Calling her a leader with “courage and vision,” California State University, Northridge President Dianne F. Harrison was joined on Friday, Jan. 31, by faculty, staff, alumni and community leaders in celebrating the legacy of former CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson.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 implemented a strategic plan that redefined the university’s mission and developed a new campus master plan that positioned the physical campus well into the new century. During her tenure, several public-service centers were launched, including the Center for Southern California Studies, community health initiatives and the Entertainment Industry Institute.
She also launched the Presidential Scholar’s program, which pairs academically high-performing students with faculty mentors. She reinstated the honors program and ensured that service learning was included in the curriculum and was an integral part of student life.
“We not only celebrate Dr. Wilson’s legacy of leadership and achievement as the third president of our university,” Harrison said. “We proudly recognize her as a nationally respected authority on education and as a trailblazer who has helped transform the landscape of higher education.”
Dozens packed the northeast university quad at the Jan. 31 ceremony to honor Wilson, who attended the tribute with her husband, Louis Fair Jr. The university unveiled the Blenda J. Wilson Courtyard, just a few feet from the earthquake monument Wilson erected in honor of the faculty and staff who responded in the days immediately following the 1994 earthquake. Those paying tribute to her last week included emeritus professor and associate vice president for faculty affairs Don Cameron, co-chair of CSUN’s 40th anniversary event; William Watkins ’74 (Urban Studies), vice president of student affairs and dean of students; David Honda, former CSUN Foundation board chairman; Joy Picus, former Los Angeles City Council member and former member of the CSUN Foundation; Alumni Association President Francine Oschin ’84 (Journalism), M.A. ’85 (Mass Communication); and Steven Parker ’94 (Political Science), Associated Students president from 1993 to 1994.
“I realized it was the person she was and her characteristics that got us through the crisis, the cataclysm, the thing that had never happened before in a university,” said Margaret Fieweger, former associate vice president of undergraduate studies. She said it was “President Wilson’s confidence, vision and ability to take in vast pieces of information from different kinds of people, process it and take action” that helped the university recover quickly.
Wilson, who became the nation’s first African-American woman to head a university with an enrollment of more than 25,000 students, thanked the speakers and all those in attendance.
“I have to believe that whatever you say about the buildings, the earthquake and work is far secondary to the human relationships and bonding that occurred among us when we were here together,” Wilson said. “Where we are is a magnificent, stunning institution to serve the people of the Valley, the people who are in the Valley, the students who need an excellent university in the Valley.”
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.”
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 she was vice president of effective sector management at Independent Sector. 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 now lives in Savannah, Ga., but she still serves on several local and national boards.