"State of the CSU" Address

Remarks by Dr. Timothy P. White
Chancellor, California State University
State of the California State University
Long Beach, California
February 1, 2017​ 


​​​Thank you Trustee Eisen. I too am proud to see that California is making principled stands… and am proud to see our state's people and our campuses energized and engaged.

Today I seek to share my reflections on the State of the California State University.

So, not losing sight of any of the important issues surrounding and affecting us, I want to focus on – and magnify – our societal role as a university.

I will apply three lenses to the thoughts I wish you to consider and discuss among your colleagues:

  • First, a focus on the forces that pull us apart and draw us together
  • Second, a focus on two stories that exemplify the 3 million plus lives that are a part of our CSU community
  • Third, and finally, a focus on some eloquent words of encouragement I recently read… words that will help all of us in these times.

There will also be some talk of science and boating… because, for better or for worse, I am who I am.

Our time does feel unusual, somehow strange… and indeed I believe it is.

Yet, throughout history… regardless of the moment or one's ideology… there are always forces that tug at society's fabric and threaten to pull it apart.

These forces may be social, economic, political or environmental. And if we were to allow these forces to divide us, the result can be deadly… either in a figurative or literal sense.

As someone whose academic background is in the life sciences, I often think of the university as a great living organism.

Our lifeblood, then, is the great community of students, faculty, staff, trustees, presidents, alumni and partners. Our campuses are empty… and quite frankly useless… without you.

So, let's consider… for the sake of metaphor… when blood is put into a centrifuge. The forces involved pull the cells apart. What you are left with is still blood… in a manner of speaking… but it can no longer function to bring nourishment and sustain life.

However, there are also tools in biology that provide centripetal force… that pull the constituent parts together.

Our campuses are great sources of centripetal force. People from different nations, communities, belief systems and academic disciplines are brought together.

We share our knowledge. We share our life experiences. We share our passions and fears.

We grow together. We learn from each other. And in the process we create and sustain something, a quality of life that is greater than we could ever achieve alone.

That is why this great living thing we know as the university has a personality that is first and foremost defined by audacious hope… the conviction that a better tomorrow is possible, and when we stay with it, inevitable.

And because the CSU is a living organism, it is a species that is unique to California. Like one of Chair Eisen's rare birds.

The California State University is California's State University… we are unwavering in our commitment to inclusive excellence in our environment of learning and discovery, and we share in California's principled stance on women's rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, immigrant rights and religious tolerance among other attributes.

And… just as the centrifuge separates and destroys the life sustaining properties of blood… we recognize that individual rights are not divisible alternatives, but rather mutually-reinforcing and essential elements of our shared human rights.

We know that recognizing the rights of others in no way diminishes any of us – rather a common understanding of human dignity enhances all of us.

Our position is already clear on protecting students without residency documentation.

It is our principled stand that every student has the right to succeed in education and life. And we will go as far as state and federal laws allow to ensure all students have that opportunity.

Why? Because, we know that a person's intelligence – their capacity for learning and advancing human progress – in no way depends on what side of a border they were born on. We know that an empowered person does not take opportunity from others, rather they create opportunity for those who surround them.

We know this as a university. I know this personally as an immigrant from Argentina.

This fact is evidenced in the story of a Chico State alumnus…

Sergio Garcia was brought to the United States – twice – as a child. Once when he was an infant and once when he was a teen.

In Sergio's story we see a child who thrives in English-speaking schools until the age of nine… returns to Mexico and must relearn Spanish in order to continue to pursue his passion of knowledge… then returns to California in those difficult teen years to again reorient his friendships and his language skills… while continuing to make academic progress.

Not only did this child… become teenager… become young man… do so, but he maintained stellar academic performance… enough so that he had his pick of elite schools after high school where he intended to study pre-law.

Or, rather, he would have had his pick… if he had immigration documentation.

Without documentation, he was cut off from many of the financial resources – particularly aid programs – that many of us take for granted. In California, thankfully, we now have the state's Dream Act… but that was not in place for Sergio.

But he was undaunted… he pursued his education at Butte College, transferred to Chico State to pursue a paralegal certificate. He then opted to go to an evening law school – continuing to work full time as he completed law school and studied for the bar exam.

Sergio did it. He passed the bar. But this again was not the same simple conclusion it would be for me or you. Because of his immigration status, Sergio had to fight all the way to the California Supreme Court – requiring action from the state legislature and Governor Brown – to gain admission to the California Bar Association.

Sergio is a person – now an attorney, author and motivational speaker – of extreme tenacity and intelligence. A CSU alumnus who defied the odds to make a difference in the world… who channeled his experience into creating a scholarship foundation for today's students struggling financially.

And he has remained active at Chico State, offering diversity forums and lectures… while serving on the University Advisory Board.

He defied the odds through tenacity and ability.

Think of what society gains by having someone of his caliber as part of our community. Think of what we would lose if he had lost hope at any point along the way.

Respect for human rights means giving more students without documentation the opportunity to dream and succeed like Sergio has.

Respect for human rights also means providing students from lower-income communities the tools for social mobility, so they too can realize their dreams.

Recently, the Equality of Opportunity Project asked critical questions about which campuses across America actually move people up the economic and social ladder.

It identifies, for example, campuses that move the greatest percentage of students from the lowest fifth in income on college entry to the highest fifth in income after graduation. Number one in the nation – as you know – by this definition of social mobility is Cal State LA.

By another measure – graduates reaching the highest one percent from the bottom fifth – had Cal Maritime in the number one spot for California and number four nationwide.

In fact, CSU campuses as a group performed exceptionally well.

As you heard yesterday… the CSU opportunity is provided at low cost to students and families – by national standards – with high levels of financial aid. Eligible bachelor's students with a family income under $70,000 pay no tuition after financial aid. That is three in five CSU undergraduates or more than 255,000 of our students.

Yet, there is another side to this equation. Social mobility would be impossible without the remarkable educational environment created by our faculty and staff.

With their guidance, each successive generation of CSU students has the opportunity to learn and apply new skillsets.

And we are not resting on our laurels. Through Graduation Initiative 2025 we are continuing to expand access to academic opportunity and student support.

An initiative can often sound abstract. So, let me share what I see as our path forward in the coming years…


First, we must ensure all students are able to enroll in the courses they need, when they need them, that means:

  • More tenure-track faculty… offering over 3,000 additional courses
  • Greater flexibility in course offerings
  • Greater access to advisors and better contemporary and traditional tools for advising

Second, we must constantly analyze, through evidence, the efficacy of academic support and development programs – supporting only those with the best return-on-investment – with the goal of going from aggregated data to individualized learning at scale.

Third, we must ensure financial need does not impede student success.

This will continue to be the major focus of our advocacy efforts in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., but this is also the reason we remain committed to funding the State University Grant and to seeking philanthropic support for scholarships.

Additionally, campuses are exploring and implementing micro-grant programs to help students experiencing unpredicted financial hardship… while also reconsidering drop policies tied to non-payment of small outstanding balances.

Fourth, we must relentlessly identify and remove unnecessary administrative barriers that slow or prevent students from progressing toward degree.

We must make conscious choices to give greater weight to student progress as we balance that with operational habits or requirements.

Fifth, and perhaps most revolutionary on a national level, we must provide all CSU students, including those who arrive academically insufficiently prepared, the opportunity and support needed to complete 30 college-level semester units – 45 quarter units – before beginning their second academic year.

We achieve this through:

  • Increased collaboration and mutual cooperation with K-14
  • Increased offerings of college-level courses that include supplemental instruction to address knowledge gaps and make progress to degree
  • And a faculty that is empowered to utilize technology and other emerging best practices in course redesign and delivery

You heard some of that innovation in the work of one of our faculty Wang awardees yesterday: Professor Jawaharlal, who has been instrumental in redesigning courses with technology at Cal Poly Pomona.

Ultimately, by providing students the opportunity to earn timely, high-quality degree… and closing achievement gaps… we will realize our true potential as a social mover.

Yet, we must recognize that the role of the CSU in social mobility did not come about by chance.

Past generations of state leaders intended a world-class higher education system that served everyone, regardless of social or economic class. As a result, students attending a CSU are today receiving the same quality education that might easily cost twice as much in other states.

And let's also be clear that high-cost, elite, private institutions cannot fill the gap left by declines in public higher education support. Public colleges and universities, none better than the CSU, with the highest mobility rates have annual instructional expenditures less than $6,500 per student on average. That is far more sustainable at scale than the $87,000 per student spent annually on instruction at elite private colleges.

This is not to diminish the role these elite institutions play in America, but they are not the right vehicle for social mobility or for educating California at the scale required to meet the economic and social needs of tomorrow.

We, at the California State University, are.

Broad opportunity with low cost and high quality is only possible through public higher education. And as a result of past investment, California is today a hub of knowledge-based industries in computer science, data science, biotechnology, jet propulsion and engineering design.

Public higher education powers the iconic Californian industries of film, animation, tourism and agriculture. Every California industry is connected to our public higher education system – with one in ten working professionals graduating from a California State University campus.

Without the CSU, many students – particularly students of color or of low income – would never have the chance to acquire the knowledge to compete in these industries and become upwardly mobile.

So, next time you are on campus, just spend a moment on the quad or in the commons. Pause to contemplate who we serve.

In simple terms, we serve California with:

  • 94 percent of CSU students coming from the state
  • 92 percent of undergraduate transfers coming from the state's community colleges

I'll pause a moment on transfer students, because I believe this is one of the areas we truly excel and are doing better every year… in both creating viable pathways for students from college to university, but also ensuring that transfer students are fully engaged and included in the campus community.

I know this is an area of passion and advocacy for Trustee Maggie White, based on her own experience successfully – more than successfully – navigating the bridge between Modesto Junior College and Stan State… as I did last century, in the 60s, from Diablo Valley to Fresno State.

And we are all very grateful you did, Maggie.  The jury is still out whether we draw the same conclusion about me!

As I have visited campuses – northern and southern, coastal and inland – it is clear that our campuses shape the communities around them… changing the destinies of individuals, families, neighborhoods and regions.

Consider that one third of our graduates are the first in their families to attend college. That is true of our past… true for me and others in this room… and true for many others across our campuses.

I particularly enjoy learning about CSU faculty and staff who began as first-generation CSU students.

For example, Dr. Joely Proudfit is today a professor and director at Cal State San Marcos… and a nationally-respected expert and leader of American Indian Studies… who served as a presidential appointee to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education during the Obama administration.

She describes shaking the former president's hand as one of the proudest moments of her life… in her own words:

I could barely speak. I was a bumbling crybaby.

Those of us fortunate enough to see education shape an entirely different destiny than the one we thought life had planned for us… well, we know how she felt.

Professor Proudfit's connection to the CSU and transformation through educational opportunity goes deeper even than it first appears.

Neither of her parents earned their high school diploma… Yet, Professor Proudfit not only completed high school, but did so with distinction and went on to earn a bachelor's degree at Cal State Long Beach… in preparation for a political science master's and Ph.D. program in Arizona.

The journey of her childhood… through hunger … through homelessness… through her parents' drug addiction… through the incarceration of her mother… could have ended very differently.

Yet, due to a chance encounter with a Cal State Long Beach advisor – at the behest of a friend – Professor Proudfit's path to social mobility began.

And she returned to the CSU to guide today's students along the path… first as a professor at San Francisco and then San Bernardino, before arriving in San Marcos.

And Professor Proudfit's story is but one among the millions of CSU alumni, with the cumulative effect of these stories reaching many millions more.

You can read a profile story on Professor Proudfit… along with the stories of other members of our CSU family… on the newly redesigned calstate.edu website.

And… we need look no further than this room for more inspiration. I can easily see Jorge – Trustee Reyes Salinas – with his experience in advocacy… passion for public service… and passion for social justice… following in Professor Proudfit's footsteps… returning from completing his master's program at CSUN – and whatever his next education step will be – to guide futures generations of CSU students.

No pressure, Jorge… but something to ponder. Heck, you can have my job, unless Maggie gets there first.

Indeed, the inspirational stories we hear every day – and the profiles posted on calstate.edu along with the stories found on all 23 campus websites – are snapshot reminders of who we are… and whom we serve.  Proudly.  And without apology.

So, how does this narrative influence the many issues we face in this room?

First, we must understand whom we serve as we talk to the public and lawmakers. For many, their idea of a college student is still the stylized version from television or film – often a person of family wealth and privilege.

We must remind those who hold us accountable and those who advocate on our behalf of the reality of our students, again without apology, but to dispel the fiction.

I believe doing so will change how the state talks about public higher education funding… and hopefully acts. It will also influence the conversation and decisions around tuition, which represents the shifting of burden from the state to the student.

Second, we must no longer condone the view that public higher education funding is optional. Rather it is an essential component of the future we are building together – a future where all students have the opportunity to earn timely, relevant, quality bachelor's degrees that redefine what is possible for them and their communities.

It is the Californian – it is the American – thing to do.

Let me close by stating our times, they are 'a changing.'  And when you take the broad multi-decade view… that is the only constant, really, we have in our dynamic world. Change.

I'm grateful a friend and colleague recently shared an essay by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who likened the strength of humanity to the strong seaworthy vessels she observed on the great lakes. 

You all are learning I am a big fan of maritime analogies… just perhaps as Chair Eisen is of bird analogies. So bear with me as I navigate through this…

In this case, Estes was speaking to people she had heard who were deeply bewildered and concerned about the state of affairs in their world. She cajoled us to especially not lose hope… and reassured us that we were made for these times.

As I thought of her essay, I thought that the CSU is indeed likewise a strong seaworthy vessel… one that endures and provides passage through learning and discovery.

As Estes suggests, ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. And in that spirit, she urged us to believe that 'When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.'

I agree. When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt.  But that is not what great ships… nor great universities… are built for.

Being safe in the harbor is not what the CSU is built for – that is not the nature of our students, faculty or staff. That is not our purpose nor our aspiration. We are made of sterner stuff… built to go out to sea and find many opportunities that benefit our students and society, while weathering the headwinds and rough seas that come up from time to time.

And we have weathered these storms before.

Astonishingly to me, when I read Estes' essay I thought it was written in the last few months… but no… as best we can tell it was written in 2003, when this nation and our people were coming off a very challenging time… as the world then was going through that era's tectonic shift.

We endured and thrived then. We will do so now. The CSU, as with California and America, is resilient and has – at its heart – value-based principles that at the end of the day will guide us forward.

That does not diminish the centrifugal forces that pull at us.

Indeed, there are differences of opinion in our university – just as there are in society. There are those who think we have gone too far… others who think we have not come far enough.

Today's out-of-place belief may become commonplace tomorrow, as they did through the suffragette, civil rights and LGBT rights movements.

Universities are often centers of these movements… places of learning but also debate. As mentioned, we provide the centripetal forces that bring us together, respecting differences and identifying commonalities of humanity and purpose.

Therefore, some conflict is inevitable, and for me even welcome… so long as it is respectful… so long as the reasonable guides on time, place and manner are respected… so long as we respect our campuses and each other.

I am not saying one should change their firmly held beliefs, yet a person who hears only things they already believe learns nothing new… and becomes intellectually stagnant.

Even if you hear a contrary argument only in order to defeat it, you must hear it first.

The state of the CSU is strong and will remain strong so long as we can continue to respectfully hear each other… and then vigorously advocate for our beliefs and common humanity.

I thank you for embodying all that is right about the California State University.​