Remarks by Dr. Joseph I. Castro - February 18, 2021

Remarks by Dr. Joseph I. Castro
Chancellor, The California State University
ACCCA 2021 Summit
Remarks (as prepared)
Via Zoom
February 18, 2021


Thank you so much for your kind introduction, Susan, and for your decades of outstanding leadership of the ACCCA, which so ably serves and develops the current and future leaders of California's community colleges.

And good morning to everyone in attendance – it's great to be with you today!

Since I am relatively new to my role as the eighth chancellor of the California State University – and probably to most of you – I thought I might begin by sharing just a few words about my background.

As Susan mentioned, I am the first person of color and first native Californian to serve as chancellor – it's an honor that is simultaneously a source of great pride, and extraordinarily humbling.

My great grandfather came to the United States from Mexico almost a century ago to help build California's railroad. He and his family lived in tents as they traveled up and down the state. My grandfather remembered that experience vividly and frequently told me stories of those times when I was a boy.

My family eventually settled in a small, agricultural town called Hanford, in the San Joaquin Valley. I was raised by my grandparents, who were farmworkers, and my single mother, who was a beautician. They worked hard, dreaming of a bright future for their son and grandson. Certainly, they had the intelligence and drive to succeed in college, but they never had the opportunity.

But thanks to their hard work and resolve, I did.

I attended the University of California, Berkeley thanks to a program that provided educational opportunities to students from the valley, and from modest financial means. It was at UC Berkeley – as I began to see my own life transformed through my college experience – that I discovered my passion for educational leadership.

And throughout my career – and especially the last seven years during which I've had the honor of serving as president of Fresno State – I've seen higher education transform the lives of so many talented and diverse students. Students who grew up in circumstances similar to my own.

This is why I am so humbled and inspired to now serve as the CSU's chancellor, with the opportunity to continue to positively impact lives at a scale that the CSU alone can provide as the nation's largest and most ethnically and economically diverse four-year university. I consider it my life's highest professional honor and responsibility.

I tell you my story by way of introduction, but also because I suspect that it might be your story, as well. Sure, the facts and the circumstances may be very different. But I bet our stories are similar: folks who've experienced the uniquely transformative power of higher education in our own lives – and who have made it our lives' work to provide that same opportunity to future generations of leaders who will make our communities, state and nation stronger for decades to come.

So, again, it is great to be here among so many like-minded educational leaders. And I love the theme of this year's summit – moving from “surviving to thriving" through the pandemic – because California needs its public higher education institutions to thrive if we are to drive the state's recovery and sustained economic vitality – and bring about the societal and cultural healing our communities and state so desperately need.

While we are by no means out of the woods yet, I am pleased to say that the CSU is indeed thriving. Last year, we celebrated the largest graduating class in Cal State history, awarding nearly 110,000 bachelor's degrees and almost 129,000 total degrees. Our current enrollment of almost 486,000 students is also an all-time high. Graduation and retention rates have never been stronger for students from all backgrounds, and we continue to narrow equity gaps for historically underserved, first-generation and low-income students.

I want to share a few of the values, principles and strategies that helped us get to this point. And I do so not to pat ourselves on the back – too much work lies before us to take a victory lap now – but rather in the sincere hope that you might find something helpful that you can take back to your campuses as we all continue to address the extraordinary challenges that remain before us.

The first principle I will highlight is bold decision-making, guided by core values. At the onset of the pandemic, the CSU identified two guiding principles – twin North Stars that would inform our response: ensuring the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, and maintaining progress to degree for the greatest number of students possible.

Now I don't mean to oversimplify the challenges that we've all faced through the pandemic – they have been complex, multi-faceted and difficult. But we've found that by constantly reflecting on simple, guiding principles, so often the noise around a seemingly daunting issue begins to quiet and its essence – and the correct path forward – becomes clear. Unfortunately, it's not always the easy path forward, but knowing that your approach is consistent with your organization's identified values and your personal ethics, you can move forward boldly, with confidence, calm and clarity.

It was because of this faith in and reliance on our twin North Stars that my predecessor, Chancellor Emeritus Tim White, had the confidence to be the first university leader in the country to announce that the CSU would remain virtual for fall 2020. While controversial at the time, the decision proved to be the correct one, and our early announcement gave our students and their families the time they needed to plan appropriately, and it gave our faculty and staff time to develop robust virtual learning and support systems – systems that we will rely on long after the pandemic subsides.

Second, our campus and system teams displayed courageous flexibility – adapting policies and practices to meet the demands of the day. And I don't think “courageous" is a misnomer – it takes courage, for example, for a veteran faculty member to adapt to virtual learning after decades in a classroom. But adapt they did. Within a one-month time period, our faculty transitioned 70,000 ongoing courses to virtual modalities. And they stepped up to engage in more than a quarter million hours of professional development to ensure a rich teaching and learning experience. While some, I'm sure, were initially resistant to this massive, but necessary transition, most ultimately found it to be rewarding. I was moved to hear of one veteran professor from CSU Bakersfield who shared with the Chancellor's Office not long ago – “This was the summer when I fell in love with teaching again."

Similarly bold adaptation occurred across every campus and operational division. Longstanding admission and grading policies were adjusted, holistic student support services were moved to virtual modalities, and – on a systemwide level – our campuses were provided flexibility in developing policies related to limited in-person activities, housing and student services. This flexibility allowed for variance across our 23 campuses based on local circumstances including educational mission, residential student population, campus size and layout, and local public health guidelines.

Third, we operated as one university across 23 campuses, which is when the CSU is at its best. Our teams shared data and best practices for everything from virtual learning and support strategies to telehealth solutions to sanitation services. On individual campuses, silos fell away, with operational areas – and campus constituencies – coming together to meet our students' needs.

Dining services developed safe meal-distribution methods – even hand-delivering meals to quarantined students in many cases;

Food pantries quickly converted to contactless distribution, and safe housing options were made available to housing-insecure students;

Child development centers stayed open with safety modifications, keeping kids cared for and engaged so their parents could study and work;

Rec centers implemented safety measures and quickly developed online wellness programs to support our students' physical and mental health;

Our philanthropic organizations raised funds to supplement federal aid so that all students – including Dreamers and international students – could receive much-needed financial relief, and to help those students impacted by the “digital divide" receive the equipment and technology necessary to maintain their academic progress in a virtual instruction environment.

This display of unity – unity of effort, of conviction, of purpose – continues to carry the day for us as we endure this global public health crisis – and it is something that I will draw inspiration from for the rest of my career.

Finally, it gives me pride to say that, despite the formidable challenges the pandemic has presented and continues to present – challenges that demand so much of our time and energy – our campuses and 53,000 faculty and staff have never forgotten that they are part of – and serve – a larger community, and they've worked hard to support our state's pandemic response.

In the early days of the pandemic, San Diego State faculty and students quickly developed a working prototype of a low-cost ventilator that could be assembled from off-the-shelf parts.

CSUN geology professors developed mapping software that tracks the spread of the virus neighborhood-by-neighborhood in LA County, and county-by-county across the nation.

CSU campuses across the state dedicated 3D printers to aid in PPE production.

Nursing students provided volunteer support to frontline healthcare workers across the state.

Our campuses in Fresno, East Bay, LA, San Luis Obispo and Sonoma served as county testing sites or provided facilities to isolate and care for patients.

Today, the emphasis has shifted to vaccine distribution – 10 of our campuses are currently serving as distribution sites – and another six are approved or will soon be approved to open in the coming days and weeks.

In addition, our Continuing and Professional Education Division has developed a Courses for Causes program that offers free online classes for first responders and health care workers, as well as working adults and other community members impacted by the pandemic. The courses are designed to help adult students gain advanced certifications or obtain new skills and explore new career options to weather the economic downturn – and to help meet California's changing workforce needs.

In the fall alone, more than 6,200 adult learners enrolled in the program, with over 1,300 courses completed and 208 certificates awarded.  

And one life saved.

Last month, Fresno paramedic Travis McSherry, came to the aid of a Spanish speaker who had fallen in the night and injured his head. McSherry – who doesn't speak Spanish but who had recently enrolled in a Functional Spanish for First Responders class at Fresno State as part of this program – had learned just enough Spanish to understand that the man had fallen because of dizziness after chest pains. So McSherry knew to put the patient on a heart monitor and start an IV and he was able to direct him to emergency cardiac care upon arriving at the hospital – rather than just focusing on his head injury. A great story.

Bold decision-making, guided by core values. Courageous flexibility. Working as one across campus boundaries or operational units. And remembering that we are a part of a larger community. These are the foundational principles that have helped the CSU thrive through the pandemic. I offer them to you in a spirit of humility, knowing that we certainly don't have all the answers, but in hopes that something you've heard this morning might resonate with you – and perhaps trigger a helpful conversation on your campus as we all continue to work through the pandemic toward a bright future.

And we will get to that bright future by building on the longstanding, productive and close partnership between the CSU and California's community colleges.

Earlier, I mentioned that the CSU's enrollment is at an all-time high – nearly 486,000 students. You should know that almost half of those are transfer students, with the overwhelming majority coming from California community colleges.

And despite the challenges your campuses are currently facing, this fall the CSU saw a significant uptick in transfers – up by almost 4,200 students over fall 2019. This increased enrollment came from community colleges all over the state, from Mt. SAC and Pierce here in LA County to Moorpark, Fresno City, Las Positas, Modesto, Fullerton and De Anza, among many, many others. It's been a remarkable statewide effort and I want you to know that the CSU deeply appreciates – and benefits greatly from – your resilience and your skilled and dedicated work to educate, encourage and set your students on the path to a four-year degree.

The Associate Degree for Transfer Program continues to flourish, in particular. In fall 2012, the first year we enrolled ADT students, the CSU had 402 students on this guaranteed pathway. This past fall, we enrolled more than 17,500.

Success measures for these students have been strong, as well. More than 55 percent of students transferring into the CSU with an ADT graduate in two years, and almost 80 percent graduate by year three. And I'm pleased to note that, on several of our campuses, we have entirely eliminated equity gaps in graduation rates for transfer students who are Pell eligible or who are students of color. These are remarkable outcomes – and a shared success story. Together, we will look to strengthen and expand these guaranteed pathways from our community colleges to the CSU. I know this is of interest to our friends in Sacramento, as well.

Dual enrollment programs also show remarkable promise, and are producing impressive results in regions across the state. I look forward to working with Chancellor Oakley and others to explore ways we might scale these powerful programs – saving students and their families time and money – and dramatically shortening time to degree and time to career.

I can also share that Chancellor Oakley, President Drake and I are exploring ways to support CSU graduates – so many of whom started their academic journeys in our community colleges – to enter UC doctoral programs, and to inspire them to return to the CSU or the community colleges to teach, strengthening and diversifying our faculties.

So our partnership and collaborative efforts will only increase in the years to come – and I welcome that with great enthusiasm. I also welcome your ideas and I ask that you please never hesitate to reach out to me with strategies for collaboration that will benefit California's talented and diverse students.

In closing, I want to thank you again for your resilience and resolve through this historically difficult time for our nation. We continue to endure tragic instances of racial injustice. We remain deeply and bitterly divided along political lines. America's most sacred democratic institutions have been threatened – first through reckless language and rhetoric and then – almost unimaginably – through literal, physical violent attack. And, still, the pandemic rages – one that has wrought global suffering on a massive and heartbreaking scale – and one that has disrupted our lives, brought about great economic uncertainty and disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable among us – those whom you so capably serve.

These are daunting times. Exhausting. Perhaps dispiriting.

But I remain optimistic, with a whole-hearted belief that we are nearing an inflection point – one that will mark a turn toward healing, reconciliation and recovery. Our two educational systems are among the nation's largest, most diverse and most consequential. We are America's drivers of socioeconomic ascent. So we don't have to hope for an inflection point, we can be the inflection point. Never has the transformative power of higher education been more clear and more necessary. It's a power to elevate lives and communities – a power to bring about sustained prosperity – and a power to spur social and cultural healing.

What a responsibility. What an opportunity. What a privilege.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you this morning, and thank you for all that you do for your students, your communities and our great state.

I believe we have time for a few questions. Susan, I'll turn it back over to you for the Q&A.