The university's founding mission statement promises "excellence in undergraduate and graduate education to a diverse
citizenry in an increasingly interdependent world."The focus on diversity has emphasized Latino culture, including:
- the Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents, a fully bilingual center about Spanish-language
- a statue of César Chávez in Chávez Plaza, inscribed with the motto
of the United Farmworkers Union ("Sí se puede"); and
- an active chapter of the MEChA Chicano/Chicana student movement.
The original mascot of the campus was established as the "Tukwut," the name for the California mountain lion in the language of the Luiseńo Native American tribe. However, a 1999 student referendum selected the more generic "Cougars" as the name
for all CSUSM sports teams. Today the school fields men's and women's teams in golf, cross country and track.