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Dr. Elliot Hirshman, Former PresidentDr. Elliot Hirshman

Dr. Elliot Hirshman graduated from Yale University in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts in Math and Economics. Hirshman completed his Masters and Ph.D. in 1987 in Cognitive Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He then served as an assistant professor, then an associate professor, and later a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where from 1998-1999 he served as Special Assistant to the Provost. Hirshman was a fellow of the American Council on Education at Arizona State University from 1997-1998. He served as the Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado, at Denver from 2000-2003, and 2002-2005 at the University of George Washington, where he then became Chief Research Officer until 2008. From 2008-2011 Dr. Hirshman served as the Provost and Senior Vice President at the University of Maryland, at Baltimore County.  

Dr. Hirshman moved to San Diego in 2011 to serve as the eighth president of San Diego State University, a position he resigned from in 2017 to become president of Stevenson University in Maryland. During his time as president, Hirshman launched a strategic plan to encourage student success, research endeavors, and community and communication which he dubbed “Building on Excellence.” He established and endowed the Susan and Stephen Weber Honors College, and led a campaign through the Campanile Foundation that raised $750 million dollars. Hirshman’s time as president was also marked by controversy concerning not only his status as highest paid CSU president in 2014, but also with regard to social issues on campus involving student groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine and the Africana Student Union.

Oral History

Download the PDF transcript of the complete interview.

Dr. Susan Resnik briefly sets the scene for the recording and introduces Dr. Elliot Hirshman, listing his academic history, many faculty and administrative appointments, awards, and honors. Hirshman describes his early childhood, the importance of his parents’ and grandparents’ emphasis on achievement and hard work, the impact of having a father working in an administrative position at a university, his siblings, his adaptable personality, the influence of his Jewish upbringing, and other fortuitous circumstances that helped to shape his aspiration to always be the best. He reflects on his desire to be the best leading him to study math and economics at Yale University, his decision to pursue cognitive psychology rather than business, and his transition from focusing on personal to communal success. To illustrate his philosophy of success and personal desire for high achievement, Hirshman uses a metaphor from the movie Catch Me If You Can. He describes his dissertation, how it characterized the first few years of his career, and his preference for working alone rather than collaboratively at that time.

He details his journey from working as a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the influence of then chancellor Michael Hooker who nominated him for the American Council on Education fellowship at Arizona State University, an experience which he discusses at length, to becoming SDSU president, and the associated difficulty of repeatedly moving across the country with his family. He explores the challenges of trying to unite the Psychology Department at the University of Colorado, and his decision to leave for George Washington University a short time later, where took on his first senior officer position as the first Chief of Research, which he explains, further matured his leadership philosophy. He then describes the developmental time he spent as provost at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and his subsequent decision to leave to become president of SDSU.

 Hirshman delves into the financial problems he was initially confronted with at SDSU in 2011, the dynamic of the university as both a research institution and a server of the community, and challenges that face the president of such a large and diverse community as SDSU. In particular, he focuses on the way his predecessors, Tom Day and Stephen Weber, dealt with the financial issues they faced as a result of the very limited resources available to SDSU, and explains his solution to the financial problems. He discusses the challenges the university will have to face in the future, and the legacy he leaves behind at the mercy of the next president. Hirshman also reviews the cooperation of different administrative bodies, the effect the state of the country has had on the mindset and optimism of students in contrast to the optimism he grew up with, and how to approach issues especially when social media can accelerate conflict, and how this is particularly tricky for universities. He muses on the challenges of presidency, the importance of a psychological perspective and the enormity of the job, ending with a discussion of the Aztec mascot controversy and its indication of the need for a more open and kind dialogue about all divisive issues.    


Interview digitally recorded by Susan Resnik, Ph.D on June 13, 2017.

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