CSU Communicators Forum
Chancellor Castro’s Address Keynote (as prepared)
Chancellor Joseph I. Castro
September 24, 2021
Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Patti, and for providing the opportunity to meet with all of you this morning.
During my seven years as president at Fresno State, I was fortunate to work with a stellar team of professionals focused on student success, including many of you here today. And when I was appointed as the California State University’s eighth chancellor, I couldn’t imagine serving in this capacity without the trusted counsel of my longtime advisor, Patti Waid. Fortunately, I was able to convince her to step into her current role as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications and Public Affairs. This speaks not only to my regard for Patti’s considerable skills and leadership qualities, but also to the premium I place on strong communication, and, by extension, all of you.
So I am thrilled this morning to convey my deep appreciation for your work, from responding to media requests, to keeping our websites current and relevant, to informing our faculty and staff and engaging our diverse students, to building support among legislators, community partners, alumni, donors and the public at large. Your work is absolutely essential to the CSU mission.
I look forward to engaging in conversation with you later this morning, but first it’s important to greet the elephant in the room: the COVID-19 pandemic. Your work has never been more important, or more stressful, than over the past 18 months.
We are emerging in fits and starts from the most devastating global public health crisis in more than a century, one that required the CSU to become the largest university in the country to pivot to virtual instruction and support, and in a matter of days.
And as all of you public information veterans out there will attest, with any crisis comes the potential for a secondary crisis, the chaos that can arise when there’s a void of timely and reliable news and information, a chaos of rumors, confusion, fear, anger and misinformation.
On that front, you were, and are, our first responders and heroes. And I am exceedingly proud to say that, thanks to your quick and consistent delivery of current, accurate and trustworthy information, that secondary crisis never happened.
And that was no small feat.
Since COVID-19 first arrived in California, your efforts as communicators have been vital in maintaining the health and safety of our campus communities. Your consistent messaging has empowered our students to maintain steady progress toward their degrees. And you have kept our communications on point and on course despite a constantly changing landscape, one that not only harbored the virus, but also great suffering, economic uncertainty, racial and social injustice and political division.
Many of you immediately jumped into your campus crisis response teams, on top of your already heavy workloads, without your typical office setups, and despite family obligations you may have been facing at home.
With our university and campuses facing constant scrutiny, you’ve served every possible audience, internal and external, students, parents, peer institutions, public health agencies, community leaders and legislators, not to mention the media, hungry for regular updates.
Speaking for the Chancellor’s Office alone, our team has fielded nearly 1,300 media inquiries, an increase of 68 percent over the prior 18 months, since the pandemic began in March 2020.
In fact, when we announced that the fall 2020 term would remain largely virtual, we received 43 media inquiries over a two-day period alone, from the likes of CNN, Good Morning America, the Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News and NPR’s Morning Edition.
And the scrutiny continues to this day. Our announcement this summer that we would require COVID-19 vaccines, with limited exemptions for medical or religious grounds, attracted national coverage plus 28,000 page views and more than 200,000 social media engagements – 200,000! I’m thinking about adding “Instagram influencer” to my title.
And that was just a taste of what you were facing on your own campuses. Amid the scrutiny, you have helped us uphold facts and science above a sea of opinions, some loud, some angry and some misinformed. You’ve posted web updates on the fly, compiled frequently asked questions and updated them regularly, designed eye-catching graphics to draw attention to important updates and fielded countless emails to reassure an anxious public. Many of you found a new passion and upgraded your skills as video producers, serving campus leaders who in this digital landscape were now able to make much more frequent appearances.
And you’ve creatively harnessed the power of technology and social media to correct, direct and connect our campus communities. For example, Pomona, San Marcos, East Bay, Northridge, Channel Islands, Sonoma, Dominguez Hills and Humboldt have been national leaders in the use of chatbots to make strategic and timely interventions to help students, especially students of color and first-generation and low-income students, stay on track and feel connected during this time of isolation.
And I’ve never seen so many TikTok videos and clever tweets, from Long Beach and Bakersfield posting student testimonials urging peers to get vaccinated to the time-lapse video from San Marcos as they distributed iPads to students against the setting sun.
But despite our best efforts, as I know personally, it was impossible to please everybody. Ever hear the saying about shooting the messenger? Well, as someone with a large following on Twitter, I can empathize with the social media managers in the audience today.
But through it all, you have met this moment with strength, resilience and innovation, and you have continued to exemplify your central role as communicators at the CSU: to build understanding, trust and support for our mission. Always. Even in crisis.
The results speak for themselves.
Your steady communication enabled a quick and nearly seamless pivot to virtual instruction and support that involved nearly half a million students, 56,000 faculty and staff and our surrounding communities. Your collective messaging encouraged 17,000 faculty members, a remarkable 60% of our teaching force, to complete more than 250,000 hours of professional development, both to optimize their courses and to ensure student engagement and equity. Your communications have helped us promote campus clinics and distribute more than 1.3 million COVID-19 vaccinations to date, pushing California closer to herd immunity.
Your work was instrumental in helping us distribute more than 652 million dollars in emergency grants to our students, including Dreamers and international students. You’ve directed students to vital resources to help meet their basic needs, food, housing, mental health care, and enabled the distribution of more than 21,000 new laptops and more than 10,000 mobile WiFi hotspots to our students to help bridge the digital divide. This fall many of you are helping to equip first-year and transfer students with high-quality and reliable mobile computing equipment through phase one of our See Success initiative.
And thanks in no small part to your efforts, despite the pandemic, student success rates are at all-time highs by nearly every measure. In May, we honored the accomplishments of almost 133,000 graduates, an all-time high, and marked a new milestone of more than 4 million living alumni around the globe.
And thanks to your continued strong advocacy and the trust you’ve helped build in our mission and capability, the governor and legislature have fully funded our budget request for just the second time in 15 years.
Donors have likewise responded to your messaging, with history-making contributions to our campuses. My sincere thanks and congratulations go to all of you. And as good bosses always do, I’d like to reward your excellent work with an even greater challenge.
Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” As we emerge from the pandemic, I am calling upon our entire university – all of us – to capture lessons learned and to envision new ways to support student learning and success into the future. It will mean connecting with and engaging our students in ways we had never imagined, to ensure their well-being and academic progress. And it will mean thinking big, reimagining our operations to meet the changing demands of our students, workforce and society.
During my State of the CSU address to the Cal State community just 10 days ago, I detailed the themes that will drive our work ahead: Flexibility. Boldness. A focus on technology. Compassion. Inclusivity.
But perhaps most important, it’s time to put forth the power of our 23 campuses to tackle another lingering crisis. Inequity can be just as devastating as any virus or natural disaster.
We have all witnessed the disparate impact that this tumultuous year has had on our most vulnerable communities – our most vulnerable students. This inequity can no longer stand, not under our watch, and it deserves every ounce of the urgency, focus and innovation we’ve devoted to our pandemic response.
That’s why, as one of my first actions as the CSU’s chancellor, I formed the Graduation Initiative 2025 Advisory Committee, with the charge of recommending bold and creative ways to not only maintain but accelerate our progress toward closing equity gaps to ensure that every student, from any background, zip code or household income has the opportunity to achieve the security, prosperity and purpose that come with a CSU degree.
This will require a new level of accountability, creativity and synergy across our campuses. And today, I call on all of you as our campus communicators to join together and help lead the push.
Use an equity lens as you plan your content and strategies. Do the hard work to find out if your messages are carrying through to the students who need them most, and if they aren’t, be bold and try something new. Support transparency and shared responsibility by shining a spotlight on your campus equity-gap data and help teach faculty and staff how to find and use this goldmine on the Graduation Initiative 2025 website. Highlight faculty and staff who are making a difference for underserved students, with programs or services that can be scaled or replicated, all with the goal of helping students obtain their degrees in a timely manner. Help convince our campus communities that everyone has the power and responsibility to act and contribute.
And, of course, please help us promote this year’s Graduation Initiative 2025 Virtual Convening set for Friday, October 22. The event is designed to inspire and motivate our entire CSU community. Last year we had record turnout, and we’re pushing for even greater attendance this year.
And finally, I encourage you as bold leaders who represent the very best the California State University has to offer please continue to tell us what we should be doing. Tell us what you love about the CSU but, even more important, tell us what we could and should do better. Let us hear from the front lines.
And to that end, I’m looking forward right now to the opportunity to hear from all of you, and to answer your questions. Patti, would you please facilitate?