Who is Portland State University’s president?
As new students arrive on Portland State’s campus, many may not be aware they’re also under the leadership of a brand new PSU President, Dr. Rahmat Shoureshi. You may ask yourself, “Who is this ‘Reshi? What does he care about? What does my school’s president have to do with me?”
If you live in the Broadway Residence Building, maybe President Shoureshi helped you carry your mini-fridge into the dorms last Thursday. If you frequent the PSU Bookstore, maybe you chatted with him on his first day at PSU in early August. Or, if you ride the streetcar to campus, maybe you’ll run into him on his daily commute.
Just before classes began, the Vanguard sat down with Shoureshi on a Monday morning. We heard details of his impressive list of professional accomplishments throughout his career, ambitions and visions for PSU, and what he likes to do in the hours he’s not running a university of nearly 30,000 students and 7,000 faculty members.
Getting his start
President Shoureshi described his early years as a graduate student in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he arrived in 1976 with his wife. Several years into his studies the Iranian Revolution broke out casting his future into doubt.
“We had spent over five years in Boston, and halfway through my Ph.D., the revolution happened back home, and so it was a decision of do we go back or do we stay,” Shoureshi explained.
“This is an angle that I very clearly understand what our international students are going through, whether they are those that are from the infamous ‘six countries,’ or the DACA students, because I—my—experience back in the 1980s was when the government was also looking at the Iranian students [for deportation].”
During the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter created a situation in which hundreds were deported and thousands more left of their own volition. In response, campuses then, as today, stepped up to make sure students were in compliance with the demands of Carter’s executive order.
“I always remember how MIT decided to support its students and make sure that nothing would disrupt their education,” Shoureshi said. “That’s what I’d like to do here at PSU, to make sure that any students, no matter what background or nationality, [has] the opportunity to study and complete their education at PSU.”
After graduating from MIT, Shoureshi moved on to teaching positions in various universities. His first was at MIT itself, and in 1981 he moved on to teaching mechanical engineering at Wayne State in Detroit, Michigan.
From 1983 to 1994, Shoureshi spent time at Purdue in a variety of positions, including continuing on as a mechanical engineering professor. This position helped him gain the opportunity to partner with the National Science Foundation to create an engineering research center at Purdue and the Colorado School of Mines.
In 1994, Shoureshi took a lucrative position as a founding chair of an Engineering Systems graduate program at the Colorado School of Mines, which allowed him to create another NSF partnership, this time in the field of biomedical devices.
In 2003, Shoureshi stepped into the position of dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Denver, and, in 2011, he became the provost and vice president for academic affairs at the New York Institute of Technology.
Among Shoureshi’s accomplishments are nine separate registered patents at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. These include a smart insole for diabetic patients and a vibration control system for cars, things most Vanguard readers have encountered in their lives at some point.
PSU as a global urban university
Shoureshi’s vision for PSU continues the work he’s done in past positions. “I know what it takes to move a university,” Shoureshi said.
“I call myself a builder,” he said, “At every university I have been, I have built great programs, colleges, universities. So I feel that PSU is a university with all of the right ingredients and is poised to really become a great, what I call, ‘global urban university.’ That’s what I’m aiming to push for.”
Shoureshi’s past experience has included building global partnerships between universities and businesses in various corners of the world. He believes when faculty members take an active role in their industries, they bring stronger educational benefits to the classroom.
“I believe in the fact that the faculty need to be involved in creative work and scholarship because that’s an effective way that makes them a lot of more effective in their classrooms and the education they provide to their students, so this is an area I also will be emphasizing here at PSU.”
“Then came the opportunity of PSU, and usually before I move to a university, I do a great deal of behind-the-scenes assessment, you make sure first of all it’s the right fit,” Shoureshi said.
“And secondly, that it is a place I can make a difference…and that is why I am here.”
Portland State Vanguard asked Dr. Shoureshi eleven questions in person.
Some answers have been edited for formatting.
VG: Can you talk a little more about what it means to be a ‘great global urban university’?
RS: Our students are going to end up working in businesses, NGOs, companies that are international. So we want to make sure that they get that education and exposure while they are at PSU.
At the same time, what that means is that not only hopefully learning another language, but more importantly, learning other cultures. Because it is so important to appreciate and understand the cultures that we are not exposed to. I can see that there are many conflicts and many issues that arise because people do not appreciate the other side’s culture, and so it’s part of that education.
The other part is that we want to make sure our faculty and students have the opportunity to collaborate in Portland with others around the globe, because nobody can say, ‘We know it all, we have it all.’ There are others that can contribute.
I would love to see our faculty spending sabbaticals at partner institutions overseas and visa versa, and so it’s that because by going through experience, which I call it, ‘the element of experiential learning’ outside of the classroom that our students when they graduate, they will be in a much better position than their peers when it comes to job opportunities.
VG: Do you have any specific ideas for how to promote that cultural competency in the classroom and pursuits here on campus?
RS: In the classroom there are a number of ways. [The] first thing is actually having workshops. And I know the [PSU Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion] is doing some of that, but establishing workshops not just for our students, but our faculty and staff, about what it means to be exposed to somebody coming from a completely foreign country. How do we give them a welcoming on-boarding?
The other part is I would love our faculty to come with those composite experiences so when they discuss cases in their lectures, they bring examples that really represent a global perspective rather than just focusing locally.
The third part is by having students from other backgrounds in the classrooms, so our classrooms are diverse. That’s another way to interact. That might be the most effective way, that peer-to-peer interaction among students to educate them about being a global citizen.
VG: How would you promote diversity in the classrooms?
RS: There’s local diversity and there’s global diversity. I would like to see our partnerships with school systems and community colleges become very strong, so that when students come to PSU, they are very well-prepared and they will be successful.
I was visiting the president of PCC. In their student body, you see the diversity in a true sense. So you want to make sure you attract more of them here. That expands the diversity that way.
The other part, I have already initiated and will be expanding is [to] build the partnerships that I used to [have] back in New York. Trying to reach out to the universities that already know me very well to establish joint degree partnerships with those universities and have opportunities of their students coming here and being in our classroom, as well as our students going to their classrooms.
Those are just some of the immediate ideas and plans I have.
VG: What have been some of your favorite experiences in Portland thus far?
RS: The first one that comes to mind is the bike ride…Voyage of Visionaries on [Sept. 8]. It gave me the opportunity to see parts of Portland that probably [I] wouldn’t have seen in the immediate future.
[It was an] opportunity to really get to know leadership of Portland community, whether it was the city leadership or the business leadership in a setting that was very collegial and inviting, so I enjoyed that very much.
The second I have to say (even though I wish they had won) it was going to Providence Stadium and watching the football team play, and going to see the football players and coaches. [My wife and I] were able to meet the cheerleaders and see all of the excitement they have and the pride they have for PSU.
Even though it wasn’t a regular game [and] students are not in town yet, the stadium was more than half full. So I realized how much pride the folks in the greater Portland Metro have for PSU. It was a very positive experience.
Something that my daughter had told me, but now we have really experienced is how nice, how kind are people in Portland. They have a great value of respect for others.
You can imagine the contrast I have between New York and Portland. So, it’s such a positive experience to see that even at the traffic light they don’ try to run you over.
VG: What’s something you’ve been told you need to visit in Portland that you haven’t seen yet?
RS: Well, I haven’t been to OMSI…You may know I take the Streetcar every day to go to work and the streetcar keeps saying, ‘This is such and such street car…going to OMSI.’ And for a while I was wondering, ‘Who is this OMSI?’
The other part, is that I understand, and my daughter has been there several times, the coast I’m told is very nice.
VG: What are some of your pet peeves?
RS: Let me tell you this: Being on time and being organized is very important. If I go to a meeting and if the meeting says it starts at 10 a.m., I expect all of those to be there.
The other part for me, I have already made it clear is when you are in a meeting, people using or being on their cellphones. This is so disrespectful. If what you’re discussing isn’t important, then why did you even come to the meeting to begin with?
The other is one of my main principles of operation. I don’t want to get surprised. I do my best not to surprise others and I hope others don’t surprise me, and so far it has not happened yet here.
One other point, and it’s only been one month at PSU so I cannot say much, but I have seen it at other places, university folks tend to forget that we are all here because of the students. In fact, I ended up, not here but in some other place, finally turning to someone and saying, ‘Do you know where your paycheck comes from? It’s through the students.’
So it would bother me if I see faculty or staff not really being service-oriented to our students. I hope I won’t see that here.
VG: Can you tell us one of your most embarrassing moments?
RS: I was in the process…of establishing a partnership with universities in Turkey, and so my office would arrange the visits and so forth, and so there is the Eastern University—they claim they are 600 years old, and a huge university.
I was supposed to meet with their provost. I went to their meeting, and I saw that they really rolled out the red carpet. They gave presentations about things they are doing, and every now and then some of the people at the table kept asking me, ‘So how is professor so-and-so?’
And I couldn’t remember having professor so-and-so. At some point it dawned on me: They must be mixing our university with another university. So when it was my turn to present about our university, I started by saying, ‘I’m coming from this university. I have a feeling you are mixing me up with with university.’
I’m not mentioning the names, but it’s easy to figure out what I’m thinking about. And then I saw, ‘Oh my god, that was the case. And their whole behavior changed. It was such an embarrassing situation, I thought, ‘I can’t wait until this meeting is over.’
VG: What kind of advice would you give our undergraduates that are just coming in?
RS: There are several things, I have shared some of these advices with my two children also. The first is that college years are such informative and transformational years that you should take full advantage of the time that you are at the university.
I used to tell both my son and daughter that, you know, you’re gonna live probably about a hundred years. An extra year at the university is not going to really hurt you, compared to a hundred years. But you get the chance to learn a lot more not just to stay within your own discipline.
My son was into baseball. He went and took a course—he was an engineering undergrad—the course was economic impact of baseball. And then he did a term project about Fenway Park in Boston, given that he was born in Boston…Don’t just take classes on your own disciplines. Try to learn from other disciplines and take courses.
The second part is don’t just go through classrooms. Get involved in projects as part of experiential learning. Get involved with clubs and try to take some type of leadership role in some projects, whether it is within your dorm, within your school, within your group, something that shows you initiated that.
The other part is definitely, if the opportunity is there—and I’m hoping to provide that opportunity—to take at least a semester or a quarter overseas to learn a different culture.
And finally, I would strongly encourage students to do internships…while they are studying because the experience they gain going through that confirms even more what they are studying.
VG: What was one of the most rewarding leadership roles or projects you worked on in your undergraduate studies?
RS: I had the opportunity to teach math in a high school while I was going through my undergraduate studies. This is back home [in Iran], and at the time and I’m sure it’s now even more, many of the high schools, they were separated by gender.
I was teaching in an all-girls high school and I really wanted to get them excited about engineering and sciences and try to show them how exciting math is. So I got them involved in projects that was so different from typically at that time was happening in high school classrooms, even giving them opportunities for visiting the university because not many at the time were taking beyond a high school diploma.
So those are the ones that I felt were non-engineering but rewarding.
VG: Describe an interaction you’ve had with a student at PSU that’s stood out to you.
RS: So far the one that I have had, and I hope I will have plenty more, is on is my first day on the job, the three that gave me the tour.
I had the opportunity to ask them about their experiences and what they think of PSU, what brought them to PSU, and I’ll never forget Marwa, and the experiences she has gone through in her life and coming here, the difficulties that she and her family have gone through. So that was in a sense a positive experience from the [student’s] perspective. All three of them represented a really diverse group, and [shared] how pleased they have been with their experiences at PSU. That was great.
The second one was I have had a chance to interact with a few times the [President and Vice President of Associated Students of PSU] Brent [Finkbeiner] and Donald [Thompson III].
I was impressed by their devotion to the student issues and what they are trying to push forward, which is pretty much in line with what I believe.
VG: Describe yourself in three words:
RS: Hardworking, super-optimistic, and—since you are asking me—I’m a visionary person.