A hunger for knowledge

Date: Thursday, March 29, 2012, 8:45am PDT - Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2012, 2:14pm PDT

Some years ago, a series of books, albums, songs and comedy routines began with the phrase, “You don’t have to be Jewish …” What followed could be anything from “because when you’re in love, the whole world is Jewish” or an advertisement on the order of “to love our bagels.”

Touro University walks the talk, though. The Jewish-sponsored academic institution, which was founded 41 years ago and currently has about 19,000 students at various campuses, hired Marilyn Hopkins, a doctor of nursing science, to be provost and chief operating officer of its Vallejo campus in 2009. Hopkins, 63, who lives in Granite Bay, was raised as a Lutheran. And when she and her husband, Brian, a retired banker, attend church services, it’s at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Placer County. In short, she hasn’t converted.

She does, however, extol the virtues of kosher food. In fact, when she first started her job, “My goal was to jump right in and do great academic things. Instead, the first order of business was dealing with all of the complaints about the on-campus food. “I asked, ‘What’s wrong with it? Kosher food is great!’ But no, it was pretty bad.” So she and her staff found a chef who revamped the menu to not only make the orthodox Jewish fare tastier but also to satisfy the palates of her ethnically diverse student body.

Touro University offers only graduate programs, in healthcare and education. The Vallejo campus (located, more precisely, on Mare Island) has roughly 1,500 students and no dormitories. “One of the unfortunate outcomes of the economic downturn, but something that’s been a plus for our students, is that there’s affordable housing for rent and even to buy in the area,” Hopkins says. (The City of Vallejo, as you’ll recall, famously declared bankruptcy more than three years ago. “What’s not as well known,” says Hopkins, “is that the city worked its way out of bankruptcy last November.”)

Just before taking her job at Touro, Hopkins was the dean of California State University Sacramento'sCollege of Health and Human Services. She says that when he current contract with Touro expires later this year, “I’m sure I’ll renew it for another three years.” I ask her if living in Vallejo during the workweek and in Granite Bay on weekends takes its toll. “I do tend to spend more and more time at Touro,” she admits. “But Granite Bay is where our family home is and where I’m still registered to vote.” She grins almost mischievously. I’m not sure the mayor of Vallejo knows that.”

Hopkins says that working in an environment dedicated to Jewish principles isn’t that much of a stretch for her, even though she’s half-Scandinavian and half-Italian. “The university’s worldwide mission,” she says without glancing at a single note-card, “is that education should be the key to personal inquiry, social justice, and service to society. You’ll find that a lot of cultures and universities embrace that philosophy.”

But do they love our bagels?