California State University, Northridge officials will dedicate a courtyard in the center of the campus to honor the legacy of former CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson on Friday, Jan. 31.
Wilson served as CSUN’s president from 1992 to 1999 and is credited with bringing the university back from the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake. She also furthered the university’s reputation as an institution that strongly supported the idea of academic freedom and stood behind student efforts to bring diverse and often controversial speakers to campus.
“I am pleased we are able to honor Blenda Wilson for her leadership, particularly following the Northridge earthquake,” said Dianne F. Harrison, current president of California State University, Northridge. “Her focus and relentless efforts brought national attention to the resiliency and excellence of the students, faculty and staff of CSUN, and ensured that the university’s mission and excellence would continue. I’m proud to build on this legacy.”
The courtyard dedication is scheduled to take place at 4 p.m. on Jan. 31 near the Donald E. Bianchi Planetarium in the center of the campus at 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge. Among those who will pay tribute to Wilson will be former students and faculty and staff members who worked with her during her tenure as CSUN’s president.
Wilson, who earned her doctorate from Boston College, began her career in higher education administration at Rutgers University. She later served as the youngest senior associate dean at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and was vice president of effective sector management at Independent Sector. She subsequently was executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education from 1984 to 1988, and served as an officer in the governor’s cabinet. When Wilson was named chancellor of the University of Michigan, Dearborn in 1988 she became the first woman to head a four-year university in that state.
Wilson began her time as the third president of California State University, Northridge on Sept. 1, 1992, and became the nation’s only African-American woman to head a university with an enrollment of more than 25,000 students.
Despite the devastation left on campus following the 1994 earthquake, Wilson resolved that CSUN would resume classes for the spring semester and oversaw the day-to-day operations of the university and its rebuilding, initially from the confines of a recreation vehicle and later from a trailer. The campus, under her leadership, began the 1994 spring semester only two weeks late, and one month to the day of the earthquake.
Her tenure was marked by her staunch support of academic freedom, including student efforts to invite controversial Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan to speak on campus and host a debate on the state anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, that included former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke. She argued that public institutions of higher education played a key role in preserving the constitutional right to free speech and there was no place more appropriate than a public university for the exchange of ideas, regardless of their degree of controversiality.
As president, Wilson ensured that CSUN continued to play a role in redefining academic excellence. She also launched the Presidential Scholar’s program, which pairs academically high-performing students with faculty mentors, and refined the university’s strategic planning process.
Wilson has held advisory and leadership roles at many of the nation’s leading institutions, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Getty Museum and The College Board. She served as chair of the prestigious American Association of Higher Education. She also served as the first president and chief executive officer of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. She currently serves on the board of directors of Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, Western Governors University, Achieving the Dream, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and Higher Education Resource Services. Wilson, who now lives in Savannah, Ga., with her husband Louis Fair Jr., has received honorary doctorates from more than 25 colleges and universities.
Each year, CSUN’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education presents the Blenda J. Wilson Diversity in Education Award to one of its full-time faculty members who exemplifies Wilson’s efforts to enhance “the community’s thinking on all matters, including those involving gender, race and ethnicity.”