Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval speaks several languages, plays the piano, zooms across campus on a scooter, and has a long list of other skills he wants to learn or improve on such as engraving and calculus.
He has a love for food — recreating recipes that have meaning to him and his family but also indulging in the richness of the history and culture behind every dish. And he has a passion for the Valley and the power of Fresno State.
On Jan. 4, Jiménez-Sandoval started a new campus role as interim president of the University following 20 years in a number of other positions including professor, department chair, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and most recently provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.
“I was overjoyed and humbled when then-Chancellor Tim White named me interim president,” Jiménez-Sandoval said. “I felt great pride in being able to give back to my community by leading our University during such times.”
Jiménez-Sandoval grew up on a Fowler farm after his family immigrated from Mexico to the Central Valley when he was a child. He is married to Dr. Mariana Anagnostopoulos, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, and they have two sons.
Continue reading to learn what Jiménez-Sandoval has learned as a top administrator through the pandemic, about his family and his goals over the next few months.
You became provost at Fresno State in 2019; what have you learned in that position over the last year and a half?
I learned a lot in the last year and a half. As provost, I had the ambitious goal of visiting every department on campus, and by March, I had only three departments remaining. Primarily, I learned about the breadth and impressive scope of our disciplines. I remember saying to myself, over and over, “I’ve been here for 20 years, and I never knew that …” Meeting the departments gave me deeper insights about our faculty and staff, and knowledge about our current research projects, as well as future aspirations and potential areas of growth.
I also learned quite a bit about Fresno State. My experience allowed me to see closely how all of the divisions within Fresno State forge a strong partnership to further our success. I clearly understand now how the partnership between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs directly promotes student success — Student Affairs provides a sense of belonging to the physical space, to the institution, and Academic Affairs promotes the individual student’s growth and professional future through academic success in the classroom, along with experiential learning. And I now understand, on a deeper level, how Athletics is an integral part of our brand, as our athletes bring recognition across the Valley and throughout the State and Country.
Likewise, equally essential to today’s teaching are our technology professionals, who augment our ability to teach and convey complex academic subjects through innovative technologies. I also worked closely with our directors of government relations and communications, and learned of the importance in maintaining and promoting strong partnerships with our elected officials, as well as informing our community of our value and aspirations.
Supporting all of these divisions is our division of administration and facilities, which oversees all the infrastructure needs and plans our growth strategically. The last division to mention is our lifeline to community engagement and support — fundraising takes our pride points, our areas of opportunity, and our strategic plan, and engages our supporters in meaningful ways that incentivize both pride of our mission, and support through heartfelt financial contributions. Being able to see how all of these complex divisions collaborate and innovate has allowed me to perceive a path to our next level of excellence at Fresno State.
It has been a challenging year; one you probably didn’t expect in your first year as provost. What has been most challenging as provost this past year and how were you able to overcome that challenge?
I had an interesting conversation with a faculty member who wrote to me, saying, “I’m going to buy you a T-shirt that says: ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’” My immediate response was: Actually, I did sign up for this, and I’m grateful to be part of the solution to the challenges we’ve experienced throughout this pandemic, along with our dedicated campus community.
Back in March, the most difficult element about the situation was that we were unable to plan ahead; we were sitting still, almost, waiting to see how the situation was going to develop and to find out more about the pandemic. At that point, I realized that it was necessary for me to hold forums with the faculty and staff, to gain crucial information about how they were doing. After these meetings, I began to think of what needs had to be met, and how we could scaffold a plan of deliverables. Many important steps followed, from the virtual training we had in the summer, to various forums that showcased innovative teaching, and others. What became most apparent, though, was the essential importance of communication. At times, it was most important to strategize about our next steps, or communicate the basics (the use of masks, social distancing, etc., or issues such as the decision to be virtual in fall 2020). And other times, it was important just to listen to faculty and staff, and in the process, (re)create our community through Zoom.
Foremost in my mind is the ever-present need to address the mental strain that this pandemic has imposed on our students, faculty and staff, and to come up with ways to build bridges of communication, provide resources and be flexible and creative in our solutions. I remember when the fires were raging that several faculty and staff were displaced from their homes. Through concerted efforts, we were able to provide housing for them in our empty dorms. Through my reaching out to all those in Academic Affairs who had been displaced, I found out about a faculty member who had an elderly cat that needed special medical attention and had to be kept close. I reached out to vice president Debbie Astone and we were able to accommodate the family and the cat in our dorms and make the situation a little more bearable. It’s moments like these when we pull together as Bulldogs. I learned that reaching out to people, and having a real connection, has become paramount during this time.
What was your first reaction to being named interim president of the University?
I was overjoyed and humbled when then-Chancellor Tim White named me interim president. I felt great pride in being able to give back to my community by leading our university during such times. I also felt like this was an opportunity of a lifetime for me. Having grown up in Fowler, and having been at Fresno State for almost 20 years, I have forged strong community connections, as well as a vision for our university. These experiences provide me with the opportunity to showcase my pride in the deep roots I have in the Valley, as well as the ideas I have about leading the intellectual, artistic and innovative powerhouse of the Valley, our Fresno State.
What is your goal as interim president, or what can the campus community expect from you during this time?
My goals are ambitious yet simple: 1. To strengthen our graduation and retention rates through intentional advising and tutoring in specific challenging gateway classes that tend to discourage our students; 2. To showcase the transformative power of our undergraduate and graduate degrees; Fresno State graduates touch every facet of our lives in the Valley, and our graduate degrees empower leaders across our region, and beyond; 3. To strengthen ties with industry, explore new areas of academic growth, and promote innovation; 4. To own our place as the premier university we are, so that we can engage our supporters, alumni and community members in meaningful ways that fosters collaboration and heartfelt financial support.
How has your family adjusted to your new roles?
Quite well; they were truly happy when I gave them the news, and immediately got to thinking of how they will participate more in campus life this year. Arion, 14, and Leo, 12, are very excited for me, and Mariana has begun to think of ways she can innovate her current role as an academic; she cares deeply for our students and faculty, and has good ideas about promoting and encouraging their success. My father, siblings, and in-laws are also very happy and proud of my appointment, and all enthusiastically follow Fresno State news.
You have a desire for learning. What would you still like to learn or do that you have not been able to yet? Do you have time for it now?
There is so much I’d like to learn still. Eventually, I want to go back to calculus for the sheer fun of it, to understand its concepts as reflective of life itself. I also want to learn how to engrave; I love wood prints and copper engraving. Plus, I want to return to ceramics and sculpting.
The last nine months have been stressful and full of change for many. How have you been able to de-stress or relax during this time?
I have taken up reviewing French lessons, as my French had suffered due to the lack of practice. I practice by listening to French lessons for about 20 minutes a day, which relaxes me. I also exercise every day for about 45 mins, and my kids usually join me.
Mariana and I cook together, when time permits. When I cook, I like to replicate recipes my mother would cook for me, and this gives me the opportunity to tell my sons about their grandmother Tila who loved them deeply but passed too soon. And I’ve learned to cook Greek food from my mother-in-law, Myrtali. Mariana and I appreciate recreating the rich history of our family for our sons through delicious dishes.
What do you think is important for us to know about you during this transition period?
I think many know that I’m very approachable, and that I don’t seek out titles or positions, but rather work to fulfill a mission of promoting the unique gifts we possess at Fresno State. I’m also curious by nature, and am a lifelong learner. I like to engage with individuals, ask about their history and interests. I love to know about initiatives, and I seek out big undertakings. I’m also a total foodie and love food from around the world, and truly appreciate the complex array of cultures and cuisines we have in the Valley.