San Jose State president resigning after fallout from sexual abuse scandal

Mary Papazian will vacate the position in December, a stunning departure at the transformative university.
By: | October 7, 2021
Photos courtesy of San Jose State University

For the second time in less than a week, a higher education president is leaving the position early amid reports of sexual abuse on campus.

Mary Papazian

San Jose State University’s Mary Papazian on Thursday said she will be exiting as president on Dec. 21, ending her five-year tenure that has included several transformative achievements but one damaging scandal – alleged abuse of 23 students by an athletic trainer that occurred before she took office but that her administration failed to address properly.

Two weeks ago, the university agreed to pay out $1.6 million to 13 of the victims after the U.S. Justice Department slammed its response to the case involving Director of Sports Medicine Scott Shaw that dated back to 2009. In its Title IX investigation, it said that San Jose State failed to respond to reports of harassment, tried to tamp down employee concerns and exposed other student-athletes to potential harm over a decade. It was those employees who ended up being whistleblowers that assisted in the DOJ’s reporting.

“The department’s findings provide a stark reminder that schools must respond quickly to protect students from sexual harassment. Title IX requires no less,” Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds for the Northern District of California said in a statement.

California State University system president Joseph Castro said he plans to meet with stakeholders at San Jose State before installing an interim president and before its Board of Trustees begin a national search for a new leader. Despite the DOJ reports, he nonetheless praised Papazian for her work and her decision to step down.

“President Papazian’s decision to resign from the presidency reflects her compassionate leadership,” Castro said in a statement. “While professionally and personally difficult, this step demonstrates her commitment to the university moving forward. We are grateful for the innovative educational services and cutting-edge resources that she and her team have put into place, which have positioned San Jose State University as a transformational higher learning institution.”

Earlier this week, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel announced he would be stepping down from the role a year before his contract is set to expire in 2023. Michigan has been beset by two different scandals, one involving abuse allegations against late sports physician Dr. Robert Anderson and provost Martin Philbert.

Papazian, the 62-year-old who began her career as a professor at Oakland University in Michigan, will remain through the end of the year and is being asked to assist in the scandal involving Shaw. Since the findings, San Jose State has expanded its Title IX office and launched a wellbeing attendant initiative that allows student-athletes being assessed by trainers to have someone else in the room to prevent potential wrongdoing.

“This transition does not impact our intention and obligation to understand what occurred and how the university responded at the time,” Papazian said in a statement. “I made a promise to our community and to the affected student-athletes and their families, and I plan to honor it. My heart, apologies and prayers continue to be with those students who suffered a breach of trust during their time at the university.”

Papazian, who came to San Jose State in 2016 after stints as president of Southern Connecticut State University and provost and senior vice president of Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y., helped lead San Jose State to the top ranking on Money’s Most Transformative University list in 2020. She also helped launch the school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2016, its Division of Research and Innovation in 2019 and forged partnerships with leading technology companies in Silicon Valley such as IBM, LinkedIn, PayPal and Adobe.

“I, along with our Board of Trustees, am grateful for Dr. Papazian’s dedication to San José State University,” Lillian Kimbell, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said. “President Papazian’s commitment to providing equitable student-educational services is illustrated by SJSU’s graduation rates climbing during her tenure, and the average debt remaining far below the national average. During her tenure, SJSU has amplified its research and technology partnerships in Silicon Valley and nationwide to offer its students unique resources at the university.”

Papazian is the fifth higher ed leader to hold the position since 2010 and also the longest serving following Jon Whitmore (2008-2010), Interim President Don Kassing (2010-2011), Mohammed Qayoumi (2011-2015) and Interim President Susan Martin (2015-2016). Though the decision to step down was difficult, Papazian said it was necessary.

“The best interest of the campus continues to be at the forefront of every decision I make,” Papazian said. “I truly love this university and believe this choice will allow the focus to be positively and solely on our talented, diverse, and outstanding campus. It has been my great honor and privilege to work with the exceptional SJSU students, faculty, staff, alumni and community partners. I am incredibly grateful to the entire SJSU and San José communities for the opportunity to serve at what I consider to be one of the best and most transformational universities in the country. Thank you.”