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Transformative: Sonoma State University

Author: Jane Hodges Young
July, 2013 Issue
When Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang concluded the first of his three Mozart sonatas to thunderous applause at the opening of the Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University last September, Dr. Ruben Armiñana had once again proven the adage: “If you build it, they will come.”
In the 21 years he’s been at the helm as president of SSU, Armiñana has embarked on an aggressive, nonstop campaign to transform a small, rural college with a handful of academic programs into a robust, progressive institution of higher learning with far-reaching influence.
And even if you’re an Armiñana detractor—and there are a few—you have to admit he’s succeeded in executing his vision. “There’s no doubt that Ruben brought the university into a wider, more active role in the community,” says Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
The rise of SSU as a relevant and dominant force in the North Bay—not only in regard to education, but also pertaining to economic growth—has been a critical component in shaping the region’s business infrastructure.
“Our economic impact on the North Bay community is significantly more than $400 million per year, one of the largest in the region,” Armiñana proudly attests. “That’s important, but that’s not all—we’re also seen as a quality institution that’s relevant, constantly preparing students for work and civic involvement.”
It wasn’t always that way. Over the past 52 years, the tiny original campus of just two buildings on 215 acres has morphed into an elaborate expanse of facilities spread across 269 acres, complete with three lakes, residential “villages” and its latest crown jewel, The Donald and Maureen Green Music Center with its stunning performance space, Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall. Today, it’s at capacity, with more than 9,000 students enrolled.
“After Dr. Armiñana arrived, things began to change,” says Susan Kashack, associate vice president for marketing and communications at SSU. One of the first areas was in student housing. To attract more students from outside the area—which is important to a school’s diversity at many levels, including creating a more traditional college experience—SSU started building more residence halls to accommodate students who wanted to live on campus.
“We didn’t construct standard dormitories. Rather, we built suites that were more like apartments. Dr. Armiñana believes students want to live at school as comfortably as they did at home,” Kashack explains. “That has certainly rung true as students now claim one of their top deciding factors for choosing Sonoma State was the residence halls.” Today, SSU is considered tops in student housing among the 23 campuses in the California State University (CSU) system and has one of the largest percentages of students living on campus (3,100).
After building the housing, SSU continued to extend its territory for recruiting, moving beyond Sonoma, Lake, Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties to Southern California, nearby states and, most recently, internationally. “At the time, enrollment was an issue,” Armiñana remembers. “We had more seats than applicants. That’s certainly changed.”
Today, the opposite is the case. SSU has become a destination university, “and we have 15 applications for every available seat,” he says.

Tech revolution

Another major change that SSU embraced—and that led to its metamorphosis into a 21st century institution—was high technology.
“When I came, computers were almost a novelty. Now, every student has a very powerful computer in their hands—their telephone. There’s more computer power in one of those phones than there was in the huge computer we kept underground when I was a student at the University of Texas,” Armiñana says.
So SSU invested in technology. When it built its new library (the Jean and Charles Schulz Information Center) in 2000, half the space was devoted to a tech center.
“It’s not your usual library,” Kashack explains. In addition to the traditional stacks of books, there’s a multimedia area, special collections, a faculty center, writing center, computers and special rooms available so both large and small groups can study together, practice classroom presentations or discuss a project. An eatery on the first floor, called Charlie Brown’s Cafe, plays a central role in the social aspect of the library—and is very popular. An information technology department, which oversees computers, servers and all other aspects of technology for the campus, is housed at the library. In addition to three floors of traditional library stacks, there’s an automated retrieval system (ARS) with three “robots” that bring less frequently checked out books and materials through a transit system from a storage area to the circulation desk.
“Students can order a book from the ARS while they’re sitting in their residence hall bedroom, then walk across the street to Charlie Brown’s Café, grab a latté and proceed to the circulation desk. The book will be there waiting for them. It’s a fascinating system to watch in action,”Kashack says.
The tech revolution also bolted SSU into action to renovate Darwin Hall, the science building, which was one of the two original edifices on the campus.
“That old adage that if you aren’t moving forward you’re moving backward holds true for education, too,” says Kashack. “Students are tech savvy, and most of them take science classes at one time or another. In 2006, we were able to renovate Darwin Hall and bring it up to 21st century teaching and learning standards. It’s a gem and is meeting the needs of our students and faculty.” Darwin Hall reopened in 2006 after a renovation that cost $29.5 million and was funded by state bonds.

Academics and partnerships

According to Stone, one of the greatest things SSU has done—which has been a win-win situation for both the community and the university—was to spring immediately into action on recommendations from an economic vitality program the county undertook in the mid-1990s.
The program studied the needs of employers and what it was going to take to entice businesses to move to and/or remain in Sonoma County. One of the biggest needs was access to a workforce trained in science and technology.
“One of the recommendations was to establish a School of Science and Technology at SSU, and they really worked to make it happen,” Stone says. “It was imperative that we have that school and those programs. Because they embraced it, 80 percent of the people who come out of SSU’s master’s and tech programs get jobs in the North Bay.” 
To Armiñana’s credit, making SSU relevant in the surrounding community has not only been a goal and a priority—but, in his words, “our most important role.”
As a center for higher education, Armiñana says, SSU is heavily engaged in research that directly affects the quality of life in the North Bay and beyond. “We’re talking sustainability, biological research, energy consumption, sudden oak death syndrome, improvements in K-12 education and economic impact studies,” he says.
Stone points to the university’s political science professors, who’ve been a constant resource when wading through complex public policy issues.
And then there’s the SSU Environmental Technology Center, which was one of the very first “green” buildings erected on a college campus in the United States. Since its completion in 2001, the building has been a “teacher” on its own—demonstrating how sustainable building techniques and technologies can minimize energy use while promoting the capture of renewable energy. Bay Area cities—Santa Rosa, Benicia and Vallejo to name a few—are working with SSU faculty and students on their climate action plans and the California Department of Water Resources is also benefiting from ETC projects.

Wine education

One of the most innovative programs introduced by SSU over the last decade-plus has been the Wine Business Institute, developed in partnership with the wine industry. The first and only of its kind in the United States, SSU’s wine business degree offers a specialized curriculum dealing specifically with the unique business challenges faced by the wine industry.
“We’re not teaching people how to make wine,” says Kashack. “Instead, the program focuses on the wine business—marketing, finance, human resources, entrepreneurship. It’s a popular course of study not only for incoming freshmen with an interest in the wine industry, but also for those currently employed in the industry who are seeking professional development.”
In the wine-centric North Bay, home to many of the world’s finest wineries, the SSU program is able to draw upon the experience of top winery principals—many of whom teach some of the classes—and offer hands-on internships to students pursuing a bachelor’s degree with wine strategies concentration or an M.B.A. in wine business. Its board of directors reads like a Who’s Who in wine leadership and includes such luminaries as Gary Heck (Korbel), Caroline Coleman Bailey (Gallo) and Roy Cecchetti (Cecchetti Wine Company), among others.
“It’s an amazing program that not only pulls support from the wine industry, but also gives it in return,” Kashack says. “One of the most important efforts any university can make is to help support industries within their own communities as part of educating its students. Our faculty, for instance, conduct research on issues of prime importance to the California wine industry, including water, conjunctive labeling, financial benchmarking and abolishing monopoly protection regulations in other states. We bring the community onto campus whenever we can so our students hear first-hand from those in the field.”

Making music

In recent years, SSU has been in the headlines—and not always in a positive light—because of a major push by Armiñana to construct one of the world’s finest concert halls on a campus that doesn’t even have a student symphony orchestra. In short, it’s another “concrete” example of Armiñana’s vision for SSU far into the future.
Initially, the Green Music Center was planned to be a $10 million choral auditorium named after its benefactors, Don and Maureen Green, who experienced great success during the Telecom Valley business era in Sonoma County. But on a trip to Massachusetts, Armiñana, his wife, Marne, and the Greens visited Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the internationally acclaimed music venue that’s been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since the 1930s. Impressed with the perfect acoustics and unique design, they fell in love with the structure and came home with a plan to build a similar world-class music hall, along with a recital hall, hospitality center, outdoor amphitheater and music education hall. The total estimated cost, at the time, was $22 million.
The Greens donated $5 million toward the project (and later donated $5 million more). But as it got closer to reality, the project stalled—donations were hard to come by, thanks to a rocky economy, and state education appropriations dried up. Actual construction on the center didn’t start until 2006. The first building to be completed was the Music Education Hall, which opened in 2008, followed by the hospitality center in 2009. But the crown jewel—the concert hall—languished until Armiñana “orchestrated” one of his biggest coups: a $12 million donation from former Citigroup chairman/CEO Sandy Weill and his wife, Joan, who moved to Sonoma County in 2010.
The previous gifts from more than 1,800 individuals—plus private funding and state bond support—finally made Weill Hall at the Green Music Center a reality. With a $15 million sponsorship, MasterCard secured naming rights to the yet-to-be-constructed MasterCard Performing Arts Pavilion at the Green Music Center, and has naming rights to the two annual concert seasons within Weill Hall. The Santa Rosa Symphony is now the resident orchestra in a center and hall that’s attracting top musical talent from all over the world. The 2012-13 inaugural season featured a mix of international, highly acclaimed artists from the classical, choral, instrumental, vocal, jazz and world music genres. The summer season launches this July 4, featuring the Santa Rosa Symphony and a spectacular fireworks display.
The 2013-14 season, which begins mid-September, includes a return visit from Lang Lang, plus concerts featuring the world renowned violinist, Itzhak Perlman, and jazz great, Herbie Hancock.
Whether or not there’s ever a Sonoma State University student orchestra (and you can bet money there will be), Armiñana’s ability to build the music center—his own “field of dreams”—against all odds, will be a major part of his legacy.

It all comes down to money

While SSU continues to grow in stature, it faces an obstacle far too common in California these days—budget cutbacks. The lack of appropriate funding made things so bad a few years ago that the CSU system even placed a moratorium on new students for a spring semester.
“It can be a difficult time for families with college-aged students,” says Kashack. “There are many students who want to go to college and they’re doing exactly what they should be doing in high school—studying hard, having successes, being involved in extracurricular activities—so they can get into the school of their choice. And there have been times in the recent past when those spaces were just not available. Today, it can take five or even six years to earn a ‘four-year’ college education. It’s frustrating for everyone: students, their families, those of us at the universities. The State of California has its financial issues, but educating its youth should be primary, as these are our future leaders. They will be making decisions about social security, capital punishment and other issues of the day. They must be prepared.”
“I have the same amount of revenues as I had when I came here in 1992,” laments Armiñana, “but I have 4,000 more students. We’re at physical capacity—we need more classrooms and labs. Concrete walls don’t move easily and the fire marshals get upset when there are 100 people in a place where there’s only supposed to be 30.”
“Money is the problem,” Armiñana says. “The CSU system lost 30 percent of its revenues last year. If you’re running a company losing that percent of revenue without the ability or authority to do anything about it, you’re going to go under. The disinvestment of the state of California in higher education is the single biggest challenge we face.”
Even though times are difficult for SSU, Armiñana is proud of the school’s achievements and the key role it plays in the fabric of the North Bay. “Since I’ve been here, I think our greatest accomplishment has been the pride we take in being a quality institution. It’s reflected in many ways. Many people will point to buildings, but buildings aren’t as important as what goes on inside them. And here, it’s a quality experience inside,” Armiñana says.
“And one more thing. When I came here, I seldom saw a car on the street with an SSU decal on it. Now I see them all the time. But not just here—I also see them on Century Boulevard in Los Angeles, on the freeway in San Diego, outside Trump Tower in New York City and on the streets of Boston. It’s obvious we’ve had an impact that’s been favorable on people’s lives and on the lives of communities as well. It’s that transformation I’m most proud of.”

A President’s Vision 

Since its inception, Sonoma State University has been under the leadership of only eight presidents (two interim), starting with Ambrose R. Nichols, Jr., who served from 1961 until 1970. Over the next 22 years, he was followed by Earl Jones (interim), Thomas H. McGrath, Marjorie Downing Wagner, Peter Diamandopoulos, Hobart Burns (interim) and David W. Benson. In 1992, Dr. Ruben Armiñana was named president of SSU—a position he still holds today.
While sometimes controversial (in 2007, the SSU faculty voted no confidence in Armiñana because of financial issues surrounding the construction of the Green Music Center), Armiñana is generally credited as the architect of SSU’s rise to glory. When Armiñana first arrived at SSU, the freshman class was about 400 total; today it numbers 1,800. Students were mostly part-time and it was basically considered to be a commuter campus—students came, took their classes, then went back home. It wasn’t conducive to any type on campus life and needed to change.
Over the 20-plus years of his term of office, the university has built the Jean and Charles Schulz Information Center, renovated the Darwin Hall science building, constructed a student recreation center, added residence hall units, completed an Environmental Technology Center that promotes “green building” techniques and is currently putting the finishing touches on the Green Music Center. In addition, the university has acquired the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, which was donated by The Nature Conservancy (the 411 acres on the northwest side of Sonoma Mountain now serve as a field station for the School of Science and Technology) and the Galbreath Wildlands Preserve (3,670 acres of wilderness located in the Navarro Watershed, 17 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County), which was donated by the heirs of Fred Galbreath, an influential insurance executive.
Under Armiñana’s watch, SSU has also added several academic programs, including B.S. and M.A. degrees in engineering science, a wine business concentration for both B.A. and M.B.A. degrees and an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which caters to the desire of more mature students to continue to learn and who aren’t necessarily pursuing college degrees, funded in part by the Bernard Osher Foundation.

SSU Timeline 

1960     Sonoma State College is established by the California Legislature.
1961    The institution opens the doors to its first 274 students.
1966     Its first two classroom buildings (Stevenson and Darwin halls) are completed on the college’s permanent campus on the east side of Highway 101, off Rohnert Park Expressway.
1966     The first graduating class accepts diplomas.
1966     The college offers its first master’s degrees—in biology and psychology.
1972     The California State College system (then numbering 19 schools) became the California State University and Colleges system.
1978     Sonoma State attains university status.
1992     Dr. Ruben Armiñana is named president of SSU.
1999     SSU is invited to join the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges as the sole California member.
1998     Wine Business Institute launches.
2000     Jean and Charles Schulz Information Center opens.
2001     Environmental Technology Center opens.
2006     Darwin Hall is renovated with state-of-the-art classrooms and tech capability.
2008     Music Education Hall opens.
2010     Green Music hospitality center opens.
2012     Green Music Center’s Weill Hall opens for its inaugural season.
2013     The Student Center is slated to open in fall, focused on enhancing student life.


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