Palos Verdes to Rwanda to Fullerton
Julie and Fram Virjee in Kigali, Rwanda, where they helped establish a school for the deaf. Photo courtesy of the Virjees
Story by Richard Foss
When Palos Verdes resident Framroze “Fram” Virjee retired from the high powered law firm O’Melveny and Myers, his partners asked his wife Julie what to get him as a parting gift. Her answer probably wasn’t what they expected, and…well, let’s let him tell it.
“My wife was asked, “What would Fram like as a retirement gift?” I think most people get a set of golf clubs or a new fishing rod. Julie said, ‘I know what he wants – a 501c3 that will allow us to do what we need to do in Rwanda.’ My partners incorporated it, which is no small endeavor, and on top of that, they kicked in seed money to start Yambi Rwanda.”
Virjee had been integrating philanthropy and social justice issues throughout his professional career. He credits that passion to his upbringing in San Pedro and Palos Verdes, where he stood out both because of his heritage and early life experiences.
“My father was a ship captain from India, my mom is Swedish-American, and for the first seven years of my life we sailed around the world. We moved to California in 1966 because my parents wanted to be near my mom’s family in the South Bay. We moved to San Pedro first, where I grew up with folks from the Azores, Croatia, Serbia, Mexico, and all over the world. Then we went to PV and I went to Dapplegray for the last year of junior high and spent four years at Miraleste. I would be less than candid if I didn’t say that as someone used to diversity who grew up in a family with progressive values, I was a bit of an outlier. I think that may have made me a better negotiator later in life. I am comfortable communicating and collaborating in both a culturally rich environment and one that is more homogenous like Palos Verdes was.”
College in Santa Barbara and law school in San Francisco followed, with the eventual payoff of a position at O’Melveny & Myers. Contrary to the public image of large law firms being ruthless and highly competitive, Virjee found working at the firm to be spiritually uplifting. He was mentored by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and former Secretary of Transportation Bill Coleman, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, but both committed to public service.
“The firm has a rich tradition of civic-minded lawyers from both sides of the political spectrum. The question there was ‘Where will you serve as a lawyer, and how will you provide benefit to your community?’ What prepared me for what I’m doing now was pro bono work. I represented indigent defendants at criminal trials, tenants in landlord disputes, and dealt with domestic violence cases. I also represented public education, particularly K-12 school districts. The interactions with educators led me to decide to teach, so I taught in the Business school at Claremont Graduate School and then taught law school at Chapman, and that caused me to discover how much I loved post-secondary education.”
Legal work and teaching filled his life for 30 years. Then Virjee read a book Halftime by Bob Buford. The book is about mid-career professionals moving, in the words of the cover blurb, “from success to significance.” Virjee decided to leave the legal profession and move to Africa.
And then things changed again, thanks to a call from the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Cal State University system. Might he be interested in being their new General Counsel? No, he explained, he was getting ready to move to Africa. Okay, might he be willing to meet with the Chancellor and give him advice about how to fill the position?
“I met with Tim White, the chancellor for the 23-campus system, and we had a great conversation. I told him all about Rwanda, he told me about the CSU. I shared my thoughts for how he might reorganize the General Counsel’s office, he gave suggestions for how we could improve the organization of the nonprofit, and we shook hands and went our separate ways.”
Virjee and Julie went to Rwanda and started working on a series of projects, among them a school for the deaf, a community center and library, an art school, and a project to provide eggs for student meals so that children weren’t too hungry to focus on their studies. And then the call came on his cellphone from a job recruiter with an offer: not the expected job of general counsel, but executive vice-chancellor of the state university system.
“I told him, I’m in Rwanda, that’s not going to happen. He said, ‘We’ll wait, talk with us the next time you’re back in California.’ The next thing I knew I was meeting trustees and talking to people. What put me over the top was when the chancellor said, ‘I want you to think about vision and strategic planning. We have this 23 campus system with almost 500,000 students – how can we break down barriers, improve communication, and increase access for students while improving the quality?’ And I thought, oh my gosh, here I am, about to move to Africa, where I feel this connection and have this calling, and at the same time there’s a need in my own community, and I’m being called to help. He had me, I was hooked.”
Fram and Julie came up with a plan to keep their charity in Rwanda going. Julie took the lead in running the organization, an ironic twist given that she originally set the whole thing up as a project for Fram. As he explains it, “My wife Julie is the primary driver of Yambi Rwanda. In our hearts this is a joint effort but she is the leader of it. My focus is the university, but my heart is in what we’re doing. She goes there once or twice a year, and she spends four to six weeks each time. She is the love of my life and center of my universe, but I give her up because I know the work that we do is impactful.”
Fram Virjee’s university office was in in Long Beach. But, as he saw it, he wasn’t hired to sit in an office. He needed to visit each of the 23 campuses and learn what was going on. This is not the way a Vice-Chancellor usually does their job. All the same, he had loved teaching and having day-to-day relationships with the people that the whole enterprise was supposed to be focused upon.
“That’s what was missing for me, the students. The energy, the vitality, the promise you get when you walk onto a college campus is palpable. So when the chancellor called me and offered me the chance to be president at Cal State Fullerton I just about jumped out of my skin. It was an amazing opportunity and even more in line with my desire to directly affect the lives of students in the state of California.”
Virjee became Cal State Fullerton’s president in January, and is still marveling at the enormity of the job and the difficulty of doing it the way he believes it needs to be done.
“We have 40,000 students at Cal State Fullerton, the largest university in California. I could sit in my office and have everyone come to me, but when I meet with deans, faculty, or anyone else I schedule them so I can see where they live and work. The first thing I did when I got here was meet with the custodial staff and maintenance crews. They are the front line of the university, the ones who meet our students where they are every day. I carve out time to spend time with students where they’re learning. That’s the best part of my job. I want every decision to be influenced by what I know about my students, faculty, and staff. I want a collaborative process with them, and the only way that will happen is if I go to talk to them.”
Though partisans of online learning sometimes claim that it will make the classical campus obsolete except for courses that require special tools, Fram Virjee defends traditional learning methods.
“Online learning does create access for students who might not otherwise have it. It is an amazing tool, and we will use it. On the other side of the coin, it isn’t a replacement for the academy, the learning you get in the physical presence, or a panacea for issues of infrastructure and access for students. You have to understand what the purpose of a post-secondary education is, at least from my perspective. It is very important that we prepare our students, both from a knowledge-based perspective and a problem-solving perspective, to get out in the world for purposes of professional development and career. But if we stop there, which is what online learning does, we would be doing a disservice. The purpose of a university education is also to create citizens for the state of California, the United States, and the world, who are civic-minded, engaged, and caring about their communities. They need to able to interact and collaborate to move the communities, the state, and the nation forward. In order to be that kind of multi-dimensional learners and participants in democracy, the best way for them to do that is live at our campus. We bring our students, our community, and our faculty to this place so they learn to interact and collaborate, and we haven’t figured out how to do that online.”
While Fram Virjee spends an increasing amount of time with his work in Fullerton, he still is part of the community on the Peninsula.
“All three of our sons went to PV schools, just like I did. My social net is there, and the people who shaped me and support me are there. Of course my parents shaped me, but they decided that that’s where I would grow up. The Palos Verdes Peninsula is our family, and anything I do, anywhere I go, I do on behalf of, in the name of, and with the imprint of my community. I love Fullerton, but I want people to know about the support PV provided to me and to generations going forward.”
To learn more about Yambi Rwanda, visit YambiRwanda.org. They host occasional sales of art created by students at their school. See their Facebook page for upcoming shows.
by Richard Foss