Beloved political science professor’s retirement spurs outpouring of support
May 23, 2012
Looking through the photos from Terry Chistensen’s retirement party, one quickly notices a pattern: almost all of the photos—more than 100 in total—are of Christensen posing with smiling colleagues, friends, alumni and students. The photos are evidence that, after a 42-year career, Christensen’s impact on the university and local politics is unquestionable.
On April 27, more than 400 people gathered to celebrate his retirement. Organizers raised more than $35,000 in donations in connection with the event. The impact of one professor on the community made this tremendous fundraising success possible.
“My alumni colleagues and I are forever grateful for Terry's mentorship, guidance and friendship,” says Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits Executive Director Patricia Gardner, ’79 Political Science, who was a lead organizer of the celebration. “Terry’s contribution can be multiplied by the hundreds of students that have been taught, mentored and guided by his love of teaching and his commitment to education.”
As a professor in the political science department, Christensen specialized in teaching local and state politics, but his biggest impact grew from the internship program he created and directed. Christensen says he wants the proceeds from his retirement party to support those interns, who are often unpaid, and other projects through his Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement.
Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold wrote about Christensen’s retirement in advance of the party. When it came time to list out the professor’s notable former students—for example, Supervisor Ken Yeager, Assemblyman Jim Beall, former Supervisor Susanne Wilson and labor leader Cindy Chavez—the dozens of names made a list long enough for its own sidebar.
Christensen is also notable for his involvement in local politics, having worked on numerous campaigns. A committed liberal, his biggest success was a campaign in 1978 to shift the San José City Council from at-large elections to a district system. The move almost certainly contributes to the diversity of today’s council membership.
Political activism never impacted his ability to place interns though. Whether they were working on liberal or conservative campaigns, Christensen’s interns were always a welcome addition.
Professor Larry Gerston, a longtime colleague in the political science department says Christensen brings a rare combination of scholar and activist to his work.
“He has had the discipline and intellectual rigor to write first-rate research on state and local issues. Yet, he has had the passion to pursue and promote issues of importance to him, mobilizing many others in the process,” Gerston says. “Few professors possess such a powerful combination, and generations of students have been its beneficiaries.”
In 1998, Christensen was named San José State’s Outstanding Professor, and he chaired the Department of Political Science from 1994 to 2002. For two and a half years, Christensen also served as executive director of CommUniverCity, which is growing into one of the university’s most visible community partnership programs.
Christensen’s legacy is impressive, but his most lasting impact might be the simple day-to-day interactions he had with hundreds of students. From the 1970s—when many of the college’s commuter students were older than him—to the diverse student body we have today, Christensen has always worked to make connections with students. The proof is in the pictures.