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A novel leader

September 5, 2013

As the University's next president, William A. Covino is looking to craft a new narrative about the transformations that take place on Cal State L.A.'s campus.

William A. Covino, the university's seventh president
    William A. Covino, the university's seventh president, holds a Doctor of
in English from the University of Southern California.


This campus tells a story. From sheep-rearing rancho to thriving state university, every development, achievement and discovery marks a new episode in the autobiography of Cal State L.A. So consider it appropriate that the leader charged with writing the next chapter for the university is a master of prose.

William A. Covino began his tenure as the seventh president of California State University, Los Angeles in September. An author and prolific writer, Doctor of Philosophy in English, former professor, and celebrated advocate for student success, Covino, 61, most recently served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fresno State. His scholarly accomplishments and specializations include the history and theory of rhetoric, persuasion, imagination, and literacy. He has authored and published five books and 37 refereed articles and chapters, and has presented more than 55 papers and presentations at local, statewide and national conferences.

For Covino, student and alumni success are the greatest attributes of a comprehensive and flourishing university that serves the city, the state, and points around the world that are touched by its graduates.

"That's what we do. Those with a Cal State L.A. degree leave here with a set of values and skills that lead to great lives and careers, and belief in the worth of compassion and generosity. If we can keep telling that story, we can be even more convincing about how much it means to graduate from Cal State L.A."

Covino sees the job of CSULA is to not only help these transformations take place, but also to teach students to become the leaders others want to emulate.

"Great leaders are less interested in themselves than in the welfare of others. They bring out the best in the people they touch, and have the courage to stay focused on what is good and right, rather than what is self-serving and easiest," he explains. "We will work hard to help our students see themselves as leaders, so that as alumni, they will be regarded by others as honest, kind, hardworking, and passionate about their mission in life. We will encourage their appreciation and respect for the differences that make each of us unique, the dreams and struggles we have in common, and the commitment to helping others be successful. With these traits, our students will transform all that they touch, because others will want to learn from and follow their example."

CSULA student Lena Aboulhosn meets William and Debbie Covino
CSULA student Lena Aboulhosn takes a break from studies to meet William and Debbie Covino on a tour of the campus during the summer.

Covino's L.A. Story

Covino moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1964 at age 12, the oldest of three children in an Italian-American family originally from Connecticut. The family lived in Reseda and Encino, and Covino graduated from Reseda High School. Early on, Covino found English to be a subject that he excelled in, and he loved to read, which fit well into his family's sometimes challenging economic circumstances.

"My father and mother would say to me 'library books are free.' So every week, starting in elementary school, I would come home with a lot of books and read, read, read. It was a treasure that really moved me in the right direction."

Like many at Cal State L.A., Covino is a first-generation college student. Though his blue-collar parents did not experience college themselves, they recognized and reinforced in their children the value of higher education.

"My father insisted, 'You're going to get a bachelor's degree from college and you're going to get a master's degree too,'" Covino explains. "He didn't quite understand what a master's degree was, but he knew it was the next level up. 'So you're not stopping,' he said."

With the support of his family and a high level of achievement in high school, Covino earned a first-year scholarship to University of California, Los Angeles.

To make a little cash during college, he worked as a musician. With Covino playing accordion and supplying vocals, the band booked wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs and anniversary parties all over Los Angeles. His first professional job was at Edna Earle's Fog Cutter Restaurant on La Brea, which no longer exists.

Musicianship is a family tradition—everyone plays an instrument. Covino keeps his grandfather's mandolin and accordion on display in his office at Fresno State, and they'll also be permanent fixtures in his office at Cal State L.A.

"My parents boast that at their wedding reception in 1951, they didn't hire a band; they just waited for the relatives to show up with instruments. There were more than 20 people on the stage playing by the end of the night."

When he first arrived at UCLA, Covino did not declare a major, but enjoyed the English courses. An influential English professor, Ken Lincoln, told him, "If you major in English, you're really majoring in everything because English majors learn about psychology, sociology, and history, which is all embedded in fiction and poetry. It gives you a really broad orientation to the human condition."

Covino also found that English opened up his understanding of the complexities of human nature and the ambiguities of conflict and resolution, and taught him to think critically on a wide range of issues.

After finishing his Bachelor of Arts in English at UCLA, and then Master of Arts from both CSU Northridge and University of Southern California, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy in English from USC in 1981.

Prior to Fresno State, Covino held the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs at CSU Stanislaus from 2006-09. It was a return to the CSU system following eight years at Florida Atlantic University where he chaired the Department of English and was dean of the College of Arts and Letters. He also has held faculty positions at the University of Illinois at Chicago and San Diego State University.

Margins of Overlap

Covino envisions Cal State L.A. as the first university that comes to mind when people think about Los Angeles, and understands that everything we do will be strengthened by creating opportunities, partnerships and comprehensive careers for CSULA students, faculty and others associated with the university.

"My first question regarding anything I address will be, 'How does this help our students?' They are who we're here for. We will need to exemplify those kinds of civic, moral and ethical values that we want our students to absorb," Covino says. "That does not mean we all must behave in a certain way or follow specific rules, but we definitely want our students to look to this university as a place that values honesty, transparency, multiple pathways to success, and richness in diversity. Without this diversity, without the opportunity for people to air their differences, learning will not take place."

Covino plans to explore with the campus community the best practices to expand the currently growing success of the university's students. To prompt this collaboration and build campus unity, Covino sees the conversation starting with one question: What is it that we share? He calls this our "margin of overlap," borrowing the phrase from American philosopher Kenneth Burke.

"We're all worried about some of the same things, are challenged by some of the same things, and love some of the same things," he explains. "We need to know where we overlap, and where we identify with one another. It is in those areas that we should start the conversation."

Building on the remarkable foundation forever embedded in the campus by President James M. Rosser, Covino believes that Los Angeles' great wealth, accomplishment and opportunity are ideal for enabling Cal State L.A. to help students achieve academic careers that sharpen their critical thinking and learn how to contribute to communities in productive and diverse ways.

"All the ingredients are here. Cal State L.A. is poised to gain even greater recognition and support throughout the region and beyond."