State of the California State University 2021 - Chancellor Joseph I. Castro

CSU Board of Trustees Meeting
State of the California State University 2021 (as delivered)
Long Beach, CA
September 14, 2021


Thank you, Chair Kimbell, and good morning to every member of the extended California State University family watching today.

This morning, it is my great honor and privilege to report to you on the state of the CSU – continuing a tradition started by my predecessor, Chancellor Emeritus Tim White, in 2014. Chancellor Emeritus White gave the last State of the CSU address on January 28, 2020. In an emotional and inspired speech, he spoke of a university on a steady ascent as he reflected on his distinguished seven-year tenure. He never expected that tenure to stretch to eight years, as it did when he so selflessly delayed his retirement, extending his service to guide the CSU through the first 10 months of the pandemic.

On that day – January 28, 2020 – the headlines were dominated by stories of then-President Trump’s first impeachment trial. And the state and nation were still reeling at the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others just two days before.

There was another news story that had been rising in prominence since the middle of that month. A “sars-like novel coronavirus” had killed more than 100 people – and there was evidence that it had spread to 17 countries. There were five known cases in the United States. The now-former CDC Director gave a news briefing at about the same time Chancellor White was speaking. The Director reassured the nation that there was no evidence of community spread in the U.S., but cautioned that the coming weeks were likely to bring new cases, including – and I quote – the “possibility of person-to-person transmission.”

Indeed, we, and the entire nation, were standing – unaware – at at the edge of a precipice. In the matter of a few short weeks, our world would be turned upside down – that “sars-like novel coronavirus” has since exploded into the most devastating pandemic in more than a century, one that’s wrought global suffering on a massive and heartbreaking scale. To put it in chilling perspective, infections totaled 4,600 that January day in 2020, and 131 individuals had been killed by COVID-19. Today, there have been more than 224 million confirmed cases – and more than 4.6 million people have lost their lives worldwide. This public health crisis has disrupted our lives in previously unimaginable ways. It’s brought about great economic uncertainty. And it, like so many hardships, has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable among us.

Compounding this tragedy over the past year and a half have been horrific acts of injustice, violence and hatred. Our nation continues to be deeply and bitterly divided. Many of our most sacred and presumed stable democratic institutions have been figuratively and, unthinkably, literally attacked – and some remain under threat to this day.

But the CSU continues to thrive – thanks to the courage, resilience and resolve of our talented and diverse students; the ingenuity and adaptability of our faculty and staff; the support and partnership of our elected officials in Sacramento and Washington D.C.; and our collective belief in and focus on our mission and core values.

And today – thanks in large part to the availability of multiple safe and effective vaccines – we are emerging from the pandemic. Because of a variety of factors, including vaccine hesitancy and the concurrent emergence of the Delta variant, our return to relative normalcy has been and will continue to be in fits and starts. But that return is inevitable, and it is cause for great relief and great joy.

So we find ourselves at a unique moment in time, slowly emerging from one of the darkest moments in our nation’s recent history; certainly one of the most challenging times in the CSU’s history. The pandemic may not be through with us quite yet – and we can’t let down our guard – but we can begin to fix our eyes on the future.

What does that future look like? At our January meeting, in my first Board Report, I spoke with optimism that the CSU – as the nation’s largest, most diverse and most consequential university – can serve as an inflection point: one that will lead a turn toward science, healing, reconciliation, recovery and prosperity. I continue to wholeheartedly believe that today. And I also believe that – as painful, as tragic and as difficult as they’ve been – the past 18 months have illuminated the path forward. My message today? Let’s listen to – let’s honor the voices of the pandemic. To ignore them is to compound the tragedy. So let’s be inspired by them – let’s heed their lessons as we reimagine an even more vital California State University.

What are those lessons?

First, I believe that the past 18 months have reminded us to be flexible and bold. What better example than our massive pivot to online instruction in the early days of the pandemic? In a span of approximately two weeks, we transitioned 80,000 courses to virtual modalities, and, as a result, transitioned from a university in which online instruction had been a relatively small percentage of our academic programming to the nation’s largest online institution!

And our students excelled; success measures for students from all backgrounds continued at record highs. Our latest data indicate that almost 133,000 students earned degrees in 2020-21 – an all-time high. And, as reflected in the recently released rankings from Washington Monthly – the CSU continues to be the nation’s most powerful driver of socioeconomic mobility, with a combination of academic excellence and affordability that makes a Cal State degree one of the great values in higher education.

Of course, when I say “flexible and bold,” I am not suggesting that we be reckless. We will always use data and sound judgment to inform our decision-making. But let’s put everything on the table and be innovative in meeting our students’ and our state’s needs.

For instance, this summer, our Flexible Course Experience Institute engaged faculty and staff from across the CSU to explore ways to offer courses in three modes simultaneously (face-to-face, virtual synchronous and virtual asynchronous), with students able to choose the modality that best suits their needs and preferred learning style.  

Recognizing that learning happens in many different settings, Professional and Continuing Education teams from across the university are redoubling efforts to award credit for prior learning – bringing greater access and the lifelong benefits of a Cal State education to veterans, adult learners and other non-traditional students. In fact, you’ll be hearing more about these efforts a bit later on in this meeting.

And, of course, Humboldt is poised to become Northern California’s polytechnic institution – providing access to high-demand academic programs in the STEM fields, while helping the state and, more specifically, the North Coast meet growing workforce needs.

Bold, indeed.

Second, I believe we are called to be even more technology focused. That means continuing to refine and expand the great wealth of virtual instruction and support strategies that have proven so effective during the pandemic, and using them to enrich the student learning and discovery experience moving forward.

Our campuses have been remarkably innovative in this regard. For example, Pomona, San Marcos, East Bay, Northridge, Channel Islands, Sonoma, Dominguez Hills and Humboldt have been national leaders in the use of chatbots to advance equity – making strategic and timely interventions to help students, especially students of color and first-generation and low-income students, stay in school and on track, as well as providing unexpected sources of connection and support during times of isolation and loneliness.

Virtual advisement has been extraordinarily successful, with appointment attendance nearing 100 percent at many campuses. It’s been especially helpful for students with jobs and families to juggle, who can meet with their advisors wherever the student may be – another great example of the CSU meeting our students where they are.

Academic, cultural or social events now have even greater reach and impact. As a timely example, Trustee Wenda Fong has worked with student, faculty and staff leaders at Sac State to hold an event this Friday to make APIDA students aware of emerging opportunities in the news, media, entertainment and performing arts fields. Traditionally, this event would have been available only to those on and around the Sac State campus. Presented virtually, the event will now be available to all 23 campuses, as well as other colleges, universities and high schools from every corner of our state and from coast to coast. In fact, its reach will extend to Southeast Asia, with registrants from India and Bangladesh.   

Of course, the increased integration of technology can also exacerbate inequities if steps aren’t taken to bridge the digital divide. Currently rolling out at eight campuses, the first phase of the See Success initiative is making available, free of charge, a new iPad Air, Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio to every incoming first year and transfer student – and it’s proving to be extremely well-received by students. Demand is high and we will distribute new, high-quality, reliable mobile computing equipment to up to 35,000 students. I am confident that it will be a game-changer in terms of student success. And I look forward to future phases and the day – coming soon – when technology will be an essential and invaluable tool – and not a barrier – for every CSU student.

The voices of the pandemic implore us to be an even more compassionate university. This has been powerfully brought home to me during my tour of our 23 campuses. I’ve visited eight so far, including my first in-person visit at the Long Beach campus two weeks ago, and I have recounted highlights during my Board Reports. One highlight bears repeating. During each visit, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with students. Every time, I am reminded of just how much our students have gone through as they’ve continued to work toward their degrees during extraordinarily challenging circumstances: the loss of family and friends, the loss of jobs, the loss of homes and occasionally, the loss of hope. And when we meet, I always make a point of asking them what I, as Chancellor, can do to better serve them. Their responses have been heart-wrenching in their simplicity: they want understanding, empathy – a little flexibility.

They want compassion.   

We will come through for those students and their peers because compassion is part of our DNA. Examples are everywhere. Like the Mental Health First Aid training program led by three CSU faculty members in partnership with Dr. Emily Magruder, CSU Director of Innovative Teaching and Future Faculty Development. Dr. Bonnie Gasior of Cal State Long Beach, Dr. Darci Strother of CSU San Marcos and Sailesh Maharjan of Cal State San Bernardino prepare faculty across the CSU to be certified mental health “first responders” – recognizing and appropriately caring for students in mental or emotional distress until they can be connected to professional help. So far, eight cohorts have been conducted and more than 175 faculty have been certified. Registration always fills within hours of opening – a credit to Drs. Gasior and Strother and Professor Maharjan, as well as to our caring and compassionate faculty.  

Other programs developed to address the exigencies of the past 18 months are wonderful and moving examples of our university’s heart, serving as inspiration for how we might care for our students and communities moving forward. You’ll find these stories in Humboldt, where the Inclusivity Project (part of the Northern California Small Business Development Center) aims to secure 100 million dollars for 1,000 Black-owned businesses. And they stretch to San Diego – 800 miles south – where nearly 3,000 San Diego State students, faculty and staff have pledged to take action to contribute to lasting change in support of the campus’s Black and APIDA communities, receiving resources to help them to be an ally and active supporter of these students.

At Fullerton, the Gender Affirming Closet provides a safe space for transgender and gender non-conforming students to find clothing – free of charge and free of fear.

Cal State LA – like so many of our campuses – has been innovative throughout the pandemic in caring for food-insecure students, launching a free curbside food pickup service as part of its Food Pantry Program. The campus has collaborated with community partners to distribute meals to thousands of families in need in East, Southeast and South Los Angeles. Similarly, Fresno State’s Student Cupboard has long served as a national model in addressing student food insecurity, and a recent, transformational gift by the Amendola family will endow this vital work for the long term.

I also want to recognize the rapid-rehousing program, which has so effectively provided immediate housing options for students who’ve found themselves displaced during the pandemic. Students like Chico State’s Brian Ferncase. Brian, whose mother died when he was a teenager and whose father has struggled with addiction, was determined to make it on his own, living out of his van while pursuing his degree in psychology – politely declining case manager Emma Jewett’s offers of help. “I didn’t feel ready yet,” Brian says.

Then, one day, he was. Says Brian, “It was the middle of the coronavirus, summer and 110 degrees, and my van broke down. I was ready.” Brian called Jewett and was in a house the next day. Today, he lives in a studio apartment, working a job on the University Farm, one of 125 students for whom Chico State has found housing. Well done, Brian. Well done, Emma. Well done, Chico.

Finally, the voices of the pandemic cry out to us to be more inclusive and equitable – two of my highest priorities as your Chancellor.

It is extraordinarily important to me that our students see themselves in our campus communities and feel a sense of belonging – that they feel seen, heard and valued in their surroundings.

We’ve made steady progress in this regard. Today, 45 percent of CSU staff identify as a person of color as compared to roughly one-third a decade ago. For instructional faculty, the percentage is 35 percent. And significantly, nearly half – 47 percent – of our most recent tenure-track cohort identify as persons of color.

Of course, we must do more. We must continue to employ creative strategies to ensure that our diverse students are reflected by and connected with faculty and staff who authentically understand their lived experiences, because they’ve walked a similar path and are uniquely able to inspire the very best in our talented students.

Regarding equity, many of you may know that one of my first acts as Chancellor was to form an advisory committee to develop recommendations for strategic and tailored solutions to completely eliminate equity gaps that exist in graduation rates between students of color, first-generation students and low-income students and their peers. Those recommendations were presented at our last meeting, and today you’ll hear more details. I believe they show great promise.

We’ve already begun work to implement those recommendations, with solutions and interventions precisely tailored so that their benefit reaches those who need it the most. This effort will require a renewed commitment to transparency and accountability – frank and honest discussions about what’s working and where we are falling short, with earnest collaboration and data-sharing between and among campuses so we can all benefit from those who are succeeding.

The recently announced Global Hispanic Serving Institution Equity Innovation Hub – located on CSUN’s campus – will help us advance equity in STEM education, not just across the CSU, but on a national scale. The Hub’s work will transform HSI’s approach to STEM education – increasing student success and inspiring and equipping Latinx and other diverse students with skills and pathways for successful careers in these high-demand fields. Established with the visionary support and partnership of the state of California and Apple, it will also serve as a shining beacon of how the private sector can join the CSU to support our state’s and nation’s future leaders.

There are stirring examples of successful strategies that are advancing equity on every one of our 23 campuses – myriad innovations in teaching and learning, advisement and analytics. But I am not going to focus on those this morning. Every initiative, every innovation is important. Essential. Mission critical.

But this morning, I ask that we reflect upon a reality that we all understand, but sometimes need to be reminded of: Initiatives to advance equity are truly meaningful not because of any success metric. They are meaningful in the lives they touch. In potential realized. Every one of these stories is a success story.

This morning, I’ve invited a special guest to share his story with you. It’s my honor to welcome to the podium Cal Poly Pomona alumnus Luis Dominguez. Luis?

[Luis’ Remarks]

Luis, thank you. Let me say what you have undoubtedly heard many times before: You are an inspiration.

“Genius is everywhere.” Before I close my remarks, I want those words to hang in the air for just a few seconds more: genius… is… everywhere.

Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the CSU is strong. It is resilient. It is resolute. The state of the CSU is poised – poised to honor the voices of the pandemic. To be even more courageous and bold. More technology-focused. To show even greater compassion. And to answer the call to be an even more accessible, inclusive and equitable institution so that genius can thrive – whether in spectacular fashion like a career in aerospace or in careers every bit as vital: as teachers, caregivers, business leaders, engineers or public servants, as we transform the lives of our current and future students. And – as a global model for post-pandemic higher education – we lead our state and nation to their brightest future.

Thank you.