In honor of Black History Month, Cal State Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business and Economics is commemorating and honoring the African American leaders of the past and present.
These groundbreaking figures include CSUF’s own Jewel Plummer Cobb, the late campus president who made history as the first black woman to lead a major university in the western United States. She left an indelible mark on the Titan identity.
Cobb passed away on New Year’s Day in 2017 at age 92, but her legacy as a true Titan, a pioneer who broke barriers in leadership and education, lives on.
Cobb was pivotal in the development of the campus’ status as a leader in educating historically underrepresented minorities, which now ranks first in California and second in the nation.
From 1920s Chicago to Cal State Fullerton: The Granddaughter of a Slave Rises to Lead One of the West Coast’s Top Universities
Jan. 17, 1924: Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States. The automobile and radio were just becoming mainstream in Western society. Discrimination against African Americans was arguably at its highest point after the Civil War, fed by deep-seated racist sentiments and pseudoscientific social Darwinist thought. And the future third president of Cal State Fullerton was born in Chicago, the granddaughter of a freed slave who pursued a pharmacy career.
From a young age, Cobb was encouraged to pursue her dreams, not letting her race or gender hinder her ambitions.
“I was raised to think that no career was out of bounds,” she said. “It was always understood that my friends and I would go to college.”
Cobb pursued an education at the University of Michigan, but since black students were not allowed to live on campus there at the time, she left after one year and went on to get her bachelor’s degree in biology from Talladega College in Alabama, an institution known for educating African Americans.
After earning a graduate degree in biology from New York University thanks to a scholarship, Cobb also earned a doctorate in cell biology there in 1950.
A biology and melanoma researcher, Cobb served as a dean at Rutgers University and Connecticut College before moving west to Cal State Fullerton in 1981, accepting the president’s position after being turned down for the top leadership role of Hunter College in Manhattan in a decision many viewed as based in prejudice.
Leading a Titan Transformation
When Cobb arrived at Cal State Fullerton in October 1981, the university was just beginning to gain a reputation as an inclusive and affordable higher education provider for Southern California.
During her nearly decade-long presidency, Cobb obtained funds for several major campus construction projects, including a science lab and computer science building, as well as the Ruby Gerontology Center, which was the first structure on campus built entirely with donated, rather than state, funds.
Under Cobb’s watch, both the College of Communication and the College of Engineering and Computer Science made their debuts, solidifying Cal State Fullerton’s status as a well-rounded teaching institution.
Her name adorns the Jewel Plummer Cobb Residence Halls, as she was responsible for the creation of the first on-campus housing in Cal State Fullerton’s history. Today, around 2,000 Titan students reside on campus.
A far cry from her experience as a college student, Cobb looked on with pride as students of every ethnicity, race and background inhabited the residence halls.
Other highlights of Cobb’s presidency include the establishment of a satellite campus in Mission Viejo (the predecessor to today’s CSUF Irvine Center); the university served as a venue for the 1984 Summer Olympics; and a groundbreaking agreement with the Marriott Corporation and the city of Fullerton resulted in today’s hotel on Nutwood Avenue.
However, it is perhaps Cobb’s commitment to inclusion of historically underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields that will be her greatest legacy.
According to a CSUF News obituary from 2017, Cobb once wrote: “I think I’d like to be remembered as a black woman scientist who cared very much about what happens to young folks, particularly women going into science.”
Cobb retired in 1990, but remained an active member of the Titan community.
Over the decades, Cobb’s numerous accolades included more than 20 honorary doctorates, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Sciences.