When his friends at Towson University came courting, they knew just what to do to entice San Jose State University President Robert Caret: They dangled a challenge before him.
It almost did the trick. By the time he pulled out as a finalist in Towson's presidential search last week, Caret had imagined himself running the Maryland campus where he spent 21 years, the local hero riding in to save the day.
``Of course, it may not have worked out that way,'' he jokes.
Caret decided to stay in San Jose after an outpouring of support. He knew people liked him, he said, but the size of the response surprised him.
Though he seems never to break a sweat, Caret gets credit for orchestrating the transformation of the Rodney Dangerfield of Bay Area universities. San Jose State has always suffered because it is not Stanford University or the University of California-Berkeley. Now, as it embraces an identity as the university of Silicon Valley, San Jose State is getting some respect.
The most visible symbol of Caret's accomplishments in his seven years here is the glassy, $177.5 million city-university library nearing completion in 2003 at Fourth and San Fernando streets, representing an unprecedented partnership with the city of San Jose.
``He made a bridge between San Jose State and the community where there had been a wall for years,'' said former banker and Sand Hill Capital investor Phil Boyce, whose service on the president's advisory council predates Caret. ``And he got the university united.''
In the beginning
No one knew what to expect when Caret arrived on campus in February 1995. He was the California State University trustees' surprise choice over J. Handel Evans, who had been acting president for three years.
The son of a restaurant owner who catered to millworkers in Biddeford, Maine, Caret was the first in his family to attend college. He became engrossed in chemistry and went on to earn a doctorate and write four textbooks.
He arrived in San Jose with a good sense of the challenges ahead. The campus had become dysfunctional, he said. It had problems getting students enrolled and helping them succeed after they had stumbled in. There also were some troubling campus climate issues, including racial tensions and poor staff morale.
The university had a reputation as a racist campus, Caret said. There was a feeling that minorities were not given opportunities. The new president created a top administrative position to address these and other campus climate issues and set about making clear that the campus valued diversity.
``The biggest issue was the image issue,'' Caret said. ``The campus was in a funk. It's a great campus with a great history and a great potential future, and it needed to be sparked. That was my job, to provide the spark.''
He ordered the windows washed and the toilets fixed.
And he immediately began promoting San Jose State as a metropolitan university -- one that focuses its teaching, service and research on the region in which it resides.
The university always had a close connection to its community, said Carmen Sigler, dean of the college of humanities and the arts and interim vice president for advancement, ``but we never cherished it or saw it as part of our mission.''
Initially, some people thought the metropolitan university ``was mumbo-jumbo,'' said chemistry Professor Pam Stacks. ``Now, it's a no-brainer. Of course that is who we are. I think that's what turned it around for us.''
As they saw Caret's commitment to quality as he worked with them to fix the problems, people started feeling better.
Hard work noticed
``He's instilled a sense of pride and possibility in the campus,'' said Lee Dorosz, a longtime administrator. ``From the day he stepped foot on the place, people began to feel there was possibility.''
Caret's collaborative style also enabled him to work closely with the Academic Senate, a body composed of faculty members, administrators and students that recommends policies for the university. The senate had butted heads with other presidents.
Caret's ability to sell his ideas has helped him bring in nearly a half-billion dollars for new buildings and other physical improvements. Some of it came through fundraising, but the bulk is from CSU headquarters in Long Beach, where Caret has claimed the lion's share of capital funds among the 23 campuses.
``He's a risk-taker,'' said CSU Chancellor Charles Reed. ``He's not afraid to come to me with big ideas.''
With many of the early problems behind him, Caret began turning his energies to building alliances that increase the university's connections, prestige and visibility. These range from partnerships with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other colleges and universities to those with local governments and public schools.
Caret's efforts to be more responsive have not gone unnoticed by the university's neighbors or the community.
Rick Callender, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, said it's much easier now to get San Jose State to address racial problems that used to be ignored. ``They have shown a willingness to address racial issues directly,'' said Callender, who serves on one of the ethnic advisory panels Caret established.
Neighbors also have an easier time getting a response, said Lisa Jensen, president of the University Neighborhoods Coalition. She praised university students and staff for getting directly involved in her association.
Caret's focus on the outside world grates on some faculty members, who wish he would circulate more on campus.
``A good general comes up to the front line once in a while to look at what's happening instead of just relying on memos and his staff,'' said history Professor Jonathan Roth, whose specialty is military history.
Even his critics -- the ones who won't forgive him for sharing the library -- pay Caret some respect.
``I disagree with some things, but I think in general he's done a credible job,'' said English Professor Scott Rice. ``They don't give him enough money to run the place.''
People get mad at Caret, said Roth, the history professor. ``But there is a sense that even though we are under pressure, we have launched ourselves on a journey to improve the university.''
Looking to future
With the sesquicentennial only four years away, San Jose State is focused on the future even as it scrambles to deal with a new round of state funding cuts.
It will break ground next year on a $243.9 million ``housing village'' that Caret hopes will help move San Jose State from a commuter school to a ``destination campus'' with an active residential life and more full-time students.
After years of lagging enrollment growth, San Jose State is nearing the 30,000-student mark and is bursting at the seams.
The university is working on new ways for engaging and preparing students with programs ranging from small freshman seminars and peer mentoring to more opportunities for international experience. And it hopes to build satellite campuses at Moffett Field in Mountain View and in Morgan Hill.
But what does it mean to take the university to what Caret calls ``the next level''?
``It is raising the bar on the type of university San Jose State is,'' said Provost Marshall Goodman, the campus' chief academic officer. ``That means moving from teaching as the primary mission to a broader mission where teaching, research and scholarship share the spotlight.''
The sesquicentennial will provide the basis for a major fundraising campaign to help reach those goals.
Stacks, the chemistry professor, said the university could use some help.
``It's time for the valley to put up,'' she said, ``and I don't necessarily mean just cash. We're giving them a university that's really excellent. They've got to produce.''