Talking leadership: Cynthia Teniente-Matson on running ‘Silicon Valley’s university’

The president of San José State University on harnessing location to build partnerships, the importance of representation and why she isn’t a ‘traditional academic’

July 10, 2024
Cynthia Teniente-Matson
Source: San José State University

Most people would think that a university located in the heart of Silicon Valley can set up industry partnerships with little more than the click of a mouse. But the leader of San José State University explains that forging and nurturing relationships with neighbouring businesses, some of which are among the world’s most influential organisations, is very much a personal undertaking that requires regular face-to-face contact.

In approaching a potential partner, Cynthia Teniente-Matson, who became president of the Californian university last year, says her first step is to arm herself with data. “I might say to them: ‘Did you know you have over 600 San José State alumni that are working in your company now? Did you know four of them are vice-presidents? Did you know 230 of them are in your engineering department?’”

This makes it crystal clear to the company that it is already invested in and benefiting from the university, she says. Teniente-Matson starts with small asks and gradually builds the relationship. One initial move might be to ask a firm to participate in a company exploration day, in which some of its senior staff give talks to students, demonstrate technology or speak about careers. “Most companies are set up to say, ‘Yes, I can do that.’”

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Next, she might ask it to sponsor an event, such as black engineer week, or perhaps host some of its faculty in a demonstration room to display its latest technology.

“If we sign an NDA, [we can] talk about the teaching principles that we should be thinking about in [a certain] programme, based on these new innovations that they are providing,” she says.

From there, the suggestions and propositions continue: “All the way up to, you know, ‘Do you want to name a wing or lab?’”

Teniente-Matson’s approach is based on considering the value proposition. For example, working with the local health system, she might ask: “How are you credentialing? How are you upskilling? Can we create a specific programme that meets the needs of, for example, your nurses in your facility? Can we do things to support your night shift or your early shift?”

Having learned that the local hospital was setting up a specialised facility, “we said, ‘Hey, we’re building a programme in that area; can you build a teaching space for us?’ Then we don’t have to build it. None of us have enough money to do everything,” she says.

“If we had not had those conversations, we wouldn’t have known we had this overlap of academic programming and facilities. So part of it is understanding what you have in common when you approach your partners, and understanding what opportunities you’re trying to provide or problems you’re trying to solve. And be listening for all of that, in your first or second exploratory meetings.”

Academics have been doing this kind of work “in a fairly narrow, diffuse way” for decades, Teniente-Matson says, but now many public universities offer the opportunity to scale up these partnerships via dedicated departments. She can ask this department for data on alumni, and “they can consolidate that for me so that I’m speaking their [the potential partner’s] language”.

As a Latina and the first in her family to go to university, Teniente-Matson is aware of the barriers certain groups face and has that in mind when establishing partnerships. One university collaboration is with a national non-profit called Braven, which provides professional mentoring to first-generation college students, students of colour and those from low-income backgrounds.

“When you’re a first-generation college student or from a community of colour – or an international student, for that matter – it is the continuity of having a mentor and adviser, someone that’s walking alongside you” that makes a difference, she says. The programme is improving time-to-degree statistics, as well as the share of under-represented graduates securing high-demand, high-wage jobs.

Industry advisory councils are key to keeping the university’s finger on the pulse and being able to speak the same language as potential business partners, she says. Some of these are highly specialised, such as its aeronautical engineering council, which meets quarterly to discuss topics such as curricula, internships or emerging trends in the field. “There are professions being invented that weren’t in existence before,” Teniente-Matson adds, and these groups enable them to stay on top of the agenda.

Do partnerships ever go wrong? Some are “slow to mature”, Teniente-Matson says, and do not develop the way the university had envisaged. And there can be clashes in values between students and staff and an industry partner.

“There are a number of student groups [nationally] now who are questioning why universities are partnered with Lockheed [Martin] or Boeing. Both because of Boeing’s accidents and investments in what they do in the world in supporting the defence industries.”

Lockheed Martin has a facility near San Jose, and it hosts interns from the university. Students have not protested against the relationship, but they have questioned it. How does she react?

“Well, we provide the facts. We don’t force anybody to do an internship,” she says, and the university’s work with the company is not linked to defence. “In general, if we’re doing something or find ourselves in an area that is not appropriate, then we would back away from that sort of partnership.”

Teniente-Matson says she is “not a traditional academic”: she has always been on the administration side of higher education, having earned her doctorate on the job to rise through the ranks. “It was presented to me, in a sort of mentorship, executive leadership sort of conversation around my own lane of expertise, that earning a doctorate would help bolster my career and that I could have an opportunity to be at a higher position in the C-suite.”

Part of her motivation for getting to the top is representation. “For me personally, as a Latina, as a woman of colour, as a first-generation college graduate, I really understand that representation matters. And my perspective and my experiences are actually different from other people who have traditionally been CEOs.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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Reader's comments (1)

Have both the new president of SJSU AND the "reporter" forgotten about Leland Stanford Jr. University, "Silicon Valley's university" since the mid 1940s?