​​ Photo of Karen S. Haynes, Ph.D.

Soraya M. Coley, Ph.D.

President | Cal Poly Pomona

“Getting to know the diverse yet common story of our students inspires me.”

If you’ve spent time at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, chances are you’ve spotted Soraya M. Coley, Ph.D., riding around the 1,400-acre campus in her “Bronco 1” golf cart. On a recent morning, not long after the start of the new academic year, you could see the president waving to familiar and unfamiliar faces, stopping to talk to students and even giving directions to freshmen looking a little lost.

Stepping out of her office and into the heart of the bustling campus, which is celebrating its 80th year, is part of what Dr. Coley calls “an inspiration check.”

“You only have to look around—it's everywhere,” she says. “If I’m running on empty, all I need to do is engage with our students, and I'm re-energized. I’ll get on the elevator with students and ask, 'OK, we’ve got 30 seconds. What do I need to know?'” It’s not hard to imagine the president making those 30 seconds count. An attentive listener, Coley’s response is invariably sharp and incisive, yet warm and often funny.

A veteran of the CSU system, Coley worked at both CSU Fullerton and CSU Bakersfield—in roles that included lecturer, provost and vice president for academic affairs—before coming to Cal Poly Pomona in January 2015. Coley is the university’s first woman president and first African ​American president.

But leading a campus wasn’t something she’d originally planned for her future. Throughout her career, starting at Fullerton, there were those who told her, "One day, you're going to be a college president," a notion she outright rejected.

Over time, though, Coley's thinking shifted. She remembered the adage she'd heard as a child, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and with the encouragement of others, she began to turn her career toward leadership in higher education.

Coley was raised in segregated North Carolina, where she learned that others would evaluate her by a different set of standards. “My mother and teachers instilled in me a sense of self-worth, even as the larger society said, ‘You are not and you cannot.’ It was ingrained in me not to allow other people’s attitudes and perceptions to define or deter me. I was encouraged to be persistent, work harder and develop a resilient mindset.”

Those early experiences also helped mold Coley’s leadership style, which focuses on valuing others, being authentic, demonstrating integrity and promoting diversity. It is in this context that she takes great pride in the social mobility of Cal Poly Pomona’s graduates and the value they place on their degree.

In 2018, the campus ranked No. 3 in the nation among colleges that help low-income students move into higher economic standing. “I understand the disparity of opportunity because of societal markers,” she says. “Society suffers when talent is not allowed to emerge from all individuals, because ultimately that benefits all of us.”

The responsibilities that come with the role of college president are vast, but at the end of a tough day, Coley calls to mind yet another saying from her childhood: “You don’t have time to be tired,” a phrase her farm-working grandparents often used.

“I am proud of our outstanding faculty and the excellence and dedication of our staff. Our polytechnic vision inspires me, and so does getting to know the diverse, yet common story of our students,” says Coley. “We may come from different walks of life, but like everyone, our students desire and deserve a better future for themselves and their families; as we invest in them, we also advance our state and nation.”

 

"If I'm running on empty, all I need 

to do is go out and engage with

students, and I'm full."


Creating a Shared Vision:
One Team. One Goal. Student Success.

BY Soraya M. Coley, PH.D.

Listen to President Coley's essay

Shortly after I arrived at Cal Poly Pomona, I began a “Listening Tour.”

As a new president, it was essential that I understand the culture and values of this university, and the most effective approach was to directly engage with the campus community.

Over the course of months, I visited 112 departments and units across all divisions. I had discussions with 1500 faculty and staff and nearly 500 students. I visited classrooms, laboratories, our library, residence halls, cultural centers, police headquarters and maintenance shops. From music and theater productions and athletic events to our Arabian Horse Center and Rose Float facility, I saw the gamut of programs and activities offered. I also reached out to the local community, K-12 schools, community colleges, local government, non-profits, and businesses.

After hours of listening about the past, present and future of Cal Poly Pomona, I gained a wealth of insights into the aspirations of the campus and the community (and many important “to-do” items). But, without a doubt, the greatest knowledge gained was the confirmation that our most valuable resource is the people of Cal Poly Pomona. The excellence of our faculty in teaching and engaging our students in research and scholarly activities; the dedication of our staff to assuring that we achieve our goals; and the energy, imagination and fierce commitment to helping our students succeed that fuel both, all point to a single conclusionour people are the heart and soul of our institution and its successes.

Following my tour, I continue to view my primary duty as president as enabling and supporting the creativity emanating from our campus. I am ever mindful that “the growth and [advancement] of people is the highest calling of leadership.”* Rather than to dictate the avenues for this energy and creativity, I seek to foster a shared, inclusive vision of which everyone can be a part. Through embracing a collective view of our future, we enable the ambition of our diverse faculty, staff and students to flourish.

The result is a guiding principle that defines our campus: “One Team. One Goal. Student Success.”

This collective vision draws on all the talents and promise of our campus and demands that we be intentional and results-oriented, while also promoting innovation and collaboration.

The results are impressive: an academic plan that redefines a polytechnic education; summer programs that advance students toward graduation; a novel effort to support transfer students; reimagined professional development opportunities and instructional approaches; national acknowledgements of our contributions toward social mobility and the excellence of our academic programs; increased grant support; and new models of student engagement and well-being.

By creating a shared vision, we are expanding our capacity to enrich our students’ experience, within and outside of the classroom and through collaboration with our regional partners. That vision guides and inspires all facets of the university, with the promise of benefitting our students, our community and the state. Lastly, it reaffirms my long-held personal beacon statement: to remain student centered; faculty and staff focused; and community minded!

*quote attributed to Harvey S. Firestone

PHOTOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD; COURTESY OF CAL POLY POMONA

VIDEOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD; COURTESY OF CAL POLY POMONA

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