Celebrating Women: Meet San Diego State University's First Female President
Adela de la Torre on how she rose to the top, which student initiative she’s most proud of, and her vision for the school’s (possible) expansion
Adela de la Torre with students elected to SDSU’s Associated Students Board of Directors, Christian Onwuka (left) and Chris Thomas (right). | Photo: Sandy Huffaker Jr.
Erin Meanley Glenny: First, congrats on your position! Only 30 percent of US college presidents are women. What has been your secret to navigating a historically male-dominated landscape?
Adela de la Torre: My upbringing. I was raised by strong women, my grandmother and mother, who instilled deep core values very early in my life. These included the value of education, perseverance, and hard work. When there’s a perceived barrier, it has really forced my mind into thinking, “This is something I can move around to get to my goal.”
EMG: Before this post, you oversaw 28 departments at UC Davis. What do you take away from that experience?
ADLT: When I started, the Division of Student Affairs at UC Davis was one of the largest west of the Mississippi. I oversaw housing, auxiliary, all the student success programs, and enrollment management. It was pretty comprehensive, and the budget was fairly significant. Throughout my career, my goal has always been focusing on access and affordability, so this became a natural rallying call whenever I looked at programs that would impact students. One key program I launched was the Inclusive Access Program in 2014—it’s become a national model for providing student access to digital course materials. When I came in, the bookstore was having a lot of problems. Every student has to buy textbooks, and we needed to really look at a new model so that students don’t have to decide between food and textbooks. We were able to get our faculty to buy into the digital course materials, and this resulted in 70 percent savings for students. By 2017, we saved over $7 million in terms of textbooks. Now about 500 universities have their own program. That started under me and has had a tremendous impact for students across the country, so I’m real proud of that one.
EMG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a mentor?
ADLT: Many, many years ago an assistant vice chancellor at UCLA said, “Adela, no good deed goes unpunished.” At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant. But after years of being a vice chancellor, and now president, it really is something that every leader needs to keep in mind. It’s a reminder that good work will always meet criticism. Often, critics may not understand the nuance of what you’ve done, or they may just completely disagree with what you’ve done, but you have to have your compass straight. It’s the nature of being a public figure or a public leader. You need to be prepared to just move forward with your vision.
EMG: What excites you most about SDSU West—the ballot proposal to use SDCCU Stadium for SDSU development—if that comes through?
ADLT: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any president. One of the most important things is recognizing that we can increase access. Last year we had more than 97,000 undergraduate and graduate students apply, and we turned away many qualified students. Mission Valley will provide a campus community that’s going to contribute to education in ways that today we aren’t even aware of. We’ll have this opportunity to bring our faculty, community members, and students together in a way that really creates an imprint for the next 121 years.
EMG: It is a really unique opportunity, as is being the first woman president of SDSU. Do you wake up sometimes and go, “I can’t believe I’m the first?”
ADLT: I do, and every day I have a smile on my face. Not only is this an incredible opportunity for me, it’s humbling.