New Cal State Fullerton president meets Titans on their turf

  • Fram Virjee sits in his office at Cal State Fullerton. He sits under a wall of Rwanda- and elephant-themed artwork. With his wife, Julie, he founded Yambi Rwanda, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of Rwandans by meeting basic human needs. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Fram Virjee sits in his office at Cal State Fullerton. He sits under a wall of Rwanda- and elephant-themed artwork. With his wife, Julie, he founded Yambi Rwanda, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of Rwandans by meeting basic human needs. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A baseball jersey with his favorite number and a volleyball jersey with his wife’s await hanging in the office of Fram Virjee. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)

    A baseball jersey with his favorite number and a volleyball jersey with his wife’s await hanging in the office of Fram Virjee. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)

  • The new president of Cal State Fullerton, Fram Virjee, stands outside his office in Fullerton. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The new president of Cal State Fullerton, Fram Virjee, stands outside his office in Fullerton. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The new president of Cal State Fullerton, Fram Virjee, looks over the campus from his office. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The new president of Cal State Fullerton, Fram Virjee, looks over the campus from his office. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Fram Virjee, the new president of Cal State Fullerton, at his office in Fullerton. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Fram Virjee, the new president of Cal State Fullerton, at his office in Fullerton. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • The new president of Cal State Fullerton, Fram Virjee, looks over the campus from his office. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    The new president of Cal State Fullerton, Fram Virjee, looks over the campus from his office. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Fram Virjee, new president of Cal State Fullerton, stands outside his office with the campus sprawling behind him. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Fram Virjee, new president of Cal State Fullerton, stands outside his office with the campus sprawling behind him. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Cal State Fullerton President Fram Virjee and his wife, Julie, pose with Mickey Mouse at a university event at Disneyland. (Photo courtesy of Cal State Fullerton)

    Cal State Fullerton President Fram Virjee and his wife, Julie, pose with Mickey Mouse at a university event at Disneyland. (Photo courtesy of Cal State Fullerton)

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Looking at the wall across from Fram Virjee’s desk, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been president of Cal State Fullerton for years.

There in the middle is a burlap coffee bag from Rwanda with a drawing of an elephant. Nearby are paintings of elephants done by his sons when they were little. There’s even a ticket from the May 1963 elephant race that gave the fledgling university its mascot.

But Virjee walked through the door to that office only Jan. 2, plucked from his position as executive vice chancellor and general counsel for the California State University system to fill the chair left by Mildred García, who left after nearly six years to head the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

In the weeks since, he has played basketball in the student-faculty Pachyderm Challenge, greeted students and alums at a Disneyland After Dark event in a Mickey Mouse voice, had coffee with cops and spoken at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine to preach college preparation to African American students.

In fact, he does whatever he can to stay out of that office (He likes to say the worst day on the job will be one he spends in his office) and instead mingle with the Cal State Fullerton community on their turf.

“I get to meet them where they are, where they do their work. I get to celebrate that with them and learn from them,” Virjee said. “I always ask: ‘How long have you been here? What do you like best about this place and what would you change if you could?’”

Some go right to the parking shortage. Or campus food. But sometimes they suggest ideas for making the campus a more tolerant and welcoming environment. Or they express concern over students struggling with food and housing insecurity.

He has talked with students, faculty and top administrators, of course, but has also met with the entire IT department and the janitorial staff.

“I get great answers,” he said.

One month into the job, he stopped at every booth at the Discoverfest showcase of student clubs to talk with students involved in clubs, political causes, fraternities and sororities.

Virjee was delighted he could talk with College Republicans who were honoring police officers as well as those who had different viewpoints. He was impressed that some students he talked with would pop up 20 minutes later at a second booth for another activity they were involved with. And he was struck that everyone he talked to had the same thing to say about why they were doing what they were doing: They wanted to create a place where students can have a sense of belonging, comfort and support.

“If you can’t find one in 346 that you feel comfortable in, then we will create another one,” he said.

Virjee is proud of CSUF’s diverse community and loves to see it streaming by him as he walks the campus. He was afraid at first that the university’s many ethnic groups might not mix, but is pleased to see everyone siting, walking, learning and collaborating together, and most important, making lifelong friendships with one another.

“So I have an incredible hope and optimism about what California will be like when all these kids get out of school and grow up and are the citizens that make this place run,” Virjee said. “That’s what Fullerton does particularly well.”

If this sounds like an especially sunny outlook for a man tasked with running a college that in recent years has experienced protests over tuition hikes, budget cuts, faculty raises and free speech, then listen to Gregory C. Brown, associate professor of criminal justice and California Faculty Association CSUF chapter president:

“I’ve got genuine love for Fram. He’s nothing but positive,” said Brown, who finds Virjee capable, open and honest, a person of good character and refreshing. “Of course, we’re in the honeymoon period,” he quipped.

Brown is confident Virjee will do everything he can to advance the quality of the university and the success of its students but realizes those are still ultimately controlled by the chancellor’s office of which Virjee was once a part.

Emily Bonney, who chaired the Academic Senate until last year and was just named interim dean of the library, said she hopes Virjee brings a commitment to collaboration and transparency, which she calls essential to securing the trust of the campus community if he is to be an effective leader.

“I will say that from what I have seen so far, the president values working with all parts of the campus and is as open as one could possibly hope,” said Bonney. “I’m very much looking forward to working with him during his time with us.”

At Virjee’s first appearance in front of the Academic Senate in late January, he told the group he had no intention of “ripping up the playbook.”  He did not come into office with even a short list of what he wants to accomplish, calling that naive.

Frankly, there are so many things already on his plate, he doesn’t need to add to the list. The university  is starting on its next five-year plan and held a town hall where 500 students, faculty and staff showed up to contribute ideas on goals and objectives. The campus is in the middle of its accreditation review by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the Graduation Initiative 2025.

Then there’s the master plan that charts infrastructure and maintenance needs five to 15 years out. He lists such deferred maintenance as math, science and engineering labs; parking; and the library.

“We have a beautiful campus but it could be a lot more beautiful,” he said, pointing out that the place was built for about half the current number of students.

All these plans need to be coordinated, he said, and include the input of many constituencies.

The university is also conducting two dean searches, for the College of Engineering and the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics.

“I would like to be able to look at the campus a year from now, or 18 months from now,” Virjee said, “and say we have taken it to the next level as far as collaboration, integration, and a feeling of inclusion for faculty and our staff; that we’ve made this a place dedicated to the idea of the academy and that we are the crucible of ideas, where new ideas are tried out, where voices are able to be heard, and are not shouted down or shouted out, on all sides; that we honor the diversity we have at the campus but that we recognize the differences on campus and celebrate that as well.”

Virjee’s appointment runs through June 2019, but he is eligible to apply for the permanent job. He’s focusing on the here and now, though, connecting with the campus community and working collaboratively to build upon the university’s momentum and strength of reputation — particularly around equity, inclusion, immersive student experiences and post-graduate success.

Virjee didn’t come to the president’s office through academia. He was a partner for 30 years at O’Melveny & Myers, the oldest law firm in Los Angeles, specializing in labor and employment law, with an emphasis in representing educational institutions. He was also the partner in charge of the law firm’s diversity. Four years ago, Virjee had just retired and begun charitable work in Rwanda (see accompanying story) when he was recruited to be the CSU’s executive vice chancellor and general counsel.

The CSUF appointment delays retirement a little longer. But Virjee says he’s a deep and passionate believer in the mission of the CSU system in educating a demographic that wouldn’t get that opportunity otherwise.

“When our students leave our university, I want them to be employable, go to work right away and leverage their degree,” Virjee said. “But I also recognize that no matter what they start doing, they’re going to have three or four careers in their lives. We can’t prepare them for all those substantively.

“But we can prepare them in the way they learn to express themselves: the way they think logically and linearly: the way they learn to navigate society; and pay attention to obligations; the way they are committed to their communities and caring for others. If we inculcate those values and morals into them as well as provide them with a great grounding for getting a job right away, then we’re doing our job.”

Drawn to Africa

When Fram Virjee retired from the law firm he’d worked at for 30 years, he didn’t want the typical watch, golf clubs or country club membership. Instead, he asked his partners for a 501(c)3.

So they kicked in $25,000 to fund a nonprofit Virjee and his wife, Julie, created to improve the lives of the residents of Rwanda by providing clean water, adequate nutrition and health care as well as access to education and support for the country’s culture and arts.

The nonprofit, Yambi Rwanda, has funded a library, community center, women’s sewing cooperative, preschool and school for the deaf. One project gives children an egg a day to address protein deficiency. Another supports the Rwanda cycling team, in which the once-warring Hutus and Tutsis participate jointly as a sign of reconciliation.

“Yambi” means embrace in Kinyarwanda.

“They were transporting the eggs by bicycle to the deaf school,” Virjee said. “So you get this synergy. This is what life is all about.”

The empty coffee bag hanging on the wall opposite his desk at Cal State Fullerton is produced by a nonprofit the couple support.

Julie will take the reins of Yambi Rwanda with her husband’s new appointment. She was inspired to found the organization after hearing Immaculée Ilibagiza, author of “Left to Tell: One Woman’s Story of Surviving the Rwandan Genocide,” speak at a conference.

When she told her husband Ilibagiza’s story of the 1994 genocide — which killed 500,000 to 1 million Rwandans, including many of the nation’s doctors, lawyers and teachers — they realized they had the tools to help the ravaged country rebuild its civil society.

“We aren’t Bill and Melinda (Gates), but we’re doing pretty well,” he said. The couple look for on-the-ground projects in need of support.

Their involvement doesn’t end in Rwanda, though. They also participate in the international organization Plant With Purpose, which teaches and provides resources for sustainable farming. Julie goes into the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, helping folk artists generate a stream of income.

The pair also founded a church on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, their former home. The River Church of the South Bay holds services on the beach for about 200 congregants.

“I’m blessed beyond measure with a wife that’s a full partner in everything I do.” Virjee said. “She amazes me with her energy.”

The couple have three sons and a grandchild.

Virjee was born in London. His mother was from Sweden; his father, a ship’s captain from India. He spent the first few years of his life on a ship, but when he was 7, his parents decided he had to go to school, so they moved to the United States, settling in San Pedro.

A first-generation college student, Virjee received his J.D. from UC Hastings College of the Law in 1985 and his bachelor’s in political science and sociology from UC Santa Barbara in 1982.

 

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Oceana’s plan for saving our oceans

 

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Scarlet – a 55-foot humpback whale who had been known locally since 1997 – was discovered dead at sea. In mid-2016, Scarlet became entangled in fishing gear, struggling for six weeks and falling ill, before eventually being freed. The experience left her weakened and may have contributed to her demise. The end of the whale’s life, however, was not the end of her influence on the people of this area.

In July, Scarlet’s story had become a central theme of Oceana’s
10th annual SeaChange Summer Party, with master of ceremonies Ted Danson. The sold-out evening, for which Coast was the media sponsor, was held at a coastal villa in Laguna Beach. Nearly 400 guests attended, raising more than $1.3 million for Washington, D.C.-based Oceana and local ocean conservation efforts.

The evening’s special guests, Sam Waterston and Lily Tomlin, spoke of the whale’s death.

“It’s too late for Scarlet, but you and I, by having Oceana’s back, are going to rescue the oceans,” said Waterston.

“While we can’t know for sure that the entanglement led directly to Scarlet’s demise, we do know that she was one of at least 71 whales that got caught up in fishing gear off the West Coast last year,” Tomlin told the crowd. “The good news is that Oceana – and all of you who support Oceana – are working hard to stop this from happening again.”

Anne Earhart and Herbert M. Bedolfe III of the Marisla Foundation – headquartered in Laguna Beach – were honored as Ocean Champions for their tireless commitment to ocean ecology.

SeaChange was co-chaired by Oceana board vice chair Valarie Van Cleave and Elizabeth Wahler. We talked to Van Cleave and Wahler, both Orange County residents and longtime ocean advocates, about Oceana’s mission and the impact of SeaChange.

First, why did Scarlet’s story become a focus of this year’s SeaChange event?

EW: The oceans are so vast and global that the problems they face can feel abstract. But when Scarlet died – a whale that so many people right here had seen and gotten to know over the last couple of decades – it hit home. Her story is also the story of our oceans:  The beauty and grace that we love so much are imperiled by the reckless ways we interact with them.

What is it about Oceana that appeals to you?

VVC: Ocean conservation is a cause that I have cared deeply about all my life. At SeaChange, we like to say that “a healthy ocean is every child’s rightful inheritance.” And if you believe in that sentiment, as I do, then there is simply no better organization to donate your time and money to than Oceana. That’s because Oceana is focused on results. With campaign teams in seven countries and the European Union, Oceana is fighting to win concrete policy victories that make real, in-the-water change.

EW: Growing up at the beach and having a father (Robert Wahler) who pioneered improving the health of our air are the things that led me to Oceana. It’s an honor to work with such amazing and dedicated individuals who so passionately advocate on behalf of our oceans. Ted Danson, an incredible actor who hosted our event this year, has been an activist for three decades now! And he just keeps going – he’s on Oceana’s board of directors and he’s been a tremendous advocate.

What particular victories has Oceana won on the West Coast that we should know about?

VVC: Just recently, we secured protections for hundreds of critical forage fish species right here in California. We’re making sure that these tiny fish and invertebrates aren’t fished unless it can be done without disrupting the larger ocean food web. Because of our efforts, similar protections are in place up and down the U.S. West Coast from shore out to 200 nautical miles.

Also this year the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to keep the U.S. West Coast Pacific sardine fishery closed for the upcoming commercial season because scientists estimated the sardine population in the water to be well below where it needed to be.

These big victories for small fish protect the building blocks of the ocean ecosystem. The small fish that we protect are a food source for all kinds of marine life, including whales like Scarlet.

Oceana promotes this idea that we can “Save the oceans and feed the world.” Can you explain?

VVC: We envision a kind of ocean conservation where feeding people and protecting the environment can coexist. The policies that we seek will restore fisheries to abundance. Simply put, we work to make sure there are more fish in the sea. That’s an outcome with a whole lot of positive effects. More fish means more food for both marine life and people. The same healthy seas that help feed humanity also create an environment where whales like Scarlet can thrive.

With nearly 800 million people living in hunger around the world, it’s important that we have healthy oceans. We’re going to need that protein to help feed a hungry planet. We’ve estimated that a healthy, fully restored ocean can provide a seafood meal, every day, to more than a billion people. That’s a tremendous amount of potential.

The 2017 event marked SeaChange’s 10th year. What’s your favorite memory?

VVC: Back in 2010, Jeff Bridges performed some great music for us. He had just won an Oscar for best actor, and he yelled out, “Oceana abides!” during his speech and the crowd loved it. I remember Morgan Freeman reading from “Moby Dick” and Leonardo DiCaprio speaking passionately about the urgent need to protect our oceans.

EW: And this year, Sam Waterston gave an amazing speech about the history of whaling, and Lily Tomlin has such a great energy. Having these co-stars from “Grace and Frankie” together onstage was a treat. It was a fantastic opportunity to mark 10 years of SeaChange in style.

VVC: But my biggest takeaway from all these years of SeaChange is the generosity of our community. The $1.3 million we raised this year brings our SeaChange total to more than $11 million since we started. It’s an incredible testament to the people here who care deeply about the oceans.

 

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Chef Art Smith cooks up help for hurricane victims

Celebrity chef Art Smith, who makes an appearance at this year’s Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival, has helmed the kitchen at the Florida Governor’s Mansion, cooked for celebrities such as Oprah and had brief stints on television. His appearances on “Top Chef” and at numerous food festivals around the globe have launched Smith into super stardom. The country boy now rubs elbows with celebrities, musicians, diplomats, politicians and influencers. Disney tapped him to launch its first “Farm to Fork” dining program, and Lady Gaga’s parents hired him to run their NY restaurant. He’s cooked for Obama and world leaders, but never forgot his Southern roots. As a sixth-generation Floridian, Smith rushed to help those in need after Hurricane Irma. Coast caught up with the celebrity chef to see how we all could best lend a hand.

Coast: After the recent devastation from Hurricane Irma, what is the best way for us in Orange County to help?

Art Smith: Florida has lived with hurricanes for centuries, some very catastrophic. Everything grows back fast in Florida with its lush, warm, fertile environment, but people’s lives don’t. Hurricanes like Irma displaced thousands. Helping them to return to what is left of their homes is tough. Many, like in Houston, are still in shelters or living with relatives. I had over 30 relatives in our home. We had lots of Arepas parties.

Californians can help by supporting the American Red Cross and other groups that help feed displaced folks. Our agricultural community has been challenged, but they will rebound. My worries are that the families that work to help bring that freshness to our table need our full support.

Coast: You spent several years cooking at the Florida Governor’s Mansion and for celebrities such as Oprah. However, you still remain true to your north Florida roots. How do you plan to revitalize small town Jasper, Florida?

AS: This beautiful, lush, rural, fragile place has been an agricultural hub for centuries, well known for its fertile soil and spring water. Jasper, like many American rural towns, suffers from lack of the creation of sustainable systems. That’s why we created the nonprofit Reunion to bring sustainable education to rural America. Education will always save us.

Coast: Speaking of education, as a father, how do you teach your children about food and its origins? Your four children with Jesus Salgueiro have access to free-range chickens and roaming livestock at your home farm; and your restaurant at Disney World celebrates “Farm to Fork” dining. Is this your way of introducing the next generation to responsible eating?

AS: The kids always win! They want bright colors, simple flavors with a little heat, and it must be FAST. Our fresh eggs from our pet chickens make great scrambled eggs with our garden veggies tucked into Venezuelan Arepas – their version of a pita. [We’re making] baby steps.

Coast: What brings you to Newport Beach this October?

AS: Every celebrity chef in America goes to food and wine festivals. They have become the #WoodstockOfFoodom! We all love an audience and going to the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival is the equivalent to flying first class! I’m honored to be participating this year … [I’ll prepare] local sustainable dishes using my signature Southern recipes, from fried chicken, shrimp and artisan grits
to biscuits.

My favorite thing about Southern California is the sunshine. When you cook in the beautiful California outdoors, it makes everything taste better.

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