Rising to the Challenge
When Lynn Mahoney became the first female president of San Francisco State University in July 2019, the campus was beset by conflict. Tensions arose over invitations to certain guest speakers, budget cuts to the College of Ethnic Studies, and complaints of racism.
Since her inauguration, a greater feeling of harmony has taken hold, driven by Mahoney’s deep desire for inclusiveness. Before the COVID-19 virus forced the school to limit on-campus operations, Mahoney GSNB’99 would habitually roam the grounds, introduce herself to students, ask what problems they faced and what their aspirations were, and listen to their stories—a critical skill she honed as a doctoral candidate in history at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
Mahoney started out working in hospitality management, but after switching to a teaching trajectory and taking a history course with two-time Pulitzer-winning historian David Levering Lewis, she was hooked. “He was not an easy faculty member—he was very rigorous and had a formal approach to teaching—but I learned a tremendous amount,” Mahoney says.
Specializing in 19th-century U.S. social and cultural history, she immersed herself in the study of the women’s rights, labor, and abolitionist movements. History professor Jackson Lears, her dissertation adviser, impressed upon her the value of writing for the lay reader instead of for other academics, and to explain complex things in simple ways. Respecting personal narratives was a central part of her education. “I learned a lot about the importance of stories: how you tell stories and how you listen to stories,” she says.
For Mahoney’s fellow graduate students, getting a degree was not an end in itself, but a means to a greater calling. “They viewed what they were doing as changing the world,” she says. “They saw their work in teaching and their scholarship as a form of social justice. Rutgers was famous for its labor history and women’s history programs. The commitment to [the idea] that your work as an academic is a form of social justice—I got that in the Rutgers history department, and that is what San Francisco State is about.”
While working toward her doctorate at Rutgers, she and her husband, fellow Rutgers graduate Charles Ponce de Leon GSNB’92, taught at SUNY Purchase. In 2008, both took jobs at California State University Long Beach.
If there is a through-line to Mahoney’s ascent, it has been her insistence on giving people, especially marginalized groups, their voice. Since assuming the presidency at San Francisco State, she has drawn on her Rutgers training. “I arrived wanting to hear everyone’s story, wanting to make people feel valued and included,” she says.
Mahoney has brought representatives of different student ethnic groups together for shared meals. At a dinner with a Jewish student and a Muslim student who supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, she was worried that conflict would flare up. Instead, they heard each other out and Mahoney later learned they were friends. “I floated home. I thought, there is potential for conversation about even the most difficult issues,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for the university, she says, but she is inspired by how its students have met those challenges. “I think this is going to be the next great generation,” she says. “They’re already pretty great, and I think they will weather this in ways that they bring to the future, [with] skills and resiliency that maybe other generations haven’t had.”
For now, Mahoney is focusing on boosting the university’s graduation rate and better serving students while “working at an underfunded state university.” But her optimism is unflagging. She points to the fact that graduation rates rose 12 percent at Cal State Long Beach despite severe budget cuts following the 2008 recession. Increasing those rates at SF State will help empower people and make their voices heard.
And, of course, Mahoney will be listening.