Skip to main content

The University is a power source

SSU president draws on tradition, pride, and his own life experience to push the campus to new heights

Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee quickly recognized three things when he came to the Sonoma State University campus as interim president in 2022: The school had a rich and proud tradition of academic excellence and community service. It was in a beautiful location.

And the third, arguably most important thing? “What I discovered very quickly is that the source of that pride and tradition is really rooted in the faculty and staff,” he said.

Lee – named permanent president of SSU in May 2023 – certainly was no stranger to The California State University when he arrived at Sonoma State. During a 28-year career at Sacramento State University, he held several leadership roles, including vice president for administration and business affairs/CFO, as well as interim provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. He continues to hold emeritus status as a professor of business administration.

President Mike Lee
President Mike Lee traveled to Sacramento with
students and staff for legislative visit.

In fact, Lee was well into the fourth year of his retirement from the CSU when then-Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester asked him to consider leading SSU, succeeding President Judy Sakaki. Having familiarity with the campus – and seeing an opportunity to bring new energy and new ideas to a university where enrollment had dropped sharply over the previous few years – Lee accepted. He and his wife, Fei, moved into one of SSU’s two-bedroom campus apartments and quickly became entrenched, and popular, members of the university community.

“What I saw when I came here was the reality of many years of enrollment declines and the corresponding budget situation that we have to deal with,” Lee said. “But I had studied and carefully read a lot of the history, and talked to a lot of people on campus, and that allowed me to build my understanding and realize that that hope, that pride, had not been lost.

“So it became clear that my job and the job of the leadership team on this campus is to bring that back – not in the sense of recreating the past, but to give it a new life.”

Dr. Ed Mills, Sonoma State’s Vice President for Strategic Enrollment Management, who joined SSU in August 2023 at Lee’s invitation, knew Koester had asked the right man to take on the job of president.

“He knew what the challenge was and what the opportunity was,” said Mills, who worked with Lee for 16 years at Sacramento State. “His leadership and experience in so many areas are a perfect fit for this role. He makes those around him want to work with him and for the mission of the university.”   

Generating and sustaining that energy and sense of purpose are essential to Sonoma State’s continued evolution and growth, Lee believes.

“That’s why I think about renewal,” Lee said. “(It) allows us to really reflect on all the things that we do, – academics, operations, sports, student life, fundraising, community support, government relations – every single piece.”

Lee himself is reflective when he thinks about the journey that led him into the world of U.S. higher education. He has always loved books, but life in a small Taiwanese village with limited family income made it hard to access them, though he credits his parents with making every effort to help. It was only when he traveled all the way across the country to attend Tunghai University that the breadth and depth of what education had to offer was powerfully underlined – by a smell.

“I’d never been to a university campus. And I walked into the library, and it happened to have this open-shelf library, just full of books. And instantly the smell of this hit me – the smell of all those books – and I was in a state of euphoria.

“It communicated knowledge. It was the answer to my forever-eternal curiosity. As a child, I wanted to read, I wanted to learn, I wanted to know things. But I never had the money to get the books I wanted.

“So in some way, walking into the library was also a symbolic entry into a totally different world. And I know, many, many years later, how much entry into that world changed me and changed my family, changed the trajectory of my family for generations to come.

“It’s really that moment that continues to define what I think about the university.”

Lee sees his chief responsibility as ensuring that this same access to knowledge is available to all who seek it.

“If you go back to the mission of the CSU, it’s to provide very accessible, high-quality education to students. We have the same mission, of course, but there’s something about Sonoma State that stands out,” he said “It’s a peaceful, quiet, setting that very naturally allows students to pursue their academic life here in a beautiful environment.”

President Mike Lee
President Lee joins students for campus event.

SSU professors care tremendously about their students, Lee said, and take the time to get to know and work with them. Students and faculty do research side by side, and work together in labs. 

“They built this tradition of a close connection. And I think that’s a fundamental reason why we have an outstanding graduation rate,” Lee continued. “Certainly, graduation rate is not the only indication of student success. But it’s very important, because if the entire educational system in the university is able to generate that outcome, and students are able to get through their journey and receive their degree, it’s showing that this system actually works.

“And the system, of course, means all the people who make it work.”

University leadership also means taking a leadership role in the many communities the university serves and in steering community conversation to what an asset the university is, and how it can help on a variety of levels, Lee said.

“Any community that has a university has a power source. We are that entity in this community. An intellectual center, a cultural center, a place for learning, a platform for knowledge pursuit. Advancement of what we know about the universe. We are the place where a lot of the exchange of ideas, opinions, and discussion can take place. And we are an economic engine for a region, and will continue to be.”

Lee said that when he arrived and started getting out into the community, he heard a lot about what a “hidden gem” SSU is. Situated just outside the southeast city limits of Rohnert Park, and surrounded mostly by trees, the campus is something of an unknown known – great reputation, friendly and engaged students, faculty, and staff, beautiful surroundings – that could stand more exposure.

“Coming from a marketing professor background, I know there’s a disconnect. So it is our job to get out there, to build that connection. You have a great product, you need to find a way to connect to people who would love to have it.”

“Renewing” the university puts into effect a word Lee uses frequently: hope. 

“It’s important for people to know that I see hope. I’m here to see what we can do to put it together. Being transparent, asking for suggestions, asking for advice is a way to make sure that everybody here all feels that they’re part of it – that it’s not just the president behind a closed door trying to figure it out.”

Chico State University President Steve Perez, who has known Lee since 2001, when both men worked at Sacramento State, said Lee is an ideal fit for the challenges and opportunities at Sonoma State.

“We share a deep passion for what we do at our universities and for our students,” Perez said. “(Lee) is super smart, super caring, kind, and mission-driven. Coming up through academics and then going into administration, he knows how things work from all sides.

“Sometimes that means you have to make hard choices, but that’s what is needed so that our students can do well and our colleagues can have good lives.”

As Sonoma State University celebrates its 63rd anniversary, the president had thoughts about what he hopes will be said about the university 63 years from now.

“It’s an example of how a public university can fulfill its mission and also create unique characteristics that are consequential for transformative education, for students who come from all backgrounds to be able to change for the better – for themselves, for their families, for the generations after them,” he said.

And as new generations transform, so does SSU.

“The story of this whole process, the journey that we’re going through – this renewal – is going to be a white paper all its own,” Lee said with a laugh.
“It’s a demonstration of our tradition, of how our strengths come forward.”

—Jeff Keating

Read more from Insights / Spring 2024