Interim president Richard Yao

Richard Yao takes the reins as Interim President

By Pamela Dean

Richard Yao, Ph.D. understands leadership transitions can be challenging even under the best of circumstances.

And the circumstances he faced when taking over as CSUCI’s Interim President in January were anything but ideal. He began his new role as the University and the country were staring down a global pandemic, racial and social unrest, and economic uncertainty. 

But Yao was no stranger to challenge and difficulty. He had already helped lead the campus through several significant crises. 

In November 2018, just a few months after he joined CSUCI as Vice President for Student Affairs, the community was rocked by the Borderline Bar & Grill mass shooting. Almost 50 CSUCI students were at the bar that night. When Yao rushed to a nearby community center where families of the victims were gathering, he feared the worst. Luckily no CSUCI students were physically injured, but many were emotionally scarred. 

“We had to quickly figure out how to provide the support that individuals needed, as well as the campus community, because so many people were impacted by this in so many ways,” Yao recalled. 

Along with the rest of the campus leadership team, Yao would not have the luxury of solely focusing on this tragedy for long.

The very next day, as he was preparing his remarks for that evening’s planned candlelight vigil, the Hill fire began barreling toward the University, quickly forcing the campus to be evacuated. Yao’s Student Affairs team jumped into action figuring out how to help the scores of students living on campus who had no transportation and no place to go.

The University then grappled with the logistics of when to bring students back to campus with the Fall break a few weeks away and finals around the corner. Ultimately, it was decided to close the campus and have students return after the Thanksgiving break in late November.

He believes these experiences, which stretched his leadership beyond the parameters of Student Affairs, helped bring the campus community together and helped him quickly connect with faculty, staff and students. He also feels the University is better prepared today to deal with crises because of them.

“These incidents really helped us learn a lot about emergency preparedness and those lessons learned have been incorporated into our current practices,” he explained.

Yao is not daunted by the many challenges CSUCI currently faces either. He believes the campus community’s unified sense of purpose around the mission of providing its largely first generation, underserved student population with the best education possible, makes overcoming these hurdles a little easier.

“We are all committed to not only students accessing higher education at CSUCI, but most importantly, enabling their success, and not just here, but post-graduation as well,” Yao said. “We want to ensure they are both serving in our communities and leading in them as well.”

It is this unification around common goals which he sees as instrumental in moving the University ahead.

“We may have different ideas on the best way to achieve our goals, but that is part of the process of moving an organization forward,” he said.

During this interim period, Yao intends to lay the foundation for CSUCI’s future success. His overarching priorities consist of facilitating the natural growth and evolution of the University’s mission pillars, including supporting high-impact learning, such as undergraduate research and community service projects.

He also wants to improve communication and continue to make the campus more culturally diverse and inclusive. This includes recruiting, hiring and retaining more diverse faculty, staff and students. 

As a Chinese Filipino American, Yao is the first person of color to lead the campus.

He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Eastern Illinois University, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Prior to joining CSUCI, he served as the founding Dean of Students at Nevada State College (NSC) and Chief Student Affairs Officer.

“I fell in love with psychology from the minute I took that first psychology class in high school,” Yao explained. “I always wanted to help others.”

Throughout the course of his time as a clinician, he worked with clients who suffered from chronic and persistent mental illness, children and families in the foster care system, and eventually transition-aged youth who aged out of the foster care system.

A chance opportunity to teach an intro level psychology class at a community college in Nevada launched his foray into higher education. He eventually became a full-time lecturer at NSC before moving on to leadership roles in Student Affairs. 

Yao is looking forward to welcoming students back to in-person classes in the Fall. And again, has an eye toward their psychosocial health in relation to their academic success — looking to not only bring students back on campus physically but to ensure they flourish while they are here as well. 

“Because of the pandemic, our students have experienced some degree of trauma on many levels. Their lives have changed,” Yao said. “We need to support them academically, psychosocially, and emotionally, so when they come back they are able to thrive and not just get through.” 

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© Spring 2021 / Volume 26 / Number 1 / Biannual

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