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In Memoriam: President Emeritus Dr. Suzuki

President Emeritus Bob Suzuki

Former University President Dedicated Life to Social Justice, Diversifying Education

Bob Suzuki’s childhood experiences with discrimination and his desire to see a more just and equitable world shaped his life’s work in both education and activism.

Suzuki, Cal Poly Pomona’s fourth president, began his career as an engineer. However, as the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, he opted to pursue a career in education, a field more in line with his commitment to social justice and community-building.

“I think the greatest accomplishment that anyone can make is to help improve the lives of others,” he said in a story the university published during his tenure. “So, I finally decided education was the area to get involved in.”

Suzuki, a pioneering agent of change, died May 1 surrounded by his family. He was 88.

He became university president in 1991 and retired in 2003. Passionate about diversity and inclusion, Suzuki helped to establish the cultural centers on campus, as well as the educational equity programs. He created the Faculty Center for Professional Development to improve academic quality and forged key partnerships with the city of Pomona.  

“Dr. Suzuki was a visionary leader. He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, and a kind friend,” University President Soraya M. Coley said. “He was a helpful advisor when I reached out, and one of the most gifted minds on multicultural education, international education and educational equity in our world. His mark on Cal Poly Pomona and the CSU system is indelible, his legacy remarkable, and his passing too soon. I will cherish and miss his helpful advice, his brilliant mind and his generous spirit.”

Suzuki earned a bachelor’s in 1960 and a master’s in 1962, both in mechanical engineering, from UC Berkeley. After graduation, he worked as a research engineer for Boeing in Seattle. He earned a doctorate in aeronautics from Caltech in 1967. He taught aerospace engineering at USC for four and a half years. Prior to coming to Cal Poly Pomona, Suzuki served as the dean of graduate studies and research at Cal State LA from 1981 to 1985 and vice president for Academic Affairs at CSUN from 1985 to 1991. There, Suzuki worked to increase funding for instruction and research through grants, bolster diversity among faculty and raise the graduation rates of underrepresented students.

As president at Cal Poly Pomona, Suzuki raised more than $110 million to help fund more than $200 million in new construction projects on campus, including a state-of-the-art engineering building, an expanded complex for what was then known as The Collins School of Hospitality Management, a biotechnology building and the Rain Bird BioTrek learning center. Other projects included his oversight of the campus’ first high-speed network, greatly improving hardware and software infrastructure, increasing research and scholarship opportunities, and the founding of the International Polytechnic High School (iPoly). He also notably was responsible for the Aratani Japanese Aratani Garden, one of the most picturesque gathering places on campus.

Landscape Architecture Professor Keiji Uesugi recalled how his late father, Takeo Uesugi, a professor emeritus of landscape architecture, designed the garden while Suzuki raised the funds to build the project. Suzuki and his father became good friends after Suzuki arrived on campus. They traveled to Japan together as part of an exchange program, socialized off campus and sent each other holiday cards over the years. When the elder Uesugi died in 2016, Suzuki eulogized him.

“Their relationship was fostered in the 90s when they had the opportunity to go to different functions together,” Uesugi said. “It was a natural evolution of their relationship. After retirement, they remained close.”

Suzuki was born in Oregon in 1936. As a young boy, he and his family were confined in a Minidoka, Idaho internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. That experience shaped him.

“It was my earlier experiences that led me to get deeply involved in the civil rights movement and become an advocate for the underdog groups of society,” Suzuki once said.

Inspired by Malcolm X and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, Suzuki and his wife, Agnes, became change agents – picketing, rallying and organizing for action. He became vice chair of the advocacy committee tasked with desegregating Pasadena schools and led a national campaign for the Congressional repeal of the Emergency Detention Act of 1950, a McCarthy-era law enabling the federal government to detain who they labeled suspected subversives without due process.

Suzuki also tapped into his work in academia to advocate, publishing numerous papers and lecturing on multicultural/international education, educational equity and on Asian Americans. He served as a member of the National Science Board and the California Student Aid Commission. He received several awards for his contributions to community service and civil rights advocacy. The National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education honored him in 2016. The San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership awarded Suzuki with its first annual Technology Leadership Award in 2001 for his work in helping to develop high tech economic development initiatives. President Bill Clinton named Suzuki to serve on the National Science Foundation in 1997. He also was the first recipient of the National Education Association’s Human Rights Award for Leadership in Asian and Pacific Island Affairs in 1976.

Sociology Professor Emeritus Mary Kunmi Yu Danico, a close friend of the Suzuki family, said that while Suzuki received many awards and accolades from national and local organizations, he was humble about his accomplishments.

“He was an activist, and most did not know this about him,” she said. “His work in anti-racist, anti-oppression, and social justice work began early in his career, and he chose to pursue activism in higher education over his early training as an engineer.”

Danico recalled meeting Suzuki for the first time — he was roaming the hallway outside of her office in Building 5. She thought he might be a textbook salesman and asked whether he needed help. He introduced himself as Bob and said he was the president of the university.

“The infrastructures that are in place for minoritized communities began with President Suzuki,” she said. “We stand on his shoulders, and I hope that folks will forever remember how his leadership has benefited us not only at CPP but in higher education too.”

“President Suzuki always made time for our students and was empathetic to our minoritized first generation students.  He believed in the power of pipelines for success.”

Pasadena City College President Jose Gomez (’93, sociology) met Suzuki when they were both new presidents on campus — Gomez was elected ASI president the same year that Suzuki was appointed university president.

Over the years, they saw each other at campus and alumni events, but they bonded in 2009 when Gomez was hired as an associate vice president at Cal State LA. Suzuki lived near Cal State LA, so they would often get together for breakfast or lunch, as Gomez rose to executive vice president and provost.

“As I charted my own path, I realized how much I had learned from him while I was a student at Cal Poly Pomona,” Gomez said. “I was so lucky and fortunate to be in his space so often.”

Gomez added that he especially cherishes their visits and talks in recent months.

“I was touched by how proud he was of me and the advice that he gave me about being a president,” he said. “He gave me good advice and he gave me confidence. He always said the right things. I wouldn’t be here if not for him. I will cherish our relationship and all of the incredible guidance and wisdom he imparted for years to come.”

Suzuki is survived by his wife, Agnes, his three children and his grandchildren. Memorial services are pending and will be shared once finalized.