From A to Zingg
A Heart-to-Heart Conversation With the Retiring President
by Ashley Gebb, photos by Jason Halley
I didn’t go to president’s school or anything like that,” Zingg said with a laugh. “It’s because, all along, I found mentors and coaches and friends who were inspiring and helpful—always willing to help me. I wanted to provide that support and experience for others.
When a young Paul Zingg was in grammar school, all he wanted to be when he grew up was a grammar school teacher. As he continued to high school, it was teenagers he wanted to teach. By college, he was confident he would carve a career as a university professor.
After earning a BA in history from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, an MA in history from the University of Richmond, Virginia, and a PhD in history from the University of Georgia, Athens, Zingg taught for several years at an Alabama college and then at the University of Pennsylvania. His career continued taking shape as he went on to work in leadership roles at St. Mary’s College of California and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
Eventually, Chico State offered a new opportunity in the upper echelons of higher education. In November 2003, he was named the University’s 14th president.
“I didn’t go to president’s school or anything like that,” Zingg said with a laugh. “It’s because, all along, I found mentors and coaches and friends who were inspiring and helpful—always willing to help me. I wanted to provide that support and experience for others.”
Appreciating both the University’s mission and challenges, he embraced the new role. With passion and pride for Chico State, he carried a commitment to cultivate more resources, to strengthen its regional identity and service, and to improve its quality of teaching and learning. And he brought a desire to champion a more diverse campus community and to achieve distinction in promoting civic engagement.
Those motivations persevered for the next 13 years.
Under Zingg’s tenure, degree completion rates have increased, and the University and its programs are consistently ranked among the best, including maintaining its U.S. News & World Report ranking as a top-10 public university in the West every year since 1998. Active, articulate, and accessible, he also led the campus through the re-accreditation process, increased its commitment to and reputation for sustainability, and witnessed dramatic increases in student diversity.
After unexpected heart surgery spurred a temporary leave in March, Zingg returned three months later with healthy prospects and a replenished spirit. But the experience prompted him to reflect on his health, his love for his wife, Yasuko, and two stepdaughters, and his deep commitment to the University.
As he prepares to retire after the 2015–16 academic year, it is with great satisfaction that he reflects on his initial instinct that Chico State would be a good fit—for him and the campus—at what would become his career capstone.
“The rest,” he said, “is history.”
Chico Statements: You have remarked often on your desire to strengthen the University’s reputation. What transformation do you think
has taken place?
Paul Zingg: A lot of what I have tried to do is to get us on the right lists. The last time we were on the party school list was 2002, the year before I got here. We are now internationally recognized for “green” values and sustainability, on the Carnegie Foundation honor roll for civic engagement, and, of course, highly ranked in the U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review. That’s pretty good stuff. The thing about lists is if you are not on them, people dismiss them as irrelevant. But if we are on them, let’s stay on them and continue to get on even better lists or more lists that speak to the values of our institution—sustainability, civic engagement, inclusion, diversity, excellence in our academic programs. Then, if you marry those lists to student success, graduation rates, and satisfaction of our alumni in their Chico Experience, that provides further encouragement to continue to pay attention to the things that most matter.
You were faced with some immediate challenges, particularly with student behavior that attracted national media. What was it like to confront those issues?
My first year here, two students died because of alcohol-related complications, a fraternity decided to go into the pornography business, and we had a riot down at Fifth and Ivy. For a few moments there, I was thinking, “What the heck have I gotten myself into? This place is crazy.” But this was a challenge that I knew I could take on with the help of people on campus and in the community. I was always motivated by the notion that we needed to write our own story rather than have our story written by somebody else. That story needed to focus on student responsibility and student awareness that they need to be citizens of both the campus and the city. We realized we had to transform student life into student leadership.
How did that play out?
I had two memorable “Ya’ll come” meetings with the Greeks. I said, “I have a question for you: Have you read your charters? Have you read all that stuff about citizenship, responsibility, civility, respect, and a commitment to service? Because I have, not only as the University president but as a member of a national fraternity. This is what I want you to do—read them and decide if you are who you say you are, or if you are a bunch of frauds. The University is a place for truth-telling, so if you are a bunch of frauds, quite frankly, you don’t belong here.” One of the things we realized is it wasn’t enough simply to scold or challenge the Greeks. The University had to stand up and provide programs and support to help with the transformation. That’s what service projects such as the Blitz Builds are all about. That’s what Scour and Devour, Up ’til Dawn, and celebrating student service to the community are all about. That’s what a safer Labor Day and transforming Cesar Chavez Day into a day of community service are all about—civic engagement, community service, and developing the habits of citizenship.
Do you think there has been a defining moment in your Chico State career?
That first meeting with the Greeks set the tone for needing to take on student behavior. And I also think the way we dealt with the Great Recession. We lost $40 million in state support, yet on this campus, there were no layoffs and we improved the University’s reputation. Not many campuses can say that. We were always motivated by protecting students and protecting our workforce. Yes, as faculty retired, as staff retired, as members of our workforce left the University, we did not initially replace all of those folks, but no one lost their job. And now we are in the process of rebuilding. By this time next year, we will have hired more than 125 tenured and tenure-track faculty since 2014. We have provided about $2 million of campus-based money for staff in-range progressions and range elevations. We have work to do, but our equity plan for faculty and staff is by far—in scale and scope—the most comprehensive in the system. I am very proud of that and confident it sets the tone for future commitments.
How would you describe your relationship
I aim to be very visible and accessible, attending activities, sporting events, and performances in Laxson or the Bell Memorial Union; collaborating with student leadership groups; working with the Associated Students leadership; and supporting student initiatives such as the decision to divest from fossil fuels and focus on healthier, more sustainable campus food choices. I did a statement for The Orion almost the first day I got here that made it clear that my administration was not going to censor or edit the student newspaper. And I love doing things like the Up ’til Dawn fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Hospital or going out on the Sacramento River cleanup after the Labor Day float or walking the streets of the student neighborhoods. And, of course, teaching. That is where you begin—with demonstrating that your commitment to students is true.
And what impact has that had on your life?
The energy is so positive, and the overwhelming goodness and commitment of our students is pretty powerful. You can’t realize or experience that by sitting in your office 12 hours a day or whatever. I walk the streets a half- dozen times a year, go out at 10 at night and wander around Fifth and Ivy, the south campus neighborhoods, and downtown. The first couple times nobody knew who I was. But now? I can’t do it incognito. Yet I still get invitations to play beer pong. I say, “I can’t do that.” “Why? Why can’t you play beer pong?” “Because it will be all over social media in 30 seconds.” They say, “Oh yeah, well, I guess you’re right.” It’s fun that a lot of students recognize me. They have their nicknames for me—Dr. Z., President P.—and I’ve never met a student who has been reluctant to come up and introduce his or herself and want to take a selfie with me. I will miss that a lot.
What else will you miss?
I will miss the people. I will miss the folks with whom I have worked most closely. I will miss the energy. A lot of it is intellectual energy—the ability every day to go to an interesting lecture or a presentation by a faculty member on what she or he is working on—and the relationship that faculty have with students. I will also miss the walks on campus and downtown. My favorite walk on campus is between those rows of hedges leading to Kendall Hall. I never fail to look over to Laxson on one side and Trinity on the other and Kendall in front and really appreciate how beautiful this campus is and how fortunate I am to work here.
What did this experience teach you about yourself?
To trust your instincts and always stay grounded in two things: values, which you need to be able to articulate, and the long view. We don’t work for today’s applause. We work to try to make a difference. And the vision is not mine alone. In many respects, the president’s job is to make sense of what is going on and try to give meaning to the energy, the ideas, and the sense of goodness you hope an institution stands for. Those are pretty good things to live by and a lot of what I think I have accomplished here.
How have you changed in the last 13 years?
I have a family today. That’s huge and has certainly sharpened my sense about what matters in life. To have two—of course, they are grown—children is something I thought would never happen. And they and my wife have helped shape my sense of what is fundamentally important in life and influence my decision with my health to not put them through that again. Otherwise, I’d be merrily going along doing bad things to my health and not paying a whole lot of attention to it. I think I have developed a very sharpened personal perspective on things that really matter. And family really matters.
If you could sit in a student’s shoes, are there any classes you wish you could take?
I would want to learn more about Japanese language and culture. I would probably want to learn how to play a musical instrument—I used to play the banjo, years ago. And I might want to get involved in courses that have some kind of social or environmental activism. I’ve never left college, which is kind of neat. I’ve been at this since I was 18, and it still feels good and fresh.
Is there something you wanted to accomplish that you didn’t have time for?
Although our endowment has doubled since I was here, I wish our fundraising was more successful. Very few campuses in the CSU were even thinking about these things 12 years ago, because we had significant state support. And I wish we were more successful in strengthening the diversity of our workforce. We are doing well with students, but, as I look around at faculty and staff, it hasn’t changed that much. Those students need to see us walking the talk of diversity every chance we get. And I think we could have made greater strides and been more visible throughout the entire North State with the Native American, Hmong, and Sikh communities. It’s not that we haven’t tried, but we haven’t come up with the right formula. I also wish that our presence in Redding were stronger. At one point, I was hoping that we would actually have a CSU, Chico-Redding campus.
What advice do you have for the incoming president?
The next president will have two great opportunities from day one: to lead a major fundraising campaign and to update the University’s strategic plan. Hopefully the table is set so the next person can bring fresh eyes, new energy, and vision to bear on these matters. I would strongly advise the new president to be visible on the campus and in the community, and get involved—in Rotary, in the Chamber of Commerce, in the North State Symphony, in the Gateway Science Museum, fill in the blank. It is important the president be a good communicator. A sense of history and a sense of place are also really important, and that will not happen overnight.
Do you intend to stay connected to Chico State?
I love the place. Simple as that. I love the University and I love the community. It’s tricky because I don’t want to get in the way of whoever the new president is. But I will be around, still going to basketball games and to Laxson events, and having lunches at Tres Hombres with a familiar group of friends and colleagues.
What is next for you in this new chapter of your life?
We are not quite sure yet. I do know that I have a lot of things I want to do. I am not just going to sit and read and go to movies. I have worked off and on over the years on various consultancies and leadership programs, so I will probably do more of that. And I am always working on a writing project or two. I do have retreat rights, which means I could go back to the faculty either here or at another CSU institution, and return to teaching. But a lot depends on where we decide to live. That will continue to be here initially, but we are looking at other areas too. We both love the San Francisco Bay Area, for example.
But your retirement will not be all work and no play…
I don’t have any great bucket lists. We will do some traveling, I know. I have never been to Paris. There will be golf for sure—Is the sky blue? Yep. And I think I will probably continue to take folks on trips to Ireland and Scotland because I have gotten pretty good at it and gotten to know so many people over there who make those trips special. I have had invitations to write regular columns for journals and newspapers. I may do a little bit of that. But I don’t want to get myself into a commitment that might get old too fast.
Finally, what is your hope for the University’s future?
It has a great future. I do believe what the University has achieved over the last 12 to 13 years or so is real. It’s deep and it’s lasting. And I do believe the next president will take Chico to that mythical next level, whatever that is. If the next leadership gets a firm sense of what is distinctive about the institution, you can move from good to great or very good to very great. If you can get to the point where individual and institutional values are pretty close, there is really no holding back the institution from a stronger sense of identity and purpose, of strengthened ability to enact its story. So, the need is to find someone who is a terrific storyteller, possesses high energy, and is able to articulate that sense of shared values, shared vision, and shared future. If so, there are no limits on what this University can continue to achieve. It’s very neat to think about that and to take pride in being a part of forming the future.
About the author
Ashley Gebb (BA, Journalism, ’08) is publications editor at CSU, Chico.