Among Fram Virjee’s fondest memories as president of California State University, Fullerton, was its choral group performing a song for him during a meeting with the former pastor of Christ Our Redeemer in Irvine, Mark Whitlock.
“They sang. And we cried,” Virjee told the Business Journal whilst choking up.
His affection for the university’s events, ranging from seeing that choral group sing in cathedrals in Spain to watching the university’s men’s basketball team, which finished second in its division last year, made his decision to retire, which was announced Jan. 23, difficult.
“I want to go out on a high note,” 62-year-old Virjee said. “I want to go out when things are going well.”
During Virjee’s five-year term as CSUF president, the university increased its four-year graduation rate for first-time freshmen to 39%, marking a 53% improvement from four years ago.
Virjee also started a fundraising campaign that raised over $270 million to date, surpassing its initial funding goal by over $100 million, and oversaw the completion of several campus projects, including a new 600-bed residence hall, newly renovated baseball and softball complex, an aquatic center and a campus walkway.
Virjee is set to retire on July 31 at CSUF, Orange County’s largest university with about 40,000 students enrolled. The California State University system will then appoint an interim president and launch a national search for his successor.
“While president of CSUF and throughout his service as general counsel for CSU, Fram Virjee has been the epitome of a servant leader, displaying an infectious passion to improve opportunities for students,” CSU Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester said in a statement.
Virjee has previously called CSUF the “work engine for Orange County,” citing that nearly 80% of the school’s 310,000 alumni live within 50 miles from campus.
Third Time’s the Charm
Virjee had already attempted to retire twice before stepping into his role.
“As my wife, Julie, would tell you, this is my second failed retirement,” he said.
His first attempt was after working for 30 years at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, the oldest law firm in Los Angeles, where he made partner. His second came after serving as the CSU vice chancellor and general counsel for three years until 2017, when the CSU board appointed him president of CSUF.
“Becoming president put everything else I’ve ever done professionally to shame,” he said. “This is a 24-hour, seven-days-a week job if you do it right.”
First-Gen College Student
Virjee, CSUF’s first Indian American president, immigrated to the U.S. on the Queen Mary with his parents when he was 5 years old.
“I was a funny, skinny little kid that spoke differently than everybody else,” he said. “I never imagined that I would find my way to belong as an American, let alone rise to be general counsel or president of a university.”
Many CSUF students can relate to Virjee’s experience.
Mauricio Gomez Lopez, a CSUF student who received the 2021 CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, shared to Virjee that he is a fellow first-generation college student who immigrated to the U.S. at a young age from Mexico.
Virjee recalled Lopez telling him that because he came from a different culture and initially did not speak English as well as his peers, he struggled with feelings of belonging in junior high and high school.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is my story,’” Virjee recalled when hearing about Lopez’s experience. “That’s what’s so amazing about this country, and about higher education.”
Lopez graduated from CSUF last year with Latin honors in physics and applied mathematics. He plans to pursue a master’s degree at CSUF, followed by a doctorate.
With retirement on the horizon, Virjee has five months left to advance his remaining initiatives at CSUF.
He is currently looking to lobby the state and Chancellor’s office to get more funding for the school, which is the lowest funded university in the CSU system, he said.
Virjee also hopes to increase CSUF’s graduation rates by working with the provost.
“I’m going to savor what I’ve been doing for the last five years for these next few months,” he said. “Because it’s going to be so special.”
What Virjee said he looks forward to the most: handing diplomas to the 12,000 students set to graduate in May; watching the university’s baseball and softball team “kick butt”; and cheering on the women’s water polo team, which hosted their inaugural game this year in CSUF’s new aquatic center.
Virjee’s work with higher education won’t end with his retirement. He plans to continue supporting CSUF and other universities from afar by advocating for the pursuit of higher learning.
“Higher education is the great [economic] equalizer for the community,” he said. “And it’s under attack.”
According to Virjee, the transition to remote learning in universities during the pandemic has made many people question if pursuing higher education, rather than immediately entering the workforce, is worth the time, money and effort. That, along with the current labor shortage and “a segment of our population that wants to discourage upward mobility and success for all,” have tempted many to enter the workforce after high school instead of earning a degree, he said.
“Without higher education, stratification, alienation and blocks to social mobility will continue to plague our country,” Virjee said.
Becoming CSU general counsel and CSUF president wouldn’t have been possible without his bachelor’s from University of California, Santa Barbara, and juris doctor from UC Hastings College of the Law, he added.
“I came to this country at 5 years old, first in my family to go to college, without ever imagining that I could do the things I’ve done,” he said. “The only reason I could was because I had a ticket, and that was higher education.”
Once he retires, Virjee intends to speak, write opinion pieces and lobby in support of higher education.
He also hopes to spend his free time working on the nonprofit he co-founded with Julie, Yambi Rwanda, which aims to help overcome poverty in Rwanda, as well as traveling the globe with her.
“We have a dream of planting ourselves in Barcelona for two months, then Johannesburg for two months and then going to Jerusalem,” he said.