Remarks by Dr. Joseph I. Castro - February 5, 2021

Remarks by Dr. Joseph I. Castro
Chancellor, The California State University
Joint CSU Academic Affairs Council – Student Affairs Council Meeting
Remarks (as prepared)
Via Zoom
February 5, 2021

Good morning! Thank you for inviting me to spend time with you today. It’s a privilege to meet with the team that is doing so much of the heavy lifting as we guide our campuses through this pandemic.

I’d like to start by joining in congratulating Dr. Blanchard on his appointment as president of the University of Houston-Downtown. I’m so glad that he received a fitting tribute during last week’s board meeting, and I’m certain there are more to come. As I noted last week, Loren is leaving the CSU with student success at all-time highs by virtually every measure. He has led with a compassionate heart, a devotion to equity and an unwavering belief in the power of education to transform lives… and with unrelenting courage to advance policies he knew were right for our students, even in the face of the strongest headwinds. And for that, all of us owe you a debt of gratitude, Loren. Thank you.

And the headwinds continue for all of us! We have not only been confronted by a capricious and destructive virus that has upended campus life – all life – as we knew it, but also by continued racial injustice, deepening social divisions, threats to our democracy and staunch, strident opinions coming from every direction. Fortunately, we’ve escaped being included in any of the QAnon conspiracy theories – at least for now.

It’s been rough. And I deeply appreciate the great courage, stamina and composure that all of you continue to muster and maintain on behalf of our students and our university – each and every day.

And along with my sincere gratitude for your exceptional leadership, this morning I’d like to offer a credo that I hope will provide reassurance as we move forward.

The CSU will always – always – be guided in our actions – and drive progress – based on data, facts and truth.

As you know, Chancellor-emeritus White and I jointly announced on December 9 that the CSU is planning for a return to delivering the majority of classes in-person for the fall 2021 term. This is a major topic on our agenda today, and I’d like to frame our discussion.

As you also know, we made this announcement to give our applicants, students and families time to plan – and to give our faculty and staff ample time to incorporate the best practices we’ve learned for providing the richest possible educational experience through this pandemic.

But the fact is, new considerations have emerged since then. All of us here today know what we don’t know. Along with top medical and public health experts across our nation, we simply don’t know the course this virus will take. We are only beginning to understand the implications and impacts of virus variants. We don’t yet have clear details on vaccine supply and exactly how and when it will be distributed, and we don’t have a firm grasp of the herd immunity that will be required for a full return to “normal.”

This is enough to fill any one of us with angst. But in this season of uncertainty – as so many are looking to us for answers – we must continue to make our decisions and adjust our plans based on what we do know: the science, the data, truth.

And here is our truth.

We will continue to be guided by twin north stars: the health and safety of our campus communities and maintaining academic progress for our students.

Another truth: our intent is to return to in-person instruction and activities as soon as safely possible. We stand by our December announcement, but will adjust should the science require it.

I fully understand what this means for you and your campus teams, and how taxing this situation can be. This will certainly take some amount of parallel planning – making back-up plans for back-up plans. I’ve been there – I am there. But the truth is it’s in our best interest to prepare now for any eventuality and to direct attention and resources to those things we can control – to fine tune professional development, to augment student support, to upgrade technology and evaluate our policies and processes to ensure flexibility. We don’t want anyone – our teams, students, faculty or staff – grappling with challenges at the last hour that we could have reasonably foreseen. And you can be assured that you will continue to have my full support, and the full support of the Chancellor’s Office team – as well as of your peers who are with you today.

Collectively, we will continue to base our decisions on the data and guidance provided by our local, state and federal public health officials – including California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, with which I’m sure you are intimately familiar. I trust that you have all seen the comprehensive dashboard our Chancellor’s Office team has created to graphically display the current tier for each county, based on case and positivity data.

Today, all but four counties are in the state’s purple tier, indicating widespread infection. But there are signs of progress. Last week the Biden Administration committed to purchasing an additional 200 million doses of the vaccine, which may provide enough to inoculate nearly every American by the end of summer. President Biden also put into play the Defense Production Act to speed nationwide delivery of the vaccine and required equipment. And Governor Newsom has enlisted Blue Shield to coordinate statewide delivery.

In anticipation of this progress, our Chancellor’s Office team has provided campuses with a checklist of items and guidance you should consider to become a vaccination site. Our emergency response team has also provided to campuses detailed COVID-19 exposure mitigation and notification guidelines and templates that you can use when in-person activities resume. And I hope that you will continue to share your feedback and questions as we update these guidance documents.

And as we plan with optimism for the in-person return of students this fall, through data, we are also strategically measuring the impact that virtual instruction and support has had through the spring and fall 2020 semesters. This data will illuminate what worked well and the role virtual instruction and support can play as we plan for post-pandemic campus life.

In the short-term, I am privy to an informal survey of our provosts that showed that most of you are planning for a hybrid schedule this fall, bringing more students back onto campus while continuing social distancing. For the long-term, our experience over the past year has forced us to reimagine student learning, collaboration and support, how we should maximize campus spaces to support this synergy, whether large lecture halls and buildings full of traditional classrooms are relics of the past, how we can best use technology, how we can pilot and support HyFlex classrooms that allow students to toggle between face-to-face and online instruction, and how we can best empower faculty and staff with the tools, space and inspiration to embrace the digital world.

This will be an exciting and ongoing discussion. Again, grounded in facts and data.

And as we look toward the reimagined future of the CSU, I can share another important fact: we know we have full support for our mission at the highest of levels.

Our new administration in the White House has already shown its regard for diversity, equity and opportunity through education. This includes a First Lady who is a community college instructor herself, a vice president hailing from California, and the Second Gentleman, who is a proud alumnus of Cal State Northridge.

We have also received encouraging financial support from both the state and federal levels, as our Assistant Vice Chancellor for Budget Ryan Storm shared with our trustees last week and will be available for your questions later this afternoon.

At the federal level, Congress has passed a 900 billion dollar COVID-19 relief bill as a follow-up to last spring’s CARES Act. This includes 20 billion dollars for higher education, which will provide direct grants to our students and COVID-relief funds to our campuses.

As for the state, the governor’s budget proposes a 144.5 million dollar recurring increase to the CSU operating budget, as well as one-time funding of 225 million dollars.

This is extremely reassuring news for the entire CSU family, as we anticipate no need for a tuition increase, no need for furloughs and no layoffs of permanent CSU staff or faculty due to lack of operating funds.

This proposal closely aligns with the priorities of our 2021-2022 CSU budget request, which reflects the administration’s belief in our mission and confidence in our work – most essentially our Graduation Initiative 2025 efforts to close equity gaps and produce more graduates from all backgrounds to power California’s workforce.

And that brings me to my final truth: we know our role in our state’s and our nation’s recovery.

After the events of the year 2020, data very clearly show the inequities and divisions that exist in our society, as well as the great protection and stability higher education can provide – for our students, our communities, and our democracy.

As our governor has recognized through his continued investment in Graduation Initiative 2025, it remains the CSU’s greatest moral imperative to close equity gaps and to provide more students from all backgrounds the lifelong benefits of a high-quality college degree.

To that end, we have formed a new GI 2025 steering committee comprised of a diverse group of faculty, administrators and students from around the CSU. We have a few members with us today, including Mary Beth Walker, Hector Ochoa, Tonantzin Oseguera and Patrick Day. Thank you all in advance for your service.

The committee’s charge is to ensure we are doing everything we can as a system to not only sustain, but accelerate, our progress toward our aggressive goals. The committee will identify and recommend proven strategies from across our campuses to further improve retention and graduation rates and to close equity gaps. And they will ensure that data and reporting systems are in place to guide our efforts and provide accountability.

At the same time, our Academic and Student Affairs team has recently developed a predictive modeling tool that projects each campuses’ progress toward closing equity gaps for low-income students and students of color. You will receive those projections soon, along with three tailored strategies to assist in eliminating those gaps.

We will also continue to work beyond CSU boundaries to share data and truths with our legislative, community and intersegmental partners. Dr. Blanchard, President Judy Sakaki and former CSSA President Michael Wiafe recently served on the governor’s Higher Education Recovery with Equity Taskforce, a group devoted to optimizing the role of colleges and universities in our state’s pandemic reco​very. The group’s report, to be released next week, calls for a seamless system to address students’ basic needs, digital equity and financial aid, more high-tech, high-touch advising to guide high school students into and through their college journey, an equity-focused campus culture and a statewide system for admissions, transfer and articulation across segments. I am sure all of you will be deeply involved in carrying this work forward and showing our successes not only through data but through the lives we transform.

Facts. Science. Data. Truth. All have been tarnished in recent years, and it’s no coincidence that we’ve suffered a pandemic that is far more deadly than it should have been, injustice and hate fueled by ignorance and misinformation, deepening division sparked by mistrust and conspiracy theories, even violent insurrection.

Through our work and decision-making, in our campus announcements, through our daily teaching, counseling and advising, in our planning for fall 2021 – it’s imperative that we model and instill in our students and their families a respect for science, a reliance on data and a standard of truth.

So that one day, perhaps we can all agree that the sky is indeed blue.

I’m sure you have questions for me. Dr. Wrynn, would you please moderate?