themselves. “The only way to do that is to get your education,” Harrison says. “No one can take that away from you. She encouraged me to get my Ph.D., and I didn’t even know she knew what that was.”

Harrison earned her doctorate in social work from Washington University in St. Louis and says the discipline prepared her well to be a university president. “You learn about crisis intervention, problem solving, communication skills, empathy and respect for everyone no matter who they are,” she notes. “I use my social work skills every day.”

Before coming to CSUN in 2012, Harrison served as president of California State University, Monterey Bay. She also worked at Florida State University for almost 30 years in a variety of roles—faculty member, dean of social work, associate vice president for academic affairs, dean of graduate studies, and vice president for academic quality and external programs.

“I had a couple of really strong mentors who supported me and said, ‘You have the potential to do bigger things,’” she says. “That opened the door.”

Harrison is the third consecutive woman to hold the title of president at CSUN. “We broke ground on having the first woman 26 years ago,” she says proudly. “No other CSU campus or public university in the country—other than all-women’s colleges—has a record that matches ours.”

"Part of university leadership is setting 

high standards so students are the 

ultimate beneficiaries."

Even so, Harrison has faced her share of career obstacles as a woman. “You are constantly having to prove yourself twice over,” she says. “That you are credible and almost ‘worthy’ of positions. When I’m in a group of women presidents, we often talk about our experiences, not only from the past but even currently.”

The mother of two hopes she is inspiring the next generation of leaders, whether female or male. She has mentored 26 doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to attain high-level positions.

Day in, day out, there’s one thing on which Harrison never wavers: keeping the focus on CSUN students. “As our students are working hard to elevate themselves, we are all elevated in working with them,” she says. “They are our North Star on campus, and that’s what motivates me.”


Walk the Walk: Modeling Leadership for the Advancement of Student Success

BY Dianne F. Harrison

Listen to President Harrison's essay

California State University, Northridge is many things to many people—an economic engine for the San Fernando Valley; a breeding ground of entrepreneurship; a catalyst of new ideas across many disciplines; a leader in sustainability and environmental action; a center for diversity and the exchange of ideas and cultures; a showcase of creativity in arts and media—but most important, our unyielding commitment to student success makes CSUN an elevator of social mobility for individuals and generations.

CSUN students today graduate and persist in higher numbers. Our faculty and staff, regardless of role or seniority, make supporting our students their job number one. We can see the impact of this at graduation when thousands of students cross the stage and accept their diplomas. This laser focus on success must start at the top and permeate throughout university leadership. This means modeling priorities and ensuring everyone—faculty and staff—observes and experiences an unrelenting drive toward student success.

I truly believe leaders, especially academic leaders, must “walk the walk.” Education is our mission, and teaching others through example is at the foundation of solid educational leadership. At CSUN, we all abide by a set of leadership principles that communicate our shared values in how we accomplish our work in support of student success.

Our people are mission-aligned, meaning they have a personal commitment to the vision, values and priorities of CSUN, and they implement these in their work. We want employees in leadership positions who are ethical, collegial and demonstrate a willingness to collaborate effectively with others. 

Of course, effective communication is vital as well. Success lies in hearing and weighing all viewpoints. Leaders must be courageous, resilient and communicative. Inclusivity—a respect for individual differences—is critical to engage the rich backgrounds and diverse talents of faculty and staff.

We strive to have leaders who are talent-building and catalytic. They assess strengths and develop the abilities of team members to achieve continuous improvement and a higher level of performance and service—so important because CSUN is a service-oriented university.  Our students’ futures are constantly evolving, and so must we.

From my desk and across the campus, accountability is key. In my experience, great outcomes are a product of responsible people.

At CSUN, we believe common values lead to a shared vision of student success and as the campus leader, it starts with me. I “walk the walk” and ask my Matador colleagues to join me on the path to support student achievement.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Lee choo; COURTESY OF CSUN

VIDEOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF CSUN

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