Remarks by Dr. Jolene Koester - March 28, 2023

American Association of Blacks in Higher Education Conference, March 28, 2023
Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester
​Keynote Remarks (as prepared)

Thank you so much for that kind introduction, President Coley. And a special thank you to Dr. Smith, as well as Dr. Howard-Baptiste, and everyone who has so graciously welcomed me here today.

I want to start by acknowledging and thanking AABHE for its important efforts to strengthen the pipeline of Black faculty and staff in higher education, bringing issues pertinent to Black faculty and staff to the attention of the larger academic community and recognizing Black American achievements in the field. AABHE has been dynamic, attentive and vital to our institutions, and I thank you for your work.

I'll begin by sharing that I did a great deal of reflection upon receiving the invitation to speak with you today. Initially, I was almost hesitant to accept. I thought, “What could I offer this group of extraordinary leaders?"

As a white woman, I do not have the benefit of the lived experiences shared by many of you. And I would never presume to make grand pronouncements about “what we all should do" to all of the experts here today. I was humbled and honored to be presented with the opportunity to join you, but I wanted to make sure that anything I shared would have meaning and relevance.

But while reflecting on this question, I thought more about the achievements as well as the challenges of the California State University system and its 23 universities.

The CSU is proud to serve as the largest and most diverse public four-year university in the nation and one of our nation's greatest engines of socioeconomic mobility.

Our system has a long and demonstrated dedication to educational equity and inclusive excellence as core values. Over time, we have continued to set a path for ourselves as a university that is committed to improving outcomes for students of all backgrounds.

But there are many ways that we still fall short, and we know we can do better.

So while reflecting on our journey – and some of the bumps along the way – I realized that I do have something to offer this audience.

What I can share with you is our commitment to clear-eyed self-reflection, our flaws – yes, our flaws – as well as our resolve to move forward and continue to learn from and actively address those areas that need work. 

I share this with you in a spirit of humility and great respect. And I hope that by sharing the CSU's story, it will prove helpful to those of you who are at different points on this same journey.

To begin: I believe that higher education is a catalyst for much of the positive change in society. It has a role in addressing many of the societal challenges that present themselves on our campuses – sometimes on our campuses before anywhere else.

And it is with that catalytic spirit that many CSU campuses came to life in the 1960s. Our universities were the site of many of the influential student- and faculty-led protests of that era. Sacramento State invited Dr. Martin Luther King to speak at a time when few other universities across the country would do so. San Francisco State launched the country's first African American studies program.

Over time, the CSU has built and prioritized efforts to reach out and support our Black students. For example, our annual Super Sunday program takes university leaders to more than 100 predominantly Black and African American faith-based organizations across California to communicate that a college degree is accessible, affordable, achievable and transformational.

We also have a variety of efforts on our campuses to foster a sense of belonging and connection among our Black community members, including Black Student Union and Student Associations; cultural resource centers; Black faculty and staff associations; and graduation celebrations for Black students.

But have we done enough? At a time when our society is facing a reckoning on racial issues – the answer has increasingly been, has resoundingly been, “No."

On our campuses and in our communities, we continue to hear a chorus of Black voices imploring, “Listen to us. Listen to our stories. Listen to our needs."

And so – spurred on by student leaders – last year, the CSU held its first-ever systemwide Juneteenth Symposium in Los Angeles.

More than 600 enthusiastic participants packed the ballroom, with another 2,000 viewers tuning in online – all joined with a unity of purpose in ensuring the lasting success of our Black and African American students, current and future.

That symposium was a watershed moment for me.

It was an event that crystallized, for me, the CSU's institutional and societal imperative to take meaningful action and do better for our Black community.

I heard the call to action – and the sense of urgency.

That Juneteenth symposium has become an inflection point for our system in terms of defining our goals, moving forward with long-term meaningful change, and making a commitment to continuous improvement.

Following the symposium, we knew that we had to create an entirely new approach for supporting Cal State's Black community. The institutional and societal imperative was made clear.

I formed a Black Student Success Workgroup, with stakeholders from across the CSU. Through this workgroup we resolved to:

  • Identify and expand the policies that promote Black student success in the CSU - and revise the ones that don't.
  • Take a deep dive into the data to identify disparities in educational outcomes and the Black student experience.
  • Address the macro- and micro-aggressions, biases and assumptions that appear in academic settings.
  • And increase faculty and employee development for equity-minded pedagogy and support of Black students.

To accomplish all of this, we knew we first needed to take a hard look at ourselves – the good, the bad and the ugly. We needed to get real. Or as some people put it, “The CSU needed a reckoning."

That exercise included hosting “listening groups" with over 250 Black students, staff and faculty.

We listened, and we heard an earful.

Yes, we heard gratitude for many of the “shining stars" and unifying groups on our campuses. But we also heard – in clear, unvarnished language – where more work was needed.

Faculty and staff members talked about the need for more Black representation in leadership positions within the CSU, and the need to address structural racism and support Black faculty, staff and students.

We also heard about the additional – unspoken – demands placed upon Black faculty and staff that often go unacknowledged by our formal processes and the need to recognize and reward these efforts.

One faculty member told us, “Leadership doesn't understand the 'cultural tax' on Black faculty and how they spend significant time with students on top of all their other work."

Another faculty member talked about burnout and being stretched too thin. They said they were asked to sit on so many committees across campus because committees always needed a Black representative.

And one staff member told us, “We are feeling the pain of our students, the anti-Black feeling, feeling beat down, tired of fighting. And it's not getting any better."

Those words are difficult – painful – to hear, but it is vital for us to hear expressions so raw, so honest.   

The students in our listening groups expressed gratitude for programs that encourage Black student success, but many said there was an overall lack of support for Black students at our universities – both in terms of spaces for them to gather, and people to support them.

Many said there is a disconnect between the administration's statements and their actions. They know that campuses are promoting diversity but feel that the institution's policies and practices do not reflect the needs of Black students.

One student told us, “The campus claims it's diverse and supports all communities that have trauma – but what we see is a box checked and a form letter that goes out, but nothing past that."

And yet another student said that administrators, quote “are making decisions they think will benefit us, but they have never engaged with a Black person in making these decisions. It starts from the top" – unquote.

Again, these are hard words to hear, but we need to hear them.

When we look at six-year cohorts of Black students, we see the pipeline shrinking dramatically between the number of Black students accepted, and the number who graduate.

We have to ask, “Why is this happening?" and “What more can we do?"

Or – as we heard in one of our discussions – we need to shift the focus away from talking about students coming to us with deficits…to asking, “What are we doing to meet the needs of our Black students?"

We know that we have a moral imperative, not only to provide access for those students, but to see them through all the way to graduation and beyond…to a meaningful career or to graduate school.

So, we must take action based on what we've heard. But what will our actions look like?

From these initial listening sessions, the workgroup will craft recommendations that will create a framework for the CSU to develop what we intend to be a nationwide model in Black student outreach, recruitment, enrollment, persistence and success.

And we will ensure that each of our 23 universities implements every recommendation.

Of course, this is just a beginning. And I hope that the CSU can return to this group to report early results and learnings. But we know this work will take time, and it will take an earnest commitment to continuous improvement and to regular self-assessment – as individual universities and as a system. That is what the CSU has always done. That is what we will continue to do. We will guard against complacency. We will meet the imperative.

I want to leave you with a few final thoughts on leadership.

As we look at institutional change, we know that the mandate for action lies with us – university leaders.

But what does it take to be a leader who can manifest genuine change?

I believe that being an effective leader means staying true to your core beliefs, even in the face of headwinds. When initiating meaningful change on an institutional scale, you will inevitably face complications, criticisms and complaints. But true leadership is being intentional about taking the time to reflect on your core values and standing by decisions when you know it's the right thing to do.

We also need to recognize we are up against deeply ingrained long-term societal ills. No one set of actions is going to be perfect or a panacea.

But what we can do is commit to the process – the process of acting, assessing, revising and acting again – as an institutional core value.

That's one of the reasons we've made the Juneteenth Symposium a regular, biannual event, with the next one set for 2024 at Sacramento State. We've created a built-in checkpoint. And we've established a pathway to making sure that the commitment to continuous improvement is – and remains – ingrained.

I know that we all share a common and fundamental belief in the power and potential of higher education.

Our institutions have the awesome power to motivate, uplift and transform. And higher education is where societal change is sparked, fueled, nourished and strengthened so that it may spread throughout the larger community.

When I consider that power, I am humbled. And I am inspired.

I am serving as the CSU's chancellor in an interim role, and I am entering the last months of my tenure. But it is my goal to leave a “glidepath" for our next leader to follow.

I have pledged that we will appoint a new chancellor who is absolutely committed to moving forward on our work to better recognize and support our Black students, faculty and staff to create the vision, the pathway, and the outcomes that our future students and communities deserve.

I hope that these reflections will prove useful to you on your own journeys as educational leaders as together, we strive to make higher education's transformative power available to all.

Thank you.​