UC Berkeley Executive Leadership Academy Presented at Shiv Nadar University
Graduation Keynote (as prepared)Chancellor Joseph I. CastroNovember 19, 2021
Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Dr. Blumenthal. And congratulations to all of the graduates of the Executive Leadership Academy presented at Shiv Nadar University!
I am honored to be your graduation speaker!
It is fitting that the curricular home for this first international leadership academy is India, a country with a rich, historical tradition of research and knowledge creation in math, science, medicine, literature, languages, engineering, agriculture, architecture and much more. And the ELA's purposeful location at Shiv Nadar University coincides with the exciting implementation of India's National Education Policy 2020. I know discussions of the changing landscape of higher education in India and other South Asian countries have been an important part of your program this week. We are thrilled ELA is a resource for you – the bold leaders who will advance action plans to strengthen higher education for new generations of students.
As an ELA founding fellow, having participated in this program in 2011, its inaugural year, I know from personal experience that the skills and perspectives you've gained will serve you well. In fact, I consider my experience with the Executive Leadership Academy to be among the most valuable of my professional life. The faculty are thoroughly committed to – and live out on a daily basis – the core values and ideals our profession holds so dear, no matter where we are on the globe: inclusive academic excellence, student success, and equity of opportunity – ideals woven throughout your new National Education Policy.
To this day, I value many of my ELA faculty as mentors. Similarly, I 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'd like to share my personal and career journey – and a few lifelong lessons in leadership – by way of introduction, and in hopes that they might resonate with you in your own work. I firmly believe that every position – on every campus – is an opportunity to connect with mentors, to learn and to carry lessons forward to others.
My great grandfather came to the United States from Mexico almost a century ago to help build California's 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 the University of California, Berkeley as part of a program that 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 – California's state capital – after I completed my doctoral program at Stanford. I worked as an analyst for the University of California's Office of State Governmental Relations. Learning about education policies and politics at the highest levels was an ideal first job.
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. I knew Dr. Smolensky well enough to know that he has a wicked sense of humor, and I was sure that he was joking 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. 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 building a new campus, but with courage, resilience and relentless determination, she was undeterred in her mission to serve the people of California's San Joaquin Valley, who had been left behind by the University of California – until then there was no research university within one hundred miles of this area.
Thanks in large part to Dr. Tomlinson-Keasey's 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. 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 as campus president, 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 California State University – Chancellor Emeritus Tim White – was teaching me to think even more broadly beyond my own campus contributing to systemwide policies that would benefit students across California for generations to come ultimately preparing me for my current role.
That is my journey. And I think reflecting upon one's path 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 often becomes clear.
Indeed, our path forward – as educational leaders – often requires that we first look back.
The past 22 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. This global public health crisis of historic proportion has been compounded – in the U.S. and around the world – by economic upheaval, injustice, hate, violence, and deep division along racial, ethnic 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.
Embedded in the actionable items outlined in India's National Education Policy 2020 is education's promise as a great equalizer that allows for economic and social mobility, inclusion and prosperity. It comes with a powerful reminder to us that higher education can only deliver on that promise if one can access it and attain it. We know too well there are historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups who face barriers to success in higher education – barriers we must work hard to remove if these talented and diverse students are to achieve their personal and educational dreams. We must answer the call to be more compassionate institutions.
As part of my first year as the CSU's chancellor, I am touring 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 also taught us to be flexible and reminded us to be bold in supporting our students. As one powerful example, in March 2020 the CSU 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.
Let's also strive to be more inclusive. 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 the students we serve.
I also 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.
Of course, increased integration of technology can also exacerbate inequities if steps aren't taken to bridge the digital divide. This fall, we launched the initial phase of an initiative called See Success at eight CSU campuses, providing nearly 25,000 incoming first-year or transfer student with a new iPad Air, Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio, which is theirs to use for the entirety of their CSU undergraduate college experience. As we expand the program in the coming term, we are closely tracking data on equity, retention and graduation rates, but we are confident that the initiative will be a game-changer in terms of student success.
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 eliminate equity gaps in graduation rates between students of color, first-generation students and low-income students and their peers. The work before us requires 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.
Meeting our students where they are with empathy and compassion, a strategic focus on technology to enhance student success, boldly and courageously exploring innovative solutions and redoubling our commitment to inclusivity and educational equity. I believe these to be the calling of our time. 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 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, your commitment, and your heart have never been more critical or more necessary.
As academic leaders and educators, we must prepare students to graduate job-ready in the careers of their choosing but also equip them with the timeless, universal life skills of solid citizens who recognize that professionally and personally, they are called to be active champions of inclusive, tolerant, respectful and sustainable societies wherever they live and work.
Indeed, as I mentioned earlier at the onset of my remarks, our paths forward are often well-informed by the past. At ancient Indian universities—Nalanda, Vallabhi, and Vikramshila—thousands of students from India and around the world studied in vibrant learning environments. With teaching and multidisciplinary research that exceeded the highest standards, India's rich educational legacy provides a strong foundation for the opportunities that lie ahead.
And now, 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 you implement the National Education Policy. And I am happy to answer any questions you might have. Samantha, will you please facilitate our discussion?