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Close-up: Dennis Guseman

CSU San Marcos dean extends learning from classroom to boardroom -- and back

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In education, there can often be a gap between theory and practice. Dennis Guseman, dean of the College of Business Administration at California State University, San Marcos, not only encourages a curriculum that closes that gap, but one that takes education out into the field as well.

For instance, the department's Senior Experience teams give students a chance to work on current business projects around the region for clients like Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) and the City of San Diego Police Department. The program In the Executive Chair also links students to the business community by bringing in top executives to answer questions.

"My philosophy is that it's important to be able to bring business to the classroom. At CSU San Marcos, when graduates walk into their first job, we want it to feel familiar. It's like if you try to teach a person to swim without ever getting near the water. They know the strokes, but in the water it's a lot different," Guseman says. "We want to bring them into the pool to practice what they've learned."

Dennis Guseman

Guseman is passionate about education. He had a brief stint in the private sector in marketing and then fell into teaching, thinking it would be short-term. He was a professor of marketing for three decades. He has been a part of the California State University system since 1984, initially teaching at California State Bakersfield.

CSU's overall mission is to take first-generation college students and prepare them for a career while instilling a regional identification. And as dean of the CSU San Marcos College of Business Administration (CoBA), he empowers his own staff to follow that objective.

Guseman came into his post as dean during a somewhat tumultuous time: CoBA had gone through eight deans in 13 years and was under scrutiny by the CSU chancellor's office. Guseman was initially hired as interim dean, with a charge to "bring enough stability to hire a new dean."

He not only brought that stability, but was also hired for the position. He brought his marketing background into play to initiate change.

"I put in some structural changes, received input and created trust. We established a vision. That vision is to make a significant difference in the region's intellectual, social and economic development," Guseman says.

The department's vision has a dual purpose: to educate and be a resource to the local business community. CoBA accomplishes the latter via the Chamber Champion Program, where faculty members serve on the committees of area chambers of commerce to help form collaborative relationships with the community, and via the Dean's Advisory Board, which is comprised of local business leaders.

"Another thing I think I've brought to the program is closer ties to the business community, so that it's now one of our fortes," Guseman says. "I've helped bring visibility and awareness. When I first came to the area, people would say we were so fortunate to have three good schools here. But CSU San Marcos was not one of them. That would irritate me. Now we are out and about with the business community and making people aware of it."

Guseman also stressed how important it is for a region to have a well-educated work force. He notes that in order for people to afford to live in the San Diego and North County areas, high-paying jobs are needed. But if companies don't find people to do the job, they will go elsewhere.

"Companies go where the workers are. And my perspective is that to keep this a vibrant economy, we need to have educated workers," he says. "I want to live here; I want to stay here. So what we need to do is create industries and jobs that pay sufficient wages that allow people to stay."

Cal State San Marcos prides itself on, as Guseman says, "educating the future work force of the region." The majority -- 90 percent -- of students stay in the area after they graduate. The school's attendance is also growing, adding about 1,000 students per year. The typical attendee is a first-generation college student. Guseman says this type of student tends to be very serious about education, creating a good study environment at the university.

The school is also increasingly tech-savvy. Every seat in classrooms is wired for Internet connection, and wi-fi is available throughout the entire campus. Professors make use of student-held transmitters to get nearly instant feedback from a large audience. These student response systems help teachers ascertain students' understanding of a subject by getting an immediate gauge on correct responses to a given lecture question.

As Guseman talks about classroom details and the joy of seeing a student get excited about learning, you sense that it's not just the high-level planning and management that keep him enthralled with his job.

"One of things I really liked about teaching is being able to make a difference, to take a young person's mind and be able to shape it," he says. "The greatest accomplishment is if a student says, 'You changed the way I think.' That is the greatest compliment a professor can get. And being the dean at CSU, I have an opportunity to make a difference on a larger scale."

Blackford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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