Equity and Inclusion in Silicon Valley and Beyond


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired November 2, 2023

Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of San José State University, joins the podcast to talk about her first year at the California campus in the heart of Silicon Valley, particularly how to create equitable spaces at public institutions. But first, ACE President Ted Mitchell talks about campus protests over the war in Israel and Gaza and how presidents are responding.

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Fear and Anger Spread on Campuses as Protesters’ Rhetoric and Actions Escalate
Inside Higher Ed | Oct. 27, 2023

Biden Administration Announces Measures to Combat Antisemitism on U.S. Campuses
CBS News | Oct. 30, 2023

Carnegie Classifications to Make Major Changes in How Colleges and Universities Are Grouped and Recognized, Set Clear Threshold for Highest Level of Research
ACE | Nov. 1, 2023

Cynthia Teniente-Matson Appointed President of San José State University
The California State University| Nov. 16, 2022

Deep Dive in Five With SJSU Cares
San José State University | Nov. 8, 2022

Silicon Valley’s Vast Wealth Disparity Deepens as Poverty Increased
Cal Matters | Feb. 27, 2023

Report: Silicon Valley Latinos Face Ongoing Struggles
San José Spotlight | June 13, 2023

ACE Comments on How Campuses Are Using AI And the Role of Government Oversight
ACE | Sept. 22, 2023

Hosts and Guests
Cynthia Teniente-Matson
President, San José State University
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Cynthia Teniente-Matson - President, San José State University - Guest
Cynthia Teniente-Matson
President, San José State University

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I’m your host, Jon Fansmith, and I am joined by my regular co-hosts, Sarah Spreitzer and Mushtaq Gunja. How are you both doing?

Sarah Spreitzer: Hey, Jon.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hey, guys.

Jon Fansmith: And we’ll be joined a little bit later in the episode by Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, the president of San Jose State University. She’s going to talk with us about what it’s like running a university located in the heart of Silicon Valley and the role that diversity, equity, and inclusion plays in how they prepare students both to succeed on the campus and in the workforce. But before we get to that, there is an issue that has been drawing national attention on our campuses and outside our campuses, and that’s around the heated and at times very personal debate that’s going on on campuses around the conflict in Israel and Gaza. So we wanted to take a little time at the start of this and invite on our president, Ted Mitchell, to come and join us and talk a little bit about what he’s seeing across the broad landscape and share some thoughts on that. Ted, welcome.

Ted Mitchell: Thanks, Jon. Thanks for having me.

Jon Fansmith: And so there are a lot to unpack around this, right?

Ted Mitchell: Yes.

Jon Fansmith: I’ve sort of teed it up in the broadest possible terms. And I think one of the things… you are a former college president. You are now the president of the American Council of Education. You represent college presidents. You have a broader view, a lot of times, of what the media and the public tends to focus on, individual incidents that are coming up. Can you give a sense from your perspective, when we look at this, we see the news response. We see often, again, very, very heated, very, very intense reactions and feelings on both sides. When you look at this, what do you see?

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, thanks. And we’re in a very complicated situation. I want to start by making sure that nothing I’m saying is aimed or felt to minimize the circumstance. The horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israeli citizens is unconscionable. And we’re now in the midst of a follow-on crisis in the war between Israel and Hamas, and these are dire times in the Middle East, and so I want to start there. But as you say, the response to this has been very personal, very emotional and rightly so. And I think you were nice enough to say that I’ve had a professional journey, but I’ve also had a personal journey.

I’m also old. And so the first perspective that I put on this is kind of, we’ve been here before. And that’s not just a personal reflection; it’s also a historian’s reflection. When you think about the Vietnam War protests, when you think about the protests on our campuses regarding civil rights, the protests on our campus about abortion rights and pro-life, I think it’s really important for all of us to normalize campus “unrest” as really one of the primary functions of institutions of higher education, which is really to give an opportunity for some of the most violently contested issues to be played out in a setting in which the emotional and the personal can be also shaped by the logical, the historical, the rational, the cultural. And those are our higher education institutions.

So in a way, we have a responsibility. It’s kind of a crucible for American society’s differences, to put those differences into play on our campuses with guardrails that can help students understand each other’s perspectives and also hopefully come to some recognition of where common ground might lie.

Sarah Spreitzer: Ted, you talked about this not being something new, but it just feels so upsetting, I think, this time, and watching our campuses really struggle with how to respond. As a former president, do you think is there a right way or is there a wrong way to respond to what’s happening on campuses? Or are there some things that you think are lessons learned that college presidents should keep in mind?

Ted Mitchell: It’s a great question, Sarah. And I think, as we know at ACE, because we have the luxury of looking across the landscape at the multiple kinds of institutions in multiple settings, context matters here. And while there’s no one silver bullet or one best policy solution for higher education institutions, similarly, there is not one best way to deal with this situation. And so I really empathize with presidents who are trying to figure out what the right thing to do is in their particular context. And so we’re seeing a variety of responses, and we should see a variety of responses because what works in a rural community in Idaho is not likely to work in New York City or Los Angeles. And so I expect and admire the work that our presidents are doing to try to deal with this.

But I guess I will say that one of the things that is important is for presidents to understand that their responsibility here is to not stop people from feeling what they’re feeling. That would be a) impossible and b) an overreach. But what is important is for presidents to assert and defend the guardrails around civil discourse. And so to be very clear, that violence, whether it’s physical or verbal, retribution for acts or demonstrations, those are unacceptable as ways of expressing difference. And so I think presidents are always on the safest ground, and also the best ground, if they are defining and holding fast to the guardrails in which dispute takes place.

Mushtaq Gunja: Ted, can I lean in on that history question, as a historian?

Ted Mitchell: Sure.

Mushtaq Gunja: How different is this moment than past instances in which we’ve had conflict on campus? I think back to, I wasn’t alive, but I think back to what was happening on campuses during Vietnam. I gather that it was a very heated time, that many Americans had their eyes focused on what was happening at Berkeley and in other places. Is this different? How is it different? Does it live in this rich tradition of protests that springs from our colleges and universities?

Ted Mitchell: Great question, and thanks, once again, for making me feel old because I do remember the Vietnam protests at Berkeley and elsewhere.

Mushtaq Gunja: And also the ones around World War I, is that right? Were you there?

Ted Mitchell: World War I was a tough time, a very tough time. I remember it clearly. And the Civil War was, of course, the worst.

So there is a difference. Vietnam was largely a division of ideology, political perspective. And that’s not to minimize the depth people’s feelings about that and the emotions that were running high. And let’s remember that for a generation of Americans who are in college or of college age, Vietnam was a question of whether they were going to go fight in East Asia and potentially lose their lives in the cause of a war that they didn’t support. And so in that way, it was also very personal.

I think one of the things that’s different about this issue, which makes it more akin to the civil rights issue than Vietnam, is that, in so many ways, this is about identity. And this is about deeply held religious, cultural, historical clan tribe beliefs about where you’ve come from, where you belong in the world, who you are and who’s pushing against that identity. In the case of the most virulent antisemitism pushing against your very existence as a people. And so I think that this may be a more difficult circumstance because of the depth of each individual’s engagement with it that goes really quite deep and deeper than an ideological difference and certainly deeper than a political difference.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. And Ted, I want to appreciate you taking the time today. Before we let you go, though, any final thoughts you’d like to share with our audience?

Ted Mitchell: The issues that we’re facing on campus today having to do with Gaza and Israel are not different in kind from the issues that we face around issues of diversity and inclusion on campus in general. They are about how one can understand and appreciate my own identity but also understand and appreciate someone else’s identity. And so I think that this work is really core, not only to the Gaza-Israel issue, but the way in which we need to create on our campuses environments where we’re able to discuss hotly debated issues and to do so with respect for the dignity and the background of all people.

Jon Fansmith: And I know you, like me, Ted, are encouraged by not just the campuses where we’ve seen this work has been ongoing for years and it’s playing out now in this debate but, frankly, the challenges and the critiques in some ways are spurring good conversations about how you thread that needle between balancing free speech, respecting the feelings and the rights to safety of students. So really appreciate you coming on and adding your perspective on this to our usually a little bit more lighthearted banter at the top of the episode, but really valuable thoughts and insights. So thanks again for your time.

Ted Mitchell: You bet. I’ll let you get back to that. Thanks again for having me.

Jon Fansmith: All right. Thanks, Ted.

Mushtaq Gunja: Thanks, Ted.

Sarah Spreitzer: Thanks, Ted.

Jon Fansmith: All right, well that was great having Ted with us. And, clearly, I think the topic that is on most people’s minds when they think about higher education right now, but there are a few other things going on, especially here in Washington, DC, that are getting a little bit of national attention. I think probably the biggest one is that we have finally, after 22 days without a speaker of the House, a speaker has been elected. It is Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, someone who did not have much of a national profile prior to really being a dark horse candidate, swooping in at the end and securing the speakership with unanimous support among the Republican caucus. It was a kind of remarkable turn of events.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, will you kick me out of the podcast if I admit, as I’m about to, that I had not heard of Mike Johnson, I would say, 48 hours before the vote?

Jon Fansmith: I encourage everyone to admit their lack of knowledge of Mike Johnson’s prior career. I will say the first I really ever knew of him was early in the race to replace Kevin McCarthy where he was floated as one of, and again, we’re talking a list of 20 or 25 possible candidates, so do not feel bad about that. I think the other thing, from our perspective too, we don’t know a lot about him because he’s not on the education committees, he’s not on the appropriations committees, he doesn’t have a profile around higher ed issues, has not spoken publicly, at least to any extent I’m aware of, around issues of concern to colleges and universities. Just not a guy who’s worked in that space, so not really somebody we’ve had much really reason to interact with. And a little bit of a blank slate in terms of what he might be thinking on different issues.

Sarah Spreitzer: Well, and he has 17 days as of this recording to try and figure out what they’re going to do about funding. And Jon, you and I were talking about the fact that the senators that he’s supposed to be negotiating with on appropriations bills don’t know him either.

Jon Fansmith: Right.

Sarah Spreitzer: And I wonder if the clean slate thing is actually going to be helpful, although he’s already floated some ideas that I don’t think are going to fly, such as funding a package for Israel by taking the money out of the IRS, things that are likely not going to float very well with the White House or with the Senate.

Jon Fansmith: And there’s a big meta thing here too about his speakership. His election ends the drama over selecting a speaker, but we actually now just get back to the drama we had that caused the last speaker to be kicked out,

Sarah Spreitzer: Mhmm, yeah.

Jon Fansmith: Which is how do you fund the government going forward? It’s not really clear, and as you point out, Sarah, the things he’s proposing are popular within the House Republican caucus. They are not popular even among Senate Republicans. So it’s not clear, with 17 days left, we’re any closer to getting a resolution just because there’s leadership in place.

And I’ll say when you look at the bills we care about, like the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education appropriations bill, they still incorporate the massive cuts that were proposed before. There hasn’t been a change in position. There’s really a continuation of things we saw before that were very, very troubling. In fact, the Education appropriations bill, there’s really very little policy language in that. In fact, the one higher ed-specific policy piece that we’ve seen would be a bar on trans athletes participating in both elementary, secondary, and postsecondary athletics.

So you’re talking about a really different approach than what’s going to resonate, obviously with the Biden administration, but even in the Senate where they need bipartisan consensus. It’s a tough field to say we’re in good shape. I think we’re going to start hearing a lot more about shutdowns very soon.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I agree, and I think as much as Speaker Johnson wants to do a regular order and move those House bills, which he has been doing, right?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah.

Sarah Spreitzer: He got Energy and Water passed, he’s teeing all of them up. They’re in no way, I think, a starting point of negotiation with the Senate, so it is going to be really tough. And I would note that that is the week before Thanksgiving. So they’re going to be antsy to also go home for Thanksgiving and not really want to deal with a weekend the weekend before Thanksgiving trying to keep the federal government open.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, last time we were here, we all predicted that we would have a shutdown.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: So I’m not going to predict that again because I don’t want to be wrong twice on the same side of this. So I am going to say that we’re going to be fine and that something will extend the CR. What do you think, Sarah?

Sarah Spreitzer: I’m still predicting a shutdown, so I’m going to move my prediction of the shutdown from October to November 17th.

Jon Fansmith: Just carrying it forward.

Sarah Spreitzer: How about you, Jon?

Jon Fansmith: You’re doing a short-term extension of your prediction?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yes. Short-term extension of my prediction. How about you?

Jon Fansmith: So I’m going to actually go with Mushtaq here. I think they will get probably like a four-week CR, something short to try and buy more time to figure out. It’ll get Johnson the opportunity to pass all the House appropriations bills, which is a big deal within their caucus about following regular order. And then they can start to begin negotiating in earnest, but we’ll see.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hey, friends, what’s going on with Title IX and the Title IX regulations?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, good question because nothing is going on with Title IX and the Title IX regs. That was maybe a little more flippant than I think your question merited. But the Department of Education had previously said that their final rules on Title IX, both the bigger package about campus safety and treatment and handling of sexual assault, that that package of rules would be out in October. It was also widely expected they had proposed a second set of rules under Title IX that related to the treatment of trans athletes in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary sports. That as well has not happened. We’re at the end of October as we record this, last day. Happy Halloween, everybody. And those rules are not out. And when you talk to people in DC, the expectation is that’s not because they got delayed into November; that’s because we’re not going to see anything until spring of next year.

Reasons why, I think, are hotly debated. A lot of groups who have been pushing very hard to see those rules finalized, announced sooner rather than later, have raised a lot of concern recently with the delay. We were supportive of much of what the Biden administration proposed here. We would like to see those rules implemented as well. Again, there may be a political dimension to the timing. There may be issues with addressing the record number of comments that were received on these regulations. And also just resolving some of the legal issues, this is really complicated, so maybe probably likely all the above. But yeah, we don’t expect to see those for a few more months now.

But Mushtaq, there’s something else that is happening on schedule and that is the Carnegie Classifications revisions. You want to give people a quick update on where that stands?
Mushtaq Gunja: I do, and I want to actually do a little tease, as well, because our next podcast episode will be focused on the changes that we made to the Carnegie Classifications, but we are announcing tomorrow on November 1st—again, happy Halloween, everybody—we will be announcing a couple of changes to the Basic Classification.

In a very short nutshell, we will be announcing changes to the Basic Classification. They come in two flavors. One, we are moving away from the single label-classification that has sort of dominated the Carnegie Classifications for the last 50 years, and we will be moving to something more multidimensional. And second, we are changing the way that the classifications deal with research. So we are both changing the research methodology to something that’s much simpler, a simple threshold to have your institution be eligible for R2 and then R1. And we’re also creating a new category of research institutions called research colleges and universities for those institutions that aren’t trying to offer doctoral degrees but are doing research on their campuses.

So all of this is exciting and we will be explaining some of these changes in a webinar that we are going to be doing on Friday. And there will be links to all of it in the show notes.

Jon Fansmith: Very exciting, and I can speak for Sarah here too, having observed all the work you and your team have put into this, Mushtaq, I think people will probably be pleased to see the changes, but it definitely will reflect a tremendous amount of thought and effort and consultation. So you’re right to be a little proud of the work you and your team have done.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah. I wanted to ask, Mushtaq, how many meetings do you think you’ve done in the lead up to this announcement, Mushtaq?

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, Sarah, we’ve been tracking in a big Excel spreadsheet. I think we’re up to now meeting with 5,500 folks on campus and 250 unique institutions.

It’s been great. I have to say, it’s been fabulous because I have been able to get out to so many places where college leaders are doing the hard work of teaching and learning and doing the important research that’s solving so many of our country’s and the world’s problems. I’m just inspired every day. I’m the luckiest person in higher ed. I’ve been able to get to see all the great work that’s happening across the country. It’s been fabulous.

Jon Fansmith: Well, we are going to hear from one of those inspiring leaders just after the break, but a great way to wrap up this part of the episode and please stay with us. We’ll be joined in just a minute by Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson. Hold on for that.

Mushtaq Gunja: And welcome back. We are joined today by a very special guest and we are joined in person in the ACE dotEDU podcast studio by the new, newish president of San Jose State, President Cynthia Teniente-Matson. Did I say that right, Cynthia?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: You did. It’s close-

Jon Fansmith: I saw a thumbs up.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Good. Yeah.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah. Teniente-Matson.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Got it.

Mushtaq Gunja: Cynthia had spent the previous eight years as president of Texas A&M-San Antonio. Cynthia’s a member of the board of directors at ACE, has been on the board of directors at AASCU, among many others, and we are so happy to have you in studio. How is being president of San Jose State. How’s this first year been?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Oh, it’s been absolutely fabulous. I arrived on Martin Luther King Day, so I sort of parachuted in right at the start of the spring semester. And so it’s my first fall term on campus, my first opportunity to greet first time in college students as they’re coming in. So it’s been good, meeting parents and the like.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, I love the fall. What a joy to be able to welcome students on campus. Can you walk us through your career a little bit? I was looking at your biography. Such an interesting background, a nontraditional one. You were born in San Antonio?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Correct. Yes. My grandparents migrated into the United States and landed in south Texas, so both my parents and myself were born in San Antonio. And it’s a wonderful place to live and to be. And I think, at the time, my parents made a decision to leave not only their community but their home state for better opportunities for themselves. They did not have an opportunity to go to college. So it’s really been an informative experience for me. We moved to southern California at that time. Early on, living in southern California, my dad was able to earn a credential in the skills trades area. So he moved us to Alaska. I lived in Alaska for 25 years, and that was really where I earned my undergraduate, my graduate degree at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and at Anchorage. I returned back to California at Cal State Fresno, where I was for almost 11 years and earned my doctorate there at CSU in the Cal State system. Very happy to be in Fresno and enjoyed my time there.

I returned back to San Antonio to lead Texas A&M-San Antonio as president and CEO in the exact same neighborhood that my parents had worked so hard to get out of. And, as you mentioned, I was there for a number of years building the university there, and the university was built in a community that had previously been redlined. And it was really an impactful, for me, personal journey to not only understand a lot more about my own personal narrative but to really understand the experiences of first-generation underserved students and be in their lives on a daily basis as we’re building a university with that focus in mind, a university that was born as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

So when the opportunity presented itself at San Jose State, it was really a long and thoughtful discussion about what made sense about that opportunity, and, of course, the opportunity to work with Chancellor Koester, someone who I’ve long admired and had worked with before. I was very delighted to be back in considering that opportunity. But what was really exciting was being in the heart of the Silicon Valley and being a public university in the heart of the Silicon Valley in San Jose and really having an opportunity to leverage the strengths of an absolutely incredible institution as we move forward into this next generation of all the change that’s going on in the world. So it’s another very incredibly diverse community, being in San Jose, the city of San Jose, but also being at San Jose State University. And what I have been saying to many audiences is that San Jose State and the city are at the epicenter of the future. And that’s what we see in our student body, and that’s how we’re thinking about our academic programs and how we’re thinking about the opportunities before us.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, what a cool story. To be able to go back to San Antonio, back to the place that you came and then to be able to work at a place that impacts so many students right in the heart of the burgeoning industries of artificial intelligence and everything that’s going on in tech.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Yes.

Mushtaq Gunja: You know, our stories are a little bit similar. My parents, too, moved to southern California, and my dad got his first college degree at Cal State, LA, and so we’re big fans of the Cal State system in the Gunja household.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: That’s great to hear. And I think we can appreciate what a difference a generation makes and having an opportunity, my parents were able to break into the middle class and because of that I was able to go to college. Had I stayed in the zip code of which I was born in, that likelihood would’ve been greatly diminished. And that is actually still the case in San Antonio for a resident born in 78224, which was my zip code, my home DNA, as well as the institution that I was leading at the time. It brings, for me, a lot of personal understanding of that experience and the importance of equity and what we’re doing to create equitable spaces and accessible spaces at public universities. And that’s what’s fabulous about San Jose State University.

Jon Fansmith: And Cynthia, you teed me up perfectly because I was going to talk about the fact that San Jose State, you mentioned very diverse community, you have a special sensitivity to the challenges first-generation students face. And you used the term “equity,” right? Certainly diversity, equity, and inclusion is a hot topic right now. Maybe some misunderstandings about exactly what that means. I was kind of curious. You’ve thought a lot about this. You’ve done a lot of work in this area. Can you talk a little bit about how you see DEI working, not just at San Jose State, but the importance of that within higher education?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: So I think every community, this is a local-based conversation about what does it mean in your community. For example, in the city of San Jose, it’s one of the top populations in the country of foreign-born residents that live in the city. So when you think about how you deliver education to a population, we have a large number of international students at our campus and in our community, so a very diverse perspective about how they see and benefit from the world and the education that we provide. But it also forces us to look at our policies and our practices and how those impact every student, including our international student population, where we have a large contingent, as well as first-generation students, those from historically underrepresented communities and those that are fully Pell-eligible.

So I think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in all of those parameters and ensuring that we’re providing equitable opportunities and accessible opportunities for those students. One of the things that I find just really a national challenge, but one that’s no secret in San Jose, is the cost of housing and the cost of living. So we spend time seriously talking about students that are couch-surfing, such that we’ve created a program called SJSU Cares. It was created before the pandemic to already begin addressing some of these issues around full-bodied support to be a healthy, successful student. And the cost of living is just a challenge, especially for international students. It is for everyone, but-

Jon Fansmith: Sure.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: So we have some programs in place now where students, we took some beds out of our residence hall and created those emergency spaces where students can stay for up to two weeks while they’re securing resources to assist them with housing or if they’re transitioning from one place to another or looking for roommates. The whole segment around that. And it’s really connected us much, much closer to the resources in the community that serve the unhoused in general, but where there are special places for our student population.

So that has really caused us to have a much broader conversation about who’s falling into these ranks from a diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective, and how do we think about those support services because most likely they also need tech support. They also need the food pantry support, probably mental health support and the like.

So from short-term to longer-term issues, DEI is really impacting everything that we’re doing. And it’s well beyond race-based or ethnicity-based, this is about how people experience the university. And so I like to think about DEI in the broadest sense possible, but really a focus on equity and accessibility.

Jon Fansmith: First of all, that sounds like a fascinating program. I’d love to learn a little bit more about that if you want to share a little bit more or we can talk about it afterwards. But one of the things with DEI, too, part of the reason, obviously, so many of your students face high housing costs is you’re located in the heart of Silicon Valley. There is tons of money there. But it’s not necessarily clear that the students from the community you serve are having the same access to those kind of jobs and those kind of careers that you see in Silicon Valley. Is that something you’ve experienced and how does that sort of shape what you’re doing on campus?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: It’s an interesting dichotomy. So first of all, let me talk about SJSU Cares and then I’ll go to the second part of your question. SJSU Cares is intended to be a one-stop shop. So a student who is having a challenge with anything that’s not specifically academically oriented, although they could come there for that too, allows them to seek out support for anything that may be going on in their lives from, my car broke down, to I don’t have a place to live, to I need healthcare, I have healthcare challenges, whatever the case may be, mental health, everything. And then they’re directed to resources, both on the campus or in the community. It also allows us to better understand and assess.

So many campuses, and I’ve come from campuses like this, have the services bifurcated and very well specialized in those particular areas, but students’ lives aren’t bifurcated, and they don’t understand the roadmap, that you need to go here to get this and you need to go there to get that and you need to go over to this other community resource agency who can help you with this other special need. So we’ve tried to simplify that approach and still capitalizing on all the resources we have. So I think that’s really important.

In terms of what students are experiencing and how that’s impacting the Silicon Valley, we place a lot of engineers throughout all of the major tech companies. We have a high percentage of engineers at Apple. At one point, we had more alumni at Apple than any other public university did in the Apple Corporation. And Meta, it’s true with Meta, it’s true in lots of the big tech companies.

We have very strong partnerships with Adobe, the Adobe partnership. Adobe really has taken a deep look at how they’re thinking about a diverse and equitable workforce. So they’ve invested over the last three years in two HBCUs and an HSI. We are the HSI that they have invested in in the Adobe for All programs and really allowing us to shape what that looks like in the digital learning space for all majors, so this is not just a tech solution. They’re physically right down the street from us, which is one of the great things about being in San Jose. The Zoom headquarters and the Adobe headquarters are literally within walking distance of San Jose State University, and many, many others.

I have a very good relationship with our elected officials and our mayor. I’ve joined our mayor in meetings with TikTok. I’ve joined our mayor in meetings with other major employers who are thinking about why they should either expand there in the Silicon Valley or how they look at the resources that are available to them from a workforce perspective. And then, Google has bought those 75 or 80 acres, I don’t remember the exact number, right down the street from San Jose State University, as well, for their expansion when they take that on; it’s on pause right now. So our campus has a lot of opportunity to influence. There’s a lot of high-wealth opportunities.

At the same time, there are gaps. And we are seeing, postpandemic, some data that has been recently published in the last couple of months from the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, indicating that the Latino community is falling behind in reading at age eight, so grade-level reading at in third grade and math readiness in eighth grade, two startling levels such that they’ve given themselves, as they’ve looked at this report card approach, a D or an F in these categories. And this is covering two counties in a very high-wealth area in what’s happening in public schools.

So for me, as president of San Jose State University and as a Latina, I’m looking out 10 years to whatever the world of work is going to be, as we think about the cusp of generative AI that we’re on and all the workforce challenges that are before us. Where is the workforce going to be and how should we be thinking about equity for students that we already publicly know are not where they need to be to be successful and to get into college? Let me reframe that. There’s many factors that attribute success. I’m talking about college readiness and being ready to come to college and to graduate within four, five, six years and really have an opportunity to change your life.

Mushtaq Gunja: So much richness in that answer. And there are a couple of threads I’d love to pull. But just on that last point, your university professors are not third grade teachers. They aren’t affecting, at least not directly, the readiness of the students that you are taking. And yet, San Jose State is not exactly an open-access institution, but it’s a very large institution that educates a lot of students in the valley and from beyond. How do you think about the journey of a student who desires to learn, comes to your university, is maybe a little bit unprepared? What’s the journey for that student like?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: So this is, I think, one of those equity questions that we all ask ourselves in higher ed. So if you look at programs like engineering, computer science, computer engineering, some of these what they call in California “impacted programs,” the average GPA for someone getting into those degree offerings is over 4.0. 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, it’s in that area. So how I am thinking about it and how our institution is thinking about it is what are alternate pathways for a tech career or a tech degree? So applied mathematics, computational linguistics, other data science, data analytics, other majors that still are going to be in very high demand. Still, you have to have a very high GPA to get into these programs even yet.

So, of course, there is the traditional community college route where we are backward mapping. Do we have everything tied up there with appropriate readiness, support for the community colleges, the right articulation agreements, the right wraparound services, but really we must start much earlier.

So to your point, our faculty don’t teach third grade, but the more we understand what is causing the challenges, particularly in a college like the College of Education, then we can look at how are we preparing educators? Where are we placing our near peers into some of those schools? How might we role model and co-create parent programs that we know can move the needle on success? There’s a lot written about how these programs work, but we have to be in the schools to really make a difference.

Mushtaq Gunja: That makes so much sense. If we know a little bit more about where those gaps are, where our high school students, our secondary students are not quite meeting the mark, then we can help meet that mark once they come to our campus. So I think that’s really important.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: We have a college corps program, for example, and part of their big focus is introducing students in elementary and middle school to computer science, computer technologies. And so their activities, which are paid for, so these are college students and they’re being paid in the college corps to go back into the schools. It’s not even curricular; it’s co-curricular. It’s experiential learning for them to introduce students, to support students, to support their family, to do the appropriate activities at those age and grade levels that gives them exposure to these disciplines is a significant way that a public university can be in the schools. Now, these are very long fuses, we understand that, but we are capable of getting investors to help us move the needle on some of this program creation, content creation, and paying college students to be back into those programs.

The other thing that makes it great is some students are going back into their home districts where they might’ve come from, but also they’re multilingual, and that helps to see, and if you want to speak in another language, because that’s a comfort zone for you, there’s that cultural affirmation as well that you can get there. I got there, and you can too.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, that’s lovely. There’s been so much focus in the national conversation about workforce training and the numbers you cited about the numbers of your students that are at Adobe and Google, at Meta, it’s really striking. What do you think San Jose State University is doing well in that regard, and are there things that you’re sort of working on to make those links even stronger?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Well, I think graduate programs is one of the significant areas of providing cohort-level graduate programs. In some cases, like the masters of science and some of the artificial intelligence programming that we’re doing through our engineering college, those are areas where they’re moving in cohorts. Those types of programs make a significant difference for those practitioners in the field to continue to hone and advance their skills. It’s also good for our faculty as well. More programs online, more hybrid programs, particularly for adult learners looking to come back. So those are critical.

I think we’ve all been wrestling with how to solve the challenges of students who stopped out, dropped out, or have some college and no degree. So we are also looking at that. We have a large number of students in those populations, and how do we bring them back into the fold with hybrid-level programming so that they can continue with their lives and complete their credential? So some of those are directly connected to workforce so that those employees can continue to move on in their current careers or move to the next level. In some cases, their employer might be paying for their education. In other cases, they’re paying for it on their own. So what we learned through the pandemic is everyone wants individualized, personalized support to show that we care about them, but also to complete their degree. So it’s really stretched all of our capacity and all of our models even in the Silicon Valley to move some of these initiatives forward.

Jon Fansmith: And following up on that, but with a little bit of a pivot, it seems like every higher education conversation these days talks about artificial intelligence. You referenced that before. You’re talking about how do you build systems that are personalized, that are individualized. Certainly, this is a technology that offers a promise. You’re located in Silicon Valley. What does AI look like from the San Jose State perspective? How are you thinking about incorporating this, both curriculum and across institutional operations?

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: So we’re wrestling with this like everyone else. So we have, I think, several lanes going on. First and foremost, how faculty are teaching using various forms of generative AI. So through our digital eCampus, I’ve seen some very forward-thinking programming that’s coming from the faculty themselves, how their policies and their syllabi are reflecting the use of AI tools in their classrooms. So things that faculty, even two years ago, weren’t thinking about as challenges, we all worked through the pandemic to flip everything upside down. This adds another layer of complexity. So how we’re teaching, how we’re using the tools that are available to us now, and then how we’re getting ahead of the curve. And that’s why I use this phrase of being the epicenter of the future, that we’re putting people in the workforce now who are going in to do the work. So there’s the teaching component.

I think we are all looking at the ethical dilemmas around artificial intelligence, generative AI, fair use, challenging those fair use methodologies, appropriate compensation, everything that we’ve seen in the recent writer’s strike, for example, where this was one of the issues.

Jon Fansmith: Sure.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: So we are looking at all of our faculty and the research that they’re doing and actually now trying to assess and assemble a strategy for where do we have strengths of what I call the silos of excellence. So we have faculty doing work in various areas. What areas are they doing that now make sense for us to partner with tech companies and how we’re thinking about looking at this. The other two areas are around cybersecurity and what is happening in cybersecurity around AI and how are we keeping up with that in our own curriculum as well as how we operate our university. The attacks are getting smarter, more sophisticated and really can have, as you know, significant deleterious effect for anyone engaged in that work.

And then I think the thing that is most compelling for us is how are we thinking about curriculum for K through 12? So a kindergartner going to school now, preschoolers, even, as we were discussing yesterday, are really having to think about teaching differently and students that are going to come in with different tools and different expectations around generative AI. So I think our Congress, I’ve watched some of the hearings that are going on now around these topics, and I sort of think about it in those three pillars. Cybersecurity; the technical, ethical issues; and then the other is how are we preparing all of our workforce and K through 12 curriculum to be prepared for this next generation?

Jon Fansmith: And ACE actually just filed comments with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate about this, talking about the range of possible applications and some of the concerns we’ve seen. And I think, as one of the people who was part of that exercise, I’m very happy that we have people like you who are so thoughtful about this because the enormity of what we are thinking about in this space, it can be a little bit overwhelming.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: I’ve talked to some tech leaders who tell me that the most in-demand position right now is prompt engineering. So it just was fascinating. When did you last hear about prompt engineering?

Mushtaq Gunja: Five minutes ago.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: This is the highest demand position that some companies are looking at as prompt engineering. So the sophistication of how you even think about this is, it just causes me to pause, like I said. I myself am taking an online course right now on generative AI, and I find that I need to do this. And really thinking about our own workforce and how are we training our... The people that are working at San Jose State University today, how are we thinking about improving their work life once they learn how to use and manipulate some of the tools that are available to simplify their work? So it’s a lot to think about.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. Now I’m impressed with both your knowledge of the AI landscape and your time management skills because that’s truly impressive.

Mushtaq Gunja: The prompt engineering, the fact that it wasn’t really a thing until just a couple of years ago, I think really speaks to the importance of college, of lifelong learning, and the need for our colleges really to adapt. But the idea that a student is going to graduate with a set of skills and that set of skills is going to be the only thing he will take with him for the next 50 years just doesn’t feel as right anymore.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Well, I think it also goes to the value of higher education. So you have this great debate going on amongst who knows who, certainly not the people that I’m hanging around with, but there are lots of conversations about the value of higher education. Now, maybe there are some exceptions of people who are going to get by, really have a prosperous life without having a college degree, but those are few and far between, really. And to break generational wealth gap issues, to break out of generational poverty, to really be resilient in the last five years that we’ve experienced in our world, between the pandemic, between the rapid pace of change, between AI, it’s very hard for me to sit here with you today and say that the value of a college education no longer exists or has diminished. If anything, to me, I think it’s gone in the other direction of needing more education just to remain current in the workforce.

Jon Fansmith: And I think that is a compelling place to end this conversation with a really strong affirmation of the value of higher education and, certainly, the value of a higher education obtained at San Jose State University.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: Absolutely. Go Spartans. I look forward to seeing you on campus.

Jon Fansmith: Absolutely. We’d love to come out and visit. We could do a live podcast recording on campus.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: We could, yes.

Jon Fansmith: All right. Send us an invitation. We’ll take you up on it.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson: All right, deal.

Jon Fansmith: Thank you so much for joining us today too. It was great talking with you. Thank you.

Sarah Spreitzer: As always, you can check out earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU on Apple, Google Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcast. For show notes and links to the resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. While there, please take a short survey to let us know how we’re doing. You can also email us at podcast@acenet.edu to give us suggestions on upcoming shows and guests.

And finally, a very big thank you to the producers who helped pull this podcast together: Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, Malcolm Moore, Anthony Trueheart, Rebecca Morris, Jack Nicholson, and Fatma NGom. They do an incredible job making this happen and making Jon, Mushtaq, and I sound as good as possible. Finally, thank you so much to all of you for listening.

About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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