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Passion and Perseverance: President Sharon Diaz Celebrates 40 Years at SMU

Forty years at Samuel Merritt University (SMU) has earned President Sharon Diaz many accolades. People who have worked closely with her choose words like "indomitable, savvy, strategic, tenacious and visionary" to describe her.

Sharon's success in shepherding the institution through four decades of remarkable change and expansion is widely attributed to her ability to build relationships with people and bring them together. Longtime colleague Abby Heydman, former Dean of Nursing and Academic Vice President, calls Sharon "politically astute."

"She's probably the most able political administrator I've ever known," agrees Irwin Hansen, former CEO of Summit Medical Center. "It's been one of the most satisfying things in my career to work with her."

Like others, SMU Vice President of Academic Affairs Scot Foster notes that Sharon has outlasted numerous CEOs at the medical center.

"She is very politically adept at working with a lot of different people and under a lot of different pressures," says Foster. "The woman has a knack for administratively networking for the benefit of the University."

"You can't do what I've done all these years and not be political," says Sharon. "There's no question in my mind that I am a political being and I have done it for the needs of the University that I love."

Running for political office is not on her horizon, however. Neither is imminent retirement. "I still love what I do," she says.

Dr. Cornelius Hopper, who joined the SMU Board of Regents in 1997 and served as its chair from 2000 to 2011, says Sharon's "absolute identification with and loyalty" to the University best explains her perseverance.

"Her commitment to Samuel Merritt has never wavered," says Hopper.

It all began in 1973 when Sharon became a medical-surgical nursing instructor at Samuel Merritt Hospital School of Nursing, then an all-girls program where unmarried students were required to live in campus housing. It was a simpler place and she soon came to know every student, faculty and staff member.

"I don't think we had a single person on campus with a doctorate," she says. "And research was the farthest thing from our vision."

With a lot of help from her colleagues, Sharon transformed a hospital-based diploma school of nursing into an intercollegiate baccalaureate program - the first school in the country to do so - and eventually into a health sciences university offering five disciplines and a mix of master's and doctoral degrees.

Sharon has traveled far from her roots. She grew up in Bakersfield and was the first of her generation on both sides of her family to attend college.  She chose San Jose State University, in large part because she could live nearby with her older sister. It was at San Jose State where she met her husband, Luis Diaz, who was studying mechanical engineering and was a member of the nationally ranked soccer team.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in nursing, Sharon went to work in the intensive care unit at Kaiser. Soon after, her alma mater called and asked if she was interested in teaching and she decided to try it.

"I liked working with students," she recalls. "I liked turning on the light, showing them that it wasn't what I knew but how they understood it."

She took the teaching job at Samuel Merritt because she says she liked its passion for preserving the tradition of excellent clinical education as well as its willingness to buck trends. A subsequent attempt by the faculty to form a union failed and resulted in many of the teachers quitting, but Sharon remained.

Dr. Audrey Berman, SMU President Sharon Diaz and the late Dr. Patricia Webb

Dr. Audrey Berman, SMU President Sharon Diaz and the late Dr. Patricia Webb

In 1976, she was appointed acting director and then director of the School of Nursing. In many ways, it was trial by fire. With few faculty left and an accreditation report due, Sharon struggled to stay afloat. She was not familiar with the hospital bureaucracy and enrollment was beginning to drop. She also had a baby son, who she would place on the floor while meeting with students.

"She took the risk of moving into administration early because she thought she could make a difference," says Heydman.

Six years later, Sharon was appointed to be the school's first president. Since then, the woman who describes herself in her early years as " a real rabble rouser" has never shied away from a challenge or resisted change.

Dr. Hopper says that Sharon has continually "pushed the boundaries" by strategically adding new programs to SMU's academic portfolio, always considering the advantage to the University as well as the benefit to the community it serves. Perhaps her boldest choice was to merge with the California College of Podiatric Medicine, a prestigious school that had fallen on financial hard times. Dr. Hopper recalls that it was a decision met with some skepticism by the board, but turned out to be a good one.

"It was a great school fulfilling a need and presented a great opportunity for Samuel Merritt to increase its visibility and credibility," he says.

Sharon's years of dedication have also taught her about the need for down time. She recalls that the first real vacation she ever took with her husband was to Kauai 36 years ago, and she fell in love with the northern side of the island. Now it is the place she goes to replenish herself and where she and her husband plan to live full-time after retirement.

While she was on a sabbatical in 2007, the Diazes bought a house in Kauai.  She now spends every July there. During what she describes as her "sacred" time, Sharon works in the morning and then reads, plays golf or goes to the beach for the rest of the day.

"It's just my time," she says of her days on the island.

Diaz attributes much of her professional staying power to her husband of 45 years and two sons.

"There's no way I could do what I do without a supportive family," she says.

After 40 years, Sharon says she remains at SMU because every day is different and she finds it energizing to continue looking forward.

"I absolutely love what I do," she says. "Mostly it's really fun to watch people learn and grow. It's fun to be around really smart and motivated people." 

Next installment-"Unfinished Business."  Sharon Diaz looks ahead; how she is positioning SMU to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing healthcare system. 

President Sharon Diaz
President Sharon Diaz