Former SLP student is now Cal State East Bay president
By Jennifer Snelling
Cathy Sandeen, Ph.D., MBA, was appointed president of California State University, East Bay, in January 2021. After growing up in Oakland and San Leandro, Sandeen graduated with a degree in speech pathology from California State University, Humboldt. She comes to Cal State East Bay after serving as chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, and as vice president, education attainment and innovation, for the American Council on Education (2012-14), dean at the University of California, Los Angeles Extension (2006-12), and in various leadership roles at the University of California, Santa Cruz (2000-06) and the University of California, San Francisco (1990-2000).
Cal State East Bay’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, founded on state and national standards, prepares speech-language pathology and audiology students to serve those with communication disorders and their families in an ethical and culturally competent manner.
The department’s Aphasia Treatment Program has won several awards. The Pioneer Pals program, which invites siblings of children with autism to interact during a summer camp and Conversation Club, is the only one of its kind in the California State University system.
After you graduated from college in speech-language pathology, your path didn’t lead you to become an SLP. Can you tell us about how your career evolved and, ultimately, how you found your way to Cal State East Bay?
It’s a circuitous path, to be honest, but that’s true of many people’s career paths. That’s something I try to tell our students: Don’t get too fixated on one thing because opportunities will come your way, and it’s good to be open to them.
While earning my bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and audiology, which the degree was called at the time, I concurrently did a minor in more general communication studies. I gravitated a little more toward that discipline after graduation. I was really happy with the education I got with my bachelor’s degree. The empathy, emotional intelligence and independence that I learned by majoring in speech pathology and audiology have served me well.
I ended up going an academic route and earning a Ph.D. in communication with thoughts of being a professor, and I did teach for a while at a number of universities. For various reasons, I found my way into administration or the management of universities, and I remained on that path. I had a number of positions in the University of California system, moving my way up to dean. I was dean of University Extension at UCLA. It was there that some advisory board members planted a seed that maybe I could be a college or university president someday.
Los Angeles is a place people go to follow their dreams. It’s part of the culture there. So these advisory board members asked me what my next step was. I brainstormed, and one of the things I threw out there at the end was, well, I run a pretty big unit, similar to a small college within a large university, so maybe I could be a college or university president. They told me that’s what I should do.
So it was a path from there. I sought advice from search consultants who help universities find chancellors, and I followed that advice. I applied for and was accepted into a national fellowship program called the American Council on Education Fellowship Program. I applied for some jobs just to see what the process was like. Ultimately, I became the chancellor of two different universities outside of California. My last one was at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
I just loved it, but during COVID, being away from my family and being so isolated was hard. When I got the call about this job, I knew it was a good fit with my values and my skills and abilities. The trustees of the system agreed, and I’m really glad to be here. I think it’s a good fit, and I hope it’s a place I can really have an impact.
As you look back on your career path, what were your guiding ideals?
During the fellowship I did in 2010-11, I started to hear talk about a segment of students called first-generation college students and how they have certain qualities and certain challenges and needs. A light went on because I realized I was a first-generation college student.
At that moment, I also realized many of the threads of my higher education career so far really were connected to helping other individuals gain the opportunities that I had. That idea coalesced around serving first-generation students, underrepresented students and low-income students to make sure they have an opportunity to participate meaningfully in our economy by earning a degree. That’s what my education did for me, and it’s been a guiding principle as I continued in my career over the last 10 to 12 years – that focus on access, opportunity and student success.
What piece of advice that you got along the way still resonates with you today?
I reached out and did a number of informational interviews with individuals who were presidents and chancellors at universities long before I had the opportunity myself. A lot of their advice rings in my ears as I go through my job today.
One piece of advice was, “Bloom where you’re planted,” meaning you have to understand the culture of where you are. You’re not coming in to import your own ideas and change the culture. Guide the organization forward, but learn the culture of the organization and the surrounding community. How can we work within that culture to impact positive change?
Another piece of advice is that it’s really important to identify a limited number of high-impact priorities and focus on those. In complex organizations these days, there are just a wide array of important and complex issues to deal with. The organization will only make progress if we focus on the most impactful initiatives and stay the course for a while. That’s really the only way you can move the dial and have an impact over time.
That leads me to a practice throughout my career of using strategic planning and future visioning in an inclusive way to get an organization, or a university in this case, to identify a collective vision for the university and strategic priorities that we all focus on.
Those are two big pieces of advice that I got along the way that have carried me through.
Another thing I’ve learned on my own, and I believe it’s only through experience that you really learn this, is to remember the human side of things. As leaders, we are forced to make difficult decisions that affect people’s lives all the time. For good or bad, whatever decisions we make, someone will be unhappy. I think it’s important to be open and transparent to the highest degree possible and let people have some insight into the decisions that affect their lives.
With these decisions, it’s always important to remember the human side of things. Even if you’re making a difficult decision like reducing your workforce, which unfortunately I’ve had to do many times in my career in higher education, it’s vital to treat people with respect and professionalism. How we tell people, the notice period that we allow people – there are ways we can enact or implement the decisions that embrace the human side of our actions.
How have your experiences informed your views in ways you may not have anticipated?
Again, I reflect on going back to the first-generation college-going experience. Here at Cal State East Bay, over 60% of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Sixty percent are Pell-eligible, meaning they are at the lowest level of income and are very financially challenged; 86% of our students come from communities of color.
Even though I don’t reflect each and every of all those demographics, I touch on some of them. Being able to remember and bring that personal experience helps us create an environment where students can be successful. The types of positions we create to support students and the type of people we hire, many of whom are from their communities, are examples of how my direct experience guides actions today. Just remembering what it was like to walk into a place where you thought maybe you didn’t belong, you didn’t know how to negotiate it, is a direct personal experience that gives me a certain perspective that guides decisions that support our students and our mission.
What are your major goals as president of the university?
Here, we are really focused on student success. Fifteen or 20 years ago, our collective goal in U.S. higher education focused on access – getting people into the university. As an industry, we lost sight of the fact that not all those students were graduating with a degree. There’s been a huge pivot to student success and degree attainment, and that’s been front and center at our university and in the California State University system.
We have an initiative called Graduation Initiative 2025 to increase graduation rates overall in the university system. That helps us focus on what we need to do. For instance, what can we do internally in our university to reduce barriers? Are we scheduling enough bottleneck courses that students need in order for them to make progress in their majors?
Graduation Initiative 2025 is a focus, but for us at Cal State East Bay, we notice that certain student segments, Black students, Latinx students, and certain Asian and Asian Pacific Islander students, are not graduating at the same rate as our general student population. So that’s our focus now – closing those equity gaps and figuring out what are evidence-based interventions we can put into place that will make a real difference.
In addition, we are focused on our overall equity work within our own organization. For example, we seek to hire and support diverse faculty and staff that reflect our student demographics. We want to support faculty research that is focused on equity and social justice. Sustainability is also a focus. As we look at the effects of climate change that we see right now in California with wildfires, that is something that we want to maintain as a priority.
For me, as a president, another focus is enhancing the reputation of our university. We’ve been a little bit of a hidden gem in the Cal State system, but we are at a point right now where we deserve a little more attention for the fundamental work that we do in providing opportunity for all sorts of people in our region to meaningfully participate in our economy by earning a bachelor’s degree with us. Eighty percent of our students stay in the region when they graduate, so we’re really playing an important role in supporting the workforce and the economy here.
How can California better support its need to increase university capacity in SLP and audiology programs while focusing accreditation on California needs, as opposed to national standards that may not reflect California’s diversity or scale?
I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert on accreditation on speech and language programs, so I’ll put that aside. But what we’ve learned through our experience in the classroom and through our mental health counselors on campus is that the more we can recruit faculty and professionals from the communities our students come from, the better the outcomes are for our students.
So I can assume that the same would apply for speech-language therapists throughout the state. We want to diversify as much as possible because it means better outcomes for the clients. When they are working with therapists who have some of their similar lived experiences and know some of the challenges they are facing in their broader lives, that understanding can bring about better outcomes to therapy. We see it in teaching, and I think there are a lot of parallels.
Diversifying the workforce of speech-language pathologists and our faculty who are teaching in our universities are both important steps toward equity. Becoming a speech-language therapist is a wonderful career path. We at Cal State East Bay are making sure we’re providing equitable opportunities to all students who want to earn those degrees and credentials so they can participate in this wonderful career.
How can California do a better job of increasing the diversity of the SLP and audiology professions in order to better serve our state’s diverse populations?
It’s recruiting diverse faculty in general, and we have lots of efforts in place to do that at our university. At a very operational level, we advertise our positions in places where there are diverse populations who would want to apply. We make sure our search committees have diverse members on them and have undergone implicit bias training, so we make sure they are evaluating applicants fairly. Then, once we recruit faculty from diverse populations, we want to be sure we are creating a welcoming environment and supporting them in all the stages of their career with us.
We are a high-access institution, which means we have a lot of students applying to our programs who represent our community. On the student side, we probably have a pretty diverse school of students who are interested in a speech and language program.
Do you have any closing comments you’d like to share?
I’m reminded every day that California is a unique state with unique needs. Even regions within California are unique and different from each other. One thing I’ve learned being the president of Cal State East Bay, where we are a regional university, is to embrace and celebrate those differences and to be best in class for who we are for our region. That’s a concept that extends to other professions as well.
Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of publications and institutions, including the University of Oregon. She’s a frequent classroom volunteer and is active in schools in Eugene, Oregon.