"State of the CSU" Address

Remarks by Dr. Timothy P. White (as delivered)
Chancellor, California State University
CSU Board of Trustees Meeting – The State of the CSU​
​Long Beach, California
January 28, 2020


Thank you, Adam, and good morning.

It is my deep honor to be here today with the Board of Trustees, our presidents and vice chancellors, students, faculty, staff, alumni leaders, the exquisite professional staff of the CSU's Chancellor's Office and campuses, and many other CSU stakeholders.

I began this tradition of delivering the State of the California State University in 2014, finding it a useful exercise to take time at the beginning of each calendar year to assess our progress, celebrate our accomplishments, and identify those areas where adjustments need to be made, always with student success and inclusive excellence as our measuring stick and North Star.

As I read through past speeches in preparation for today, I was struck by the fact that while the particular challenges of the day, our points of emphasis, our triumphs and, on occasion, our tragedies have varied greatly over the years, the unwavering focus on our mission has remained constant.

And as I reviewed those speeches, another through-line emerged through all the boating and biology metaphors – the story of a university on a steady ascent, helping to drive California's future prosperity as it elevates individuals, families and communities across the state, throughout the nation and around the world through the transformative power of a prestigious degree earned from a campus of the California State University.

Today that story continues and there is much evidence to support the notion that the state of the CSU is strong.

In fact, there has never been a better time in the history of our institution to be a student at the California State University.

I fully recognize that this is a bold proclamation. In our 60-plus-year history, those who came before us accomplished great things. They broke barriers, forged new paths and moved the university ever forward.

And standing on the shoulders of those who preceded us, together, we too have made remarkable progress.

So, in the spirit of reflection, I have four themes to discuss today. I'll start by taking a closer look at the state of the university, focusing on just some of what we have collectively accomplished as I enter my eighth year of service as your chancellor. Second, I will turn to where we are going, with some thoughts to guide the way. Third, I'll explain why I'm both bullish and confident in CSU's future. And I'll close with a story that matters.

First, just a few of our accomplishments. To begin with, the Cal State of today more closely reflects the vibrantly diverse population we serve and our community is stronger as a result.

This is true at all levels of the university.

Back in 2012, our campus presidents reflected a broad spectrum of racial and ethnic diversity, and yet, only three were women.

Today our campus leaders continue to be racially and ethnically diverse, but now we have a majority of women presidents. In fact, our campuses at Bakersfield, Long Beach, Pomona, San Diego and San Francisco are led by women presidents for the first time in the history of those universities.

And at a time when roughly 33 percent of our students are the first in their families to attend college, an identical percentage of our campuses are led by strong and visionary presidents who themselves were first-generation students.

Our dedicated staff and distinguished faculty are also increasingly reflective of our students.

Consider, in 2012, at a time when our university was already a majority-minority institution in terms of student population, only 36 percent of all CSU employees were persons of color.

And when we look at the ranks of our faculty, the picture was even starker. Only 29 percent.

Fast forward to today: 43 percent of CSU employees are now persons of color, as are 35 percent of our faculty.

Clearly, we have further to go. But this is significant and ongoing progress.

So, what does this mean for the CSU and our students?

Diversity amongst our faculty, staff and administrators provides a wealth of backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences for our campus communities, expanding the horizons of students and colleagues alike. It better prepares students to be competitive and successful in the increasingly multicultural workplace of today and tomorrow. And it provides inspiration to dream big, while fostering meaningful connections and creating a network of support.

This is important because the students entering the CSU today are more diverse than ever before. Between fall 2012 and fall 2019 the number of students from historically underserved populations entering the CSU increased by more than 20,000. That's equivalent to the entire student population at CSU San Bernardino.

You have undoubtedly heard me tout the CSU as the largest and most diverse public higher education institution offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in the country.

I often raise this point, not because it's true (although it is) and not because it's a point of pride for our university (although it certainly is), but because it is so central to our mission.

The increased diversity of our university at all levels means greater access and opportunity for Californians from all backgrounds. It means fulfilling the CSU's role as the nation's most powerful escalator of social mobility. And it means a more educated citizenry reflective of our population to lead us to a brighter, more united, more inclusive future.

This brings us to my next point on the state of our university.

The CSU's impact to our communities, to California, to the nation and to the world has never been more consequential, more clearly demonstrated or more recognized. No other institution touches – through education, research, creative activity and discovery – everything society values and holds dear: transportation, communication, art, entertainment, tourism, healthcare, education, safety, agriculture, public policy, law enforcement, our judicial system, information systems, libraries, manufacturing innovation, air/water/soil quality and sustainability and social services.

The CSU's impact is reflected in the ranks of our alumni, which have grown by nearly one million since 2012, swelling to an astounding 3.8 million individuals around the world.

If our alumni were the population of a state, it would be the 29th largest state in the U.S.!

Cal State!

Sorry, by now you should know that I can't help myself.

These alumni are leaders in every industry sector I just mentioned.

And they are also serving in the halls of political power.

Clarissa Rojas, CSUN alumna, class of 2018, is one such individual.

Growing up, Clarissa lived in a domestic abuse shelter in Canoga Park with her mother and two siblings. At 11, she began working at a concession stand in East L.A. to earn money for her family.

She entered CSUN in 2014, working constantly to put herself through school.

She was selected for the “CSUN in D.C." internship, a program where students live, work and learn in the nation's capital.

While there, she interned with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Then she landed an internship in a California congresswoman's office that became a paid position as a press assistant, then press secretary and then, communications director.

Clarissa accomplished all of this before the age of 24.

But what is most gratifying about Clarissa's story, what perfectly embodies the Cal State spirit, is what she wants to do next.

In her words, and I quote:

“The more I work here, the more I recognize the need that exists back home in the San Fernando Valley. I want to go back. I want to work in local politics. I want to help and advance my community, where there's a huge Hispanic population and income is low. There's so many great things that could be done."

That desire to take all that she has learned, all that she has experienced, and give back, to extend a hand, to lift her community, that's the true value of the CSU.

And the world is taking note.

The message has resonated with our donors. Gift commitments for fiscal year 2018 were more than 90 percent over that of 2012. In fact, over the last seven years, we have raised an astonishing $3.2 billion in commitments.

Our endowment has grown by over $653 million during the same timeframe, an increase of 56 percent, reaching an all-time high of $1.8 billion.

Increased giving has resulted in increases in student scholarships, in the total number of scholarship awards given, the number of students receiving awards and the average dollar amount of those awards.

And our impact and value proposition have resonated in Sacramento, where together, as one CSU community, we have effectively made our case that the future of the CSU is synonymous with the future of California.

In 2012, California was in the throes of a recession. Annual state support for the CSU was down more than $900 million from peak funding just five years prior.

In 2013, the state began reinvesting in the CSU, with an increase of $125 million.

And just this year, the state invested in the CSU at a level previously unheard of, with an investment that was nearly three times larger than that of 2013.

The funding we have received – from the state, from our foundations and from our generous supporters – has enabled us to better fulfill our mission.

Since the state began reinvesting in higher education, a trend continued in next year's preliminary budget proposal, the CSU has increased enrollment by more than 41,000 full-time equivalent students. That is essentially creating two new CSU campuses the size of Sacramento State and Dominguez Hills.

And thanks in large part to the increase in financial support, our commitment to student achievement and success has never been stronger, which is my final point on the state of the university.

This commitment is resulting in a better student experience, from the day students enter the university to the day they cross the commencement stage.

Without question, it is most evident in the successes we have seen with Graduation Initiative 2025.

You have all heard the impressive metrics, that the 2019 graduating class is our largest class ever, more than 127,000 strong. That graduation rates have increased across the board, with more students than ever before achieving their goals of graduating on their desired timelines.

And that while we have more work to do to close equity gaps, work that I know will continue full-steam ahead in the years to come, graduation rates are improving for all students from all backgrounds.

Remarkable progress, indeed.

But more impactful are the stories. The students who are achieving their educational dreams thanks to the hard work and diligence of the CSU family.

Students like Ignacio Ochoa, a second-year at Sacramento State. A first-generation student, Ignacio came to college with very little idea of what to expect and no shortage of trepidation.

He had no connection to the campus community and no clue where to begin when it came time to set up his class schedule.

But at orientation, Ignacio was connected with the campus's Finish in Four program. He signed up, took 16 units his first semester and earned a 4.0 GPA. And he connected with a peer mentor.

That mentor, and Ignacio's professors, were sources of inspiration and support, helping him feel connected to the campus. That he was seen. That he mattered.

And today, Ignacio serves as an orientation leader at Sac State, helping incoming students navigate the same challenges with which he struggled.

Ignacio's story is the story of Graduation Initiative 2025, the story of the CSU's commitment to student success.

Of course, we recognize that our students' needs increasingly extend beyond the classroom, needs that must be met so that our students can focus on their studies when they're in the classroom. Cal State continues to rise to the challenge of identifying and meeting those needs through efforts to support our students' well-being, including enhanced access to mental health services and the Basic Needs Initiative.

It is profoundly gratifying to report that this initiative has grown so remarkably and to such great benefit for our students.

Today, all 23 campuses have a food pantry. A majority offer meal-sharing or meal-voucher programs and make fresh fruit and vegetables available to students.

More than two-thirds of CSU campuses offer on-campus emergency housing or vouchers for off-campus housing. Campuses offer emergency monetary grants to students. They provide financial literacy workshops and interview-appropriate clothing to students in need.

And in just two weeks, we will be joined by the University of California and the California Community Colleges as we host the first-ever intersegmental summit devoted to meeting students' basic needs.

That is commitment in action. That is bold leadership. That is compassion.

As I share these data points and success stories, my overwhelming sense is one of gratitude. Gratitude for the skilled and tireless work of those who made it happen: our trustees, campus leaders and administration. And especially for our faculty and staff who engage, inspire and support our remarkable students face to face and on a daily basis.

And just as on the day in 2012 when I first wrote to this board to confirm my interest in becoming chancellor, I am struck with genuine awe at the CSU's ability to move the needle for Californians, at the power of mission-driven, personalized education at scale, which the CSU has and will continue to leverage, to transform our state, nation and world.

But let me shift gears to the second of my four themes of today's address and focus on our future.

Beyond continuing to support CSU administrators, campus leadership, faculty and staff in all of our day-to-day operations, my near-term priorities are clear:

Right out of the gate, I will passionately support the phased implementation plan for the quantitative reasoning admission requirement that will be presented tomorrow.

The QR proposal is really about living our commitment to inclusive excellence and it's representative of the type of action that is required to ensure that all students, from all backgrounds, have access not just to a transformative education but to true, authentic equity, fueled by achievement and success, as they earn a degree that will serve them well as the nature of tomorrow's work continues to rapidly evolve.

Next, I will lead our university-wide effort as we work with Governor Newsom's administration, the legislature and the Department of Finance to secure a more favorable budget so that we can maintain our positive momentum, drive student success and move California forward.

Furthermore, I will help spearhead our work to educate all CSU constituents and the public-at-large about the general obligation bond appearing on the March ballot as Proposition 13. If passed, it will provide $2 billion in much-needed funding to modernize the facilities our students use every day. More than half of the academic facilities across our campuses are at least 40 years old, a third are more than 50 years old. And it's important to remember that it's not only about maintaining these assets and making them safer and more seismically sound, it's about improving classrooms and lab spaces for an enhanced learning and discovery experience.

And, as you know, there are several leadership changes underway, with recent retirement announcements by Cal State East Bay's President Leroy Morishita, CSUN's President Dianne Harrison, and our Vice Chancellor and Chief Audit Officer Larry Mandel. While identifying the successors to these remarkable leaders will be no small task, I will work diligently and appropriately with the search and advisory committee members with the goal of bringing a group of exceptionally qualified final candidates before the board.

Of course, there is one more search currently underway, for the CSU's eighth chancellor.

My enthusiasm for this job has never waned since October 4, 2012, the day I informed then-Chairman Bob Linscheid that I accepted the appointment. It's an all-in, all-consuming job and I've loved every minute of it. Even those moments of controversy, where I have always pushed to do the right thing. I've come to learn that controversy simply means that people care deeply about and value the CSU and that they seek more from us.

As you would expect and deserve, I will do everything within my ability to facilitate a seamless transition. And I understand that there will come a time when this will mean stepping back rather than forward.

While my future activities are yet to be discovered, I say with complete confidence that this institution will continue to advance bold, creative and principled solutions to public higher education's most pressing and complex challenges.

Let me ask that moving forward, the CSU continue to be committed to courageously doing the right thing.

Stay the course, but don't stay the same.

Here are a few ideas deserving attention, ideas that directly touch the student experience:

  • Build high-touch, high-tech capacity and enhance authentic access to and through the university for students from all walks of life through stateside and extended education efforts, research and creative activity, and engagement of community efforts that maintain the highest standards.
  • Working with Governor Newsom, the Department of Finance and legislative leaders, design and establish a multiyear budgeting process that provides sustainable, predictable and sufficient resources to ensure the success of our students, and that opens doors to additional students who have demonstrated they are ready for a college education.
  • Support appropriate financial aid reform at the state and federal level that helps address the total cost of attendance.
  • Design innovative solutions to mitigate California's sky-rocketing housing costs that are fast becoming an existential threat to students, faculty and staff.
  • Provide space, programming and staff to promote engagement and improve the persistence, retention and completion rates of students from underserved communities.
  • Stand in steadfast support of our students' basic needs and well-being, including students who confront special circumstances, such as our veterans and students who lack documentation, including DACA students, and
  • Further modernize employment practices that enable growth and career development for faculty, staff and administrators.

Of course, the list of challenges and opportunities is much longer and will change over time.

Perhaps then, rather than inventorying items of future to-do lists, the words of Robert F. Kennedy are more worthy of consideration.

RFK's Day of Affirmation Address to the students at the University of Capetown was given as I graduated high school in 1966, right as I was launching my college-going years. While I didn't know it then, his words have provided a higher-order guide for my road travelled and, I suggest, are worthy also to inform the CSU's path forward.

Quoting Robert F. Kennedy: “… the help and leadership of South Africa or of the United States cannot be accepted if we – within our own countries or in our relationships with others – deny individual integrity, human dignity, and the common humanity of man.

“… If we would help those who need our assistance; if we would meet our responsibilities to mankind; we must first, all of us, demolish the borders which history has erected between men within our own nations – barriers of race and religion, social class and ignorance.

“Our answer is the world's hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress."

And here is a key sentence: “This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease."

RFK's words were prescient, and his address worldly, but in many respects, he was speaking to inclusive excellence, to education as a civil rights issue, and to upward social mobility.

Six years after the California Master Plan for Higher Education was born, RFK was speaking to the mission of the California State University.

The third of four themes I wish to address today is my unwavering confidence in the CSU's ability to provide the innovative solutions that will allow us to continue to transform our students' lives and drive California to its brightest future.

My confidence is borne out of the fact that, as I stand here before you today, looking back upon our time together, the CSU's greatest strength is in the 53,000 employees and trustees alike who come to work each day mindful of our mission, and whose tasks and decisions are informed by a relentless commitment to student success.

It's the CSU's core strength, embodied in our people. It has been evident to me from my first day on the job and on every campus visit since then. And it is exceedingly rare in an organization of this size – the greatest gift with which a leader could be blessed.

The late author and scholar David Foster Wallace saw it as life's great challenge: how to remain mindful of our values and principles – what's really important – in the trenches of day-to-day life, with its demands, its frenetic pace and, sometimes, its tedium.

In his famous 2005 address to the graduates of Kenyon College, one of the most widely read and shared commencement speeches ever written, Wallace illustrates the phenomenon with a deceivingly simple story:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, 'Mornin' boys, how's the water?' The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks at the other and asks, 'What the hell is water?'"

To Wallace, the great virtue is simple awareness. Awareness of purpose, principle, meaning, mission. And it's almost impossibly difficult to maintain this awareness amidst the routine and chaos of daily life. We can so easily become blind to what is most important and essential, even when it surrounds and sustains us.

So how have we – as individuals, as an institution – avoided the fate of the two young fish?

Our leadership is one answer. In this chamber, issues are debated, sometimes heatedly, as Trustees weigh and make policy decisions to advance our mission for our students and this great state. And the voices of our faculty, staff, students and alumni, along with every one of our campus leaders, are fully invested in our principles of student success and equity. These principles are reflected in our campus's guiding documents, adopted and implemented with a commitment to shared governance and inclusive excellence.

In a very real sense, our mission is institutionalized, embedded across our operations. It's in our DNA.

Without question, it is also the sheer magnitude of our mission that holds our focus. As a biologist, I can speak about cardiovascular function, cell motility, the role of genetics and the environment and all the other factors that contribute to our development as a human being.

But it is through my career in academic leadership that I have come to appreciate the role of the university in facilitating the emergence of the human _____ and you can fill in the blank here: human mind, spirit, soul, potential, indeed, promise.

It is our great privilege to be a part of an enterprise that helps people fulfill their potential and live the promise that is within each of us, resulting in alumni who may enjoy the true equity that comes only when one can live, work, love, play and prosper in our complex and challenged world.

And as my fourth and final theme, let me close by suggesting there is one more vital element, something deeper, more personal, that binds us all to the CSU mission.

I think it's our stories.

Some of you may be familiar with part of mine. Let me add some color. I was born in Argentina. In the 1950s, my parents had the courage to flee the government and head to the Northern Hemisphere with the intention of settling in the U.S.

Ultimately, we were sponsored by a family in the Bay Area, a couple with three daughters. We moved in with this family, my parents, my mom's dad, and my brother and I, into their three-bedroom house, the 10 of us. Over the years, I've come increasingly to realize just what a kind and generous gift that was.

My dad found a job with an aluminum manufacturer in Berkeley. It was a job he would hold for the rest of his working life. While it was a relatively modest job, we were able to move out and rent a place, eventually buying a home in the East Bay.

I worked hard to assimilate, we all did. I got rid of my accent, learned to play American sports. Did my best to become a California kid.

As I neared high school graduation, all those kids I wanted to be just like were getting ready to go off to college somewhere. So naturally, that's what I wanted to do. I had a discussion with my folks. They told me that was for others to do. “In this family, you get your high school degree, then you find a good job and make a living."

Although a four-year university wasn't in the cards for me at that time, I did enroll at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill. And my parents, strong, smart and resourceful, but not formally educated beyond high school, began to slowly warm up to the idea of higher education. Maybe they listened to RFK's speech on the radio. Or perhaps I began to show some promise. And I know they saw how important it was becoming to me.

So, as a sophomore, I enrolled at Fresno State. A small, water polo scholarship helped grease the skids a bit.

We caravanned down to Fresno. Me in my 1961 blue VW bug; Mom and Dad in the family car. I got settled in and it eventually came time for them to head back home. That was the first time I remember seeing my mother with tears in her eyes. They got in the car and backed out of the parking space to start the three-hour drive north. Then I saw the red of the illuminated brake lights. Dad got out of the car and walked over. It turns out, he too had tears in his eyes. He pulled five bucks out of his wallet and tucked it in my pocket. His voice choked with emotion, he managed only three words: “Just in case."

I remember that moment like it was this morning. Because it is this morning. Then, it was an exclamation point to their journey to America, and to create opportunity for me opportunity that could and would be developed at the CSU.

That was the start of my CSU story. An immigrant kid from a frugal-by-necessity household, to this day feeling a bit like an outsider looking in. First in the family to go to college. And finding my way and eventually myself through my classes, with people believing in and supporting me, through my experiences, some hard work and some good fortune.

And it's a story that has led me here to this podium this morning, reflecting on a life and career that has far surpassed my wildest expectations.

It is a Cal State story. And as I tell it, I know that it's a story shared by hundreds of thousands of current students, alumni, faculty and staff. Their facts are different. But the story is so often the same.

Maybe it's your story. 

Or maybe your Cal State story is different.

Maybe it is of a favorite professor who awakened in you an enduring love of learning that continues to enrich your life in countless ways.

Or the mentor or coworker who believed in you when no one else did, maybe not even yourself, and who helped you overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in pursuit of your dreams. A lesson that you've leaned on again and again as you've encountered life's hardships.

Or a journey of self-discovery, of finding support and kinship where once was doubt and isolation.

Of finding your voice and the courage to stand against injustice or oppression.

The fact is, all of us – leadership, faculty, staff, students, alumni and stakeholders – we all have a Cal State story, regardless of whether we have a Cal State degree.

Put another way, we are all the CSU.

Our mission does not live on an “about" page on our website or in a glossy brochure printed on heavy stock paper. It lives within you. It lives within each of us. It lives within all of us.

And, ultimately, that is why the state of the CSU is strong and why it will remain so, long after my tenure is over.

However, there may be moments when you find your motivation waning and your patience wearing thin. When it seems like the only thing longer than your list of deadlines and responsibilities is your list of places you'd rather be.

If you find yourself experiencing such a moment, I invite you to pause for a bit and reflect upon Wallace's fish and water and how what's truly meaningful and essential in life can be obscured by the day to day.

And you might want to remind yourself of your Cal State story.

Tuck it in your pocket.   Just in case.

Thank you.​