man in suit smiling as he delivers speech at podium

Chancellor Castro: Lessons from Pandemic Illuminate a Bold Yet Compassionate Path Forward for CSU

Hazel Kelly

In his first “State of the CSU” address, Chancellor Joseph I. Castro explores how the lessons of the past 18 months have issued a calling for the CSU to be an even more vital and equitable institution.

man in suit smiling as he delivers speech at podium

​​​​​The California State University is strong, resilient and poised to honor the voices of the pandemic, Chancellor Joseph I. Castro told the Board of Trustees during his first “State of the CSU" address​ since being appointed to lead the 23-campus university.

As the CSU emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the most challenging times in its history, Dr. Castro urged the university's trustees, employees and stakeholders to embrace the lessons of the last 18 months to illuminate a path to become a more dynamic and equitable institution.

“Let's honor the voices of the pandemic. To ignore them is to compound the tragedy. So let's be inspired by them—let's heed their lessons as we reimagine an even more vital California State University," he said.

Castro focused on four lessons, or voices, the pandemic has taught the university:

  1. To continue being flexible and bold
  2. To be even more technology focused
  3. To be more compassionate
  4. To be more inclusive and equitable

During the pandemic, the CSU transitioned 80,000 courses to virtual modalities in the span of about two weeks, and students excelled, Castro said. Recognizing that learning happens in many different settings, the CSU continues to be flexible in meeting students where they are to support their academic success. From awarding credit for prior learning through Professional and Continuing Education programs, to improving access to high-demand STEM programs through Humboldt State's pending transition to a polytechnic institution, the CSU continues to be the nation's most powerful driver of socioeconomic mobility.

Technology and support strategies employed during virtual instruction were vital to student success during the pandemic and the CSU will continue to refine and expand these tools to enrich the student learning experience moving forward, Castro said. But he also acknowledged that bridging the digital divide will be essential with the increasing focus on technology.

The new CSUCCESS initiative is one way the CSU is improving tech equity. Currently rolling out at eight campuses, the first phase of CSUCCESS offers a new iPad Air, Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard Folio to every incoming first year and transfer student.

“I am confident that it will be a game-changer in terms of student success, and I look forward future phases, and the day—coming soon—when technology will be an essential and invaluable tool, and not a barrier, for every CSU student."

Castro reflected on speaking with students during his recent campus visits​. “I've had the pleasure of spending time with students—and every time, I am reminded of just how much our students have gone through as they've continued to work toward their degrees during extraordinarily challenging circumstances," he said. “I always make a point of asking them what I, as Chancellor, can do to better serve them. Their responses have been heart-wrenching in their simplicity: They want understanding. Empathy. A little flexibility. They want compassion. We will come through for those students and their peers—because compassion is part of our DNA."

Castro pointed to several examples that highlight the CSU's compassion, from the Mental Health First Aid training program to Humboldt State's Inclusivity Project supporting Black-owned businesses to Cal State Fullerton's Gender Affirming Closet for gender non-conforming students to find free clothing in a safe space.

Compassion also means supporting students' basic needs, such as free curbside food pickup for food-insecure students at Cal State LA, to Chico State's rapid-rehousing program for students who found themselves displaced during the pandemic.

Two of Castro's highest priorities as the leader of the largest four-year higher education system are to create a more inclusive and equitable institution. “It is extraordinarily important to me that our students see themselves in our campus communities and feel a sense of belonging—that they feel seen, heard and valued in their surroundings."

It is extra-ordinarily important to me that our students see themselves in our campus communities and feel a sense of belonging—that they feel seen, heard and valued in their surroundings." 

Castro pointed to examples of successful strategies that are advancing equity for students, including increasing faculty diversity and promoting STEM access with the support of private-public partnerships. In addition, the chancellor formed an advisory committee to develop recommendations to completely eliminate equity gaps that exist in graduation rates between students of color, first-generation students and low-income students and their peers as part of the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025.

Castro emphasized that the true meaning of initiatives to advance equity is the potential realized for each individual student. The chancellor then turned over the podium to a special guest, Cal Poly Pomona alumnus Luis Dominguez, to share his own inspirational success story as a first-generation college student who now works for NASA-JPL.

Castro closed with the following remarks:

“The state of the CSU is strong. It is resilient. It is resolute. The state of the CSU is poised to honor the voices of the pandemic. To be even more courageous and bold. More technology-focused. To show even greater compassion. And to answer the call to be an even more accessible, inclusive and equitable institution so that genius can thrive—whether in spectacular fashion like a career in aerospace, or in careers every bit as vital, as teachers, caregivers, business leaders, engineers or public servants—as we transform the lives of our current and future students. And as a global model for post-pandemic higher education, we lead our state and nation to their brightest future."

Watch Chancellor Castro's address ​from September 14, 2021: