As an energetic and precocious young girl, Soraya M. Coley saw the world through an innocent and unfiltered gaze.
The thoughts of that child were on the simple joys of play time, oblivious to the invisible divide in the legally segregated city of Goldsboro, North Carolina. To the juvenile Coley, this was home sweet home. The civil rights movement was not yet part of her vocabulary.
“I remember walking downtown with my mother and going into the Woolworth’s store. There was a little girl sitting at the lunch counter eating a hot dog. I was always quite active and I was maybe 6, and I wanted a hot dog,” Coley recalls.
“I’m getting ready to sit at the counter, and my mother pulls me back. In that moment, she had to decide whether to tell me the real reason I cannot sit there, or give me some other explanation for not being able to sit at the counter. She explained to me that it was not ‘polite’ to eat in public, and that she would make me a hot dog when we returned home.”
This was an early lesson about legal segregation for Coley, the first crack in the veneer of childhood innocence.
“I always came back to that story because it was her loving way of trying to protect my sense of worth. Society says you can’t sit at that lunch counter and have a hot dog because of the color of your skin. It’s the kind of challenge parents face when confronted with their child being unable to do something that has nothing to do with the child’s ability. It’s a human-made barrier.”
Childhood imprints like this would frame Coley’s values and principles. Memories like this would forge a strong will to eliminate obstacles that prevent people from reaching their full potential and fully participating in society. Coley would embark on a lifelong crusade for inclusion and reach out across those barriers to others.
The long journey to the president’s office started in North Carolina. Coley was born Nov. 25, 1950, in the coastal city of Wilmington. Her father, Dr. J.H. Moore, was a Baptist minister who passed away when she was 4. Coley’s mother later married the Rev. M.W. Morgan, pastor of First African Baptist Church, and the family moved inland to the coastal plains of Goldsboro.
The crusade for civil rights would erupt during her adolescence. Coley graduated from Dillard High School in 1968. It was also in high school that she would befriend one of the stars of the basketball team, Ron Coley. This friendship would endure, and a little more than a decade later they married. Ron Coley is the vice chancellor for business and administrative services at nearby UC Riverside.
Issues of social justice would shadow her to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Like the town where she grew up, the rural setting of Lincoln University, situated about 60 miles from Philadelphia, would also provide insulation from the reverberations of civil discord. The campus afforded a haven where her intellectual curiosity would be roused.
“It was a time of inquiry … of questioning. It was a time of affirming who you are and recognizing the rich contributions that women and men from all groups made to our beloved America. That’s the thing that I so admire about America. It is the world’s great experiment of the ‘ideal’ of inclusion and being all you can be, and rising above the circumstances you may have started from. At the same time, being in this experiment, sometimes we get it right and sometimes we misstep. But there’s a fundamental effort in America to self-correct, to get back to the ideals and principles upon which we’ve been founded.”
The road from North Carolina is leading to a pinnacle in higher education for Coley. An Investiture ceremony will be held Feb. 5, an event steeped in tradition that will confer the authority and responsibility of the Office of the President of Cal Poly Pomona upon Coley. The ceremony will be officiated by the CSU chancellor, the chair of the Board of Trustees and the living emeriti presidents of Cal Poly Pomona. The presidents of the 23 CSU campuses and dignitaries and colleagues from academia will also bear witness to university history.
Finding Her Way
Like many college students, Coley also was trying to blaze a career path. She thought about joining the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service. She even tried her hand in the media. For two summers, she worked as a reporting intern at the Providence Journal. The one aspect of the job that she liked was talking to people and hearing their stories. The part she didn’t like was the fact that the limited word counts for newspaper stories didn’t provide enough space for the story she wanted to tell. Coley decided to go into research, where word counts are meaningless.
“I was very interested in how policies, informed by data, are shaped and affect people’s lives,” she recalls. “One of my professors had a major national labor research grant. As an undergraduate, the professor asked me to be one of her interviewers. So I went across the country, taking my classwork with me to keep up with my classes. I would travel to various states interviewing and then return for my studies. I didn’t miss a beat. In many ways, this was ‘learn by doing’ and one of the many reasons Cal Poly Pomona resonates with me.
“I was stimulated by the research process where you are seeking explanations and understanding based on hypotheses that you formulate. I also recognized that in social research, how you define and measure variables can be out of context of people’s experiences.”
As she was nearing the completion of her undergraduate degree in sociology in 1972, Coley’s advisor and mentor at Lincoln pushed her to pursue graduate work. She heeded that advice and went to Bryn Mawr College, situated just outside Philadelphia. She graduated in 1974 with a master’s in social planning from the School of Social Work and Social Research.
Afterward, Coley headed to New York to work as a research assistant for the Child Welfare League of America and as the national director of the Child Abuse Prevention Project at the National Urban League. Her findings were used to help correct misperceptions of child-rearing practices in the African American community. She also held jobs at Lincoln and Bryn Mawr before working at a policy research center in Princeton, New Jersey.
A dean at Bryn Mawr later contacted Coley to persuade her to obtain her doctorate. Coley had already taken several doctoral-level courses while pursuing her master’s, and the dean told her that she should use those courses toward completion of her doctorate. Coley agreed and began commuting from New York to Philadelphia for classes Monday through Wednesday. She would return to New York on Thursday to resume a reduced work schedule. She earned her doctorate in 1981.
Blazing a Trail
With a doctorate in hand from Bryn Mawr, Coley headed West with her husband, who was then a Marine Corps officer, for a post as a lecturer in the Department of Human Services at Cal State Fullerton. This would mark the start of her career in higher education.
“I always knew that when a door of opportunity is opened, I must take responsibility for going through it and achieving. And my aim is to open as many doors as possible for others and provide support and build their capacity to achieve their potential,” Coley says. “Through education, you are helping to contribute to the rich fabric of society, pushing the best and most committed and civically engaged individuals so that they, too, can take up their rightful place in moving our society forward.”
Coley spent 20 years at Cal State Fullerton. She was provost at Alliant International University and a senior research fellow at a national center on substance abuse and child welfare before becoming provost at Cal State Bakersfield in 2005. She was named Cal Poly Pomona president by the CSU Board of Trustees in September, 2014, and assumed the post on Jan. 1, 2015.
At her initial address to faculty and staff, Coley cited a strategy of inclusion and collaboration to build upon the outstanding accomplishments of the university. A major component of the strategy was a listening tour in which she visited every division and department on campus and allow faculty and staff to voice their pride, concerns and recommendations.
Another tool she would use in formulating the next university plan is a throwback to her research background. “I think data can be another dimension for understanding what is happening. I refer to it as data-considered rather than data-driven decision-making,” Coley says. “There’s no substitute for good judgment or wisdom. But quality data focused on the right questions can help you gain a perspective.”
A Fast Start
In her first year as president, Coley has kept a hectic schedule while following the administration of the popular Michael Ortiz, who retired in December 2014 after 11 years. Coley met faculty and staff, and got an introduction to the campus before officially becoming president. She also met the student builders of the Cal Poly Universities Rose Float team in late December 2014 as the Rose Parade entry was being readied for transport to Pasadena. A week later, Coley was at a Cal Poly Pomona Alumni Association event at the Rose Bowl, mingling, shaking hands and introducing herself to key donors and supporters. She is very aware of the expectation of garnering support for the university.
While at CSU Bakersfield, in addition to provost, she also served as an interim vice president for University Advancement. This is Coley’s first stint as a campus president. Early in her career as an administrator, she developed a beacon statement: “To be student-centered, faculty- and staff-focused, and community-minded.” That mantra has helped her grasp and navigate the complexities of university interactions.
“The value of investing in people is one the most important lessons I’ve learned. It’s the focus on students, and helping them to attain high and unimaginable goals, and the faculty and staff who engage them. Fundamentally, the work is about the people, to have them see how important they are regardless of the position at the university. They all make a contribution to the success of the institution and our students. The work is bringing people from diverse backgrounds, diverse disciplines, diverse points of view and collectively advancing Cal Poly Pomona,” Coley says.
“I also believe that for public higher education, the No. 1 question should be, ‘How do we add value to our communities, our region, our state, and indeed the nation; are they better off because of what we do?’ When I think about Cal Poly Pomona, we can only say a resounding, ‘Yes.’ I want there to be a clear and unequivocal recognition of our contribution not only to individuals’ growth and development, but also to the well-being and advancement of our society.”