Remarks by Dr. Joseph I. Castro - July 23, 2021

UC Berkeley Executive Leadership Academy
Graduation Keynote (as prepared)
Chancellor Joseph I. Castro
July 23, 2021

Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Dr. Blumenthal. And congratulations to all of the graduates of the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education Executive Leadership Academy! It's an honor to be your graduation speaker – and truly a great pleasure. I am among my people this afternoon!! There is little I enjoy more than spending time with folks who share my passion for educational leadership.

I am an ELA founding fellow, having participated in this program in 2011, its inaugural year. And I consider it one of the most valuable experiences of my professional life. Then and now, ELA's faculty bring such a breadth of practical knowledge and experience to the program – and perhaps more important, they are utterly committed to – and live out on a daily basis – the core values and ideals our profession holds so dear: inclusive academic excellence, student success and equity of opportunity. To this day, I value many of my ELA faculty as mentors. Similarly, I also stay in touch with many members of my ELA cohort. I continue to learn so much from their varied backgrounds and experiences; I hope – and trust – that it will be the same for you.  

I am happy to note that I have a number of friends and colleagues among the fellows here today. But for those who don't yet know me, I thought I would begin with a few words about my background.

I am the grandson of a Dreamer from Michoacán, Mexico, whose father – my great grandfather – had come to the United States almost a century ago to help build the Santa Fe Railroad. My grandparents were farmworkers. Together with my single mother, a beautician, they raised me. All of them certainly had the drive and intelligence to succeed in college but never the opportunity.

I was the first in my family to go to college, attending UC Berkeley as part of the Educational Opportunity Program, which recruited students from California's Central Valley and from modest financial means.

And it was at Berkeley as I began to see my own life transformed through my college experience that I first discovered my passion for educational leadership, a passion that has led me to a career that continues to surpass my wildest dreams.

That career started in Sacramento, where, after completing my doctoral program at Stanford, I worked as an analyst for the University of California's Office of State Governmental Relations. It was a challenging and rigorous position, but an ideal first job, learning about education policies and politics at the highest levels.

Then, I received a call from Gene Smolensky, who was dean of Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, where I had earned a master's degree and gotten to know Dr. Smolensky. I certainly knew him well enough to know that he has a wicked sense of humor and I was sure that he was pulling my leg when he asked me, at 26 years old, to join the school as his assistant dean. Well, it turns out he was serious. I gladly accepted the position, and I was soon able to learn how the legislation and principles I was exposed to in Sacramento informed policies and practices that supported our talented students, faculty and staff.

After four invaluable years with Dr. Smolensky at Berkeley, I was invited to be a part of the founding team at UC Merced. What an experience! My new boss was Dr. Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, the first woman ever to be a founding chancellor or president of an American university. From her, I got a first-hand lesson in what it means to lead boldly, in support of a worthy mission. We faced so many obstacles and challenges in starting that campus from scratch, but she was undeterred in her mission to serve the people of the San Joaquin Valley, who had been left behind by the University of California until then there was no research university between Davis and Los Angeles. Incredibly enough, Dr. Tomlinson-Keasey was fighting cancer at the time. I remember she would take Fridays off for chemo, but she was invariably back in her office on Monday, showing our team what it means to lead with courage, resilience and relentless determination. While she sadly passed away in 2009, thanks to her efforts as its greatest champion, UC Merced has filled a great need as the pride of the San Joaquin Valley since it opened in 2005.

Inspired by her spirit, I accepted my next job at UC Santa Barbara, which provided me with a master class in shared governance. As Executive Director of Academic Preparation and Equal Opportunity, I learned to work with one of the strongest and most effective academic senates I have ever been associated with, to move initiatives forward in support of our students.

From there, I moved to San Francisco, to serve as Vice Chancellor for Student Academic Affairs at UCSF. The commitment to excellence and the sheer intensity of that campus is something I have never seen before or since. I'll never forget meeting with faculty colleagues from our School of Medicine who had just emerged from performing surgery, absolutely pulsating with energy, focus and intensity. Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann was chancellor, and the great leadership lesson she taught me – and perhaps the most difficult – was the ability to, when necessary, put aside the needs and concerns of my particular division and lead for the greater good of the university. I carried this lesson forward to Fresno State where, this time, it was I who often had to challenge members of my cabinet to make sacrifices to support other divisions and advance the university's mission. And at the same time, my predecessor as chancellor at the CSU, Chancellor Emeritus Tim White, was teaching me to think even more broadly, contributing to systemwide policies that would benefit students across our great state for generations to come, ultimately preparing me for my current role.

I share my career journey and these lifelong lessons in leadership by way of introduction, and in hopes that they might resonate with you in your own work. Every position, every campus is an opportunity to connect with mentors, to learn and to carry lessons forward to others.

But perhaps most important, I share them with you because I think reflecting upon one's journey it is an extraordinarily valuable exercise, one that I often engage in when I face my most difficult or controversial leadership situations. Whenever possible, I avoid making those decisions in the moment. Instead, I spend time in reflection, thinking about my personal and professional journey, my personal ethics, my core values as a leader and, of course, my organization's mission. And when I do that, I find that the noise around an issue tends to quiet – and its essence, and the correct path forward, become clear. Unfortunately, it's often not the easy path forward. But knowing that your approach will advance the mission and is consistent with your leadership values and personal ethics, you can move forward, even on a difficult path, with a sense of calm, clarity and confidence.

Before we spend some time together in conversation, I want to talk a bit more about our path forward as educational leaders,

But that requires that we first look back.

The past 16 months have wrought such suffering, and I offer my heartfelt sympathy to any of you who have experienced sickness or loss among your families, friends or campus communities. And this global public health crisis of historic proportion has been compounded by economic upheaval, injustice, hate, violence, deep division along racial and political lines with negative impacts being borne disproportionately by our most vulnerable communities.

And yet, as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, I brim with hope, with optimism, buoyed by a whole-hearted belief that we are at an inflection point, one that will mark a turn toward healing, reconciliation and recovery. And as higher education leaders, we don't have to wait or hope for an inflection point. It is our great privilege and responsibility to be the inflection point.

The lessons of the past 16 months illuminate higher education's path forward.

I believe we are called to be more technology-focused for our students, most of whom are “digital natives." At the CSU, 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.

Of course, increased integration of technology can also exacerbate inequities if steps aren't taken to bridge the digital divide. So, this fall, we are launching the initial phase of an initiative called See Success at eight CSU campuses. Through See Success, every incoming first-year or transfer student at these campuses will have the opportunity to receive – completely free of charge – a new iPad Air, Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio, which will be theirs to use for the entirety of their CSU undergraduate college experience. With the potential to reach 35,000 students this fall, it will be the CSU's largest device-distribution program– and I have every confidence that it will prove not only to be well-received by our students, but a game-changer in terms of student success, especially for our most vulnerable students. We will be closely tracking the data on equity, retention and graduation rates.

We're also called to be more compassionate institutions, to do more to help our students meet their basic needs – to address food and housing insecurity and the growing need for emotional health services. As part of my first year as the CSU's chancellor, I am touring – initially, virtually – every one of our 23 campuses. And what has moved me the most has been my conversations with students, and the heartbreaking simplicity of what they ask of me as chancellor. They look me in the eye, and they ask for understanding, flexibility, empathy, compassion.

The pandemic has taught us to be flexible and reminded us to be bold in supporting our students. As one powerful example, the CSU has always offered online instruction, but prior to March 2020, it had been, relatively speaking, a very small part of our academic programming. Then, when the scope of the pandemic became apparent, we made the enormous pivot to virtual instruction and support, transitioning more than 80,000 classes to online delivery. Over a period of just two weeks the CSU became the nation's largest online university. And thanks to the efforts of our faculty and the adaptability and resolve of our students, our students have thrived, with record-high graduation and persistence rates for students from all backgrounds. I am not suggesting we be reckless. Let's let data and sound judgment inform our decision-making, but let's put everything on the table and be innovative in removing barriers to help students attain their degrees and fulfill their personal and professional dreams.

Let's also strive to be more inclusive. One of my overarching priorities at the CSU is diversifying our leadership, faculty and staff.  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 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.

A focus on inclusivity also means leaning in to shared governance on our campuses, ensuring that all constituencies have a seat at the table and that we authentically listen to and appropriately act on their input. 

Finally, and perhaps most important, this moment in time implores us to redouble our efforts to advance equity in all its dimensions. One of my first acts as chancellor was to form an advisory committee, a diverse group of stakeholders representing every CSU constituency to develop recommendations for strategic and tailored solutions to completely and permanently eliminate equity gaps that exist in graduation rates between students of color, first-generation students and low-income students and their peers. Just two weeks ago, the committee issued its recommendations and I believe they hold great promise. But even more than the recommendations themselves, I was impressed by the committee's emphasis on accountability. And I say “accountability" not in any punitive sense, but rather in a “responsibility" or “ownership" sense. The work before us is hard. It will require that every stakeholder, every student touchpoint, from faculty to advisors to administrators to campus presidents, and to me, as chancellor – take daily, mindful, personal responsibility for proactively seeking out and removing barriers to success for our most vulnerable students.

A strategic focus on technology to enhance student success, meeting our students where they are with empathy and compassion, boldly and courageously exploring innovative solutions and redoubling our commitment to inclusivity and educational equity. I believe these are the calling of our time. And we will answer that calling together. What a responsibility! What an opportunity! What a privilege!

Graduates, I again offer my congratulations. And beyond congratulations, I offer my heartfelt admiration and appreciation for your intellectual curiosity and for your willingness and courage to go beyond your comfort zone in pursuit of new perspectives, fresh ideas and sharpened skills. Your leadership and intellect, your creativity, commitment and your heart have never been more critical or more necessary.

With that, I look forward to spending some time in conversation. I would love to hear about some of the highlights of the program, or some of the ways your campuses are reimagining academic programming, student-support services or operations as we all continue to grapple with the pandemic's challenges and move toward a post-pandemic university. And I am happy to answer any questions you might have. Samantha, will you please facilitate our discussion?