Photo courtesy of CSU
CSU Chancellor-elect Joe Castro

Incoming California State University’s Chancellor Joseph Castro said he takes the helm at “a really special moment in time” when the 23-campus university system can address inequality.

He was selected as the new chancellor Wednesday by the CSU Board of Trustees to replace retiring Chancellor Timothy White, and will take on the new role on Jan. 4.

“Black lives matter and racial injustice exists. And I think the CSU has an opportunity to really lean in even more aggressively in addressing issues of inequality,” said Castro in a Q &A session on Friday.

Castro, 53, said he intends to have a conversation with the presidents of CSU’s campuses in January” to come up with strategies to build on what’s underway and think of “something that’s coherent across the system that is empowering and elevates the conversation in ways that will perhaps lead us to changes in our own policies and practices.”

He was interviewed by Monica Lozano, president of the College Futures Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that promotes college completion and closing equity gaps.

Castro said he’s focused on improving graduation rates in the nation’s largest public undergraduate university system. He also wants to encourage the state’s legislature and federal government to better fund the universities.

Below are excerpts from the hour-long conversation, edited lightly for clarity and continuity.  Check out the full interview below.

Lozano: What inspired you to leave Fresno State and to take on this challenging role?

Castro: It’s an amazing leadership opportunity, a chance to make a positive difference for very talented students and to support our faculty, staff and our alumni who love the CSU. We are the most important, consequential public university system in the nation.  I see incredible potential for us in the coming years. It will be difficult in the short term certainly.  But I think that we will persevere through that, and we’ll be much stronger after having gone through this experience.

Lozano: How supportive will Gov. Newsom and the Legislature be? These are really difficult economic times for the state, quite challenging. So what are you hearing? What are your expectations and what are you going to advocate for?

Castro:  Gov. Newsom and I have a working relationship from my position here at Fresno State. One of the things he said to me during a conversation (earlier this week) was “I’ve been working with you on some of these initiatives at the regional level. Now we just need to scale some of these great ideas that we’ve been working on together.” It was a conversation about the success of our students, about Covid and how faculty and staff, are navigating that. We had a very productive conversation, and he committed his continued support to the CSU. We talked about some new ideas, around private philanthropy as well and how he can be helpful there. So I was grateful to have had that conversation.

What I have found consistently through all the conversations I’ve had is just a deep commitment by our elected officials to the CSU. They love what we’re doing. Under Chancellor White’s leadership we’ve risen in terms of graduation rates and diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence. They love that. And what I talked with them about mostly was how they could support us in meeting our bold Graduation Initiative 2025 goals.

Lozano: Do you believe that you can offer the kind of quality experience that CSU students have come to expect during this new virtual mode of higher education?

Castro: I understand that this is a stressful situation for so many within the CSU — students faculty, staff, their families. Some have lost loved ones. Some have been ill because of Covid. Some are caring for young children that are trying to learn online. Some are working and trying to do that or caring for elders. There is a lot of stress and job loss. At the same time, we pivoted in the course of a few days to go completely virtual. That’s an incredible task that we were able to accomplish and it was done under very stressful circumstances.

We’ve learned a lot, even in these first six months, through the adjustments that we’ve been making as we learn more, the investments in professional development that each of the campuses has made. Most of us did that over the summer. Here at Fresno State we invested about $1.2 million so that almost a thousand of our faculty could go through a program that met their needs.  Coming out of that, I saw even greater engagement between faculty and students, so much so that they want to do it again in December. And I think other campuses are doing similar things. So I’m encouraged by the innovation that’s occurring right now.  We all realize that we’re not going to go back to where we were in March.  We are going to go to some new place.  That’s the silver lining for me.  We are going to be stronger after Covid than we were before.

Lozano: What sorts of ways do you think you can create greater cohesion so that it’s easier for students to flow back and forth either across campuses or through partnerships? Is that something that you’ve thought about at all?

Castro: Absolutely. We’ve been working on that on a pilot basis here in the Valley. I believe there are lots of opportunities there. Can we do degrees offered by Fresno State at Reedley College (a community college), so that a student there would never even have to come to Fresno State?  We do that in Visalia at College of the Sequoias where people get their degrees there without ever having to come to Fresno. There are many examples like that around the state. I very much would like to see us be more innovative in that area.

Lozano: What could you do better to improve graduation rates and close disparity gaps?

Castro: I am firmly committed to the Graduation Initiative 2025 goals.  While it may be more challenging because of Covid, I think we need to stay focused on it. It’s just so vitally important.  It’s not just increasing graduation rates, it’s eliminating those gaps between underrepresented students and other students. There are some incredible success stories and lessons that have been learned that we can share with one another.  That’s the power of this large system that’s so committed to educating diverse students from all circumstances.

Lozano: As the student body of the CSU become more diverse it’s important for them to see themselves reflected in who is at the front of the classroom. So what are some of the initiatives that are underway? What could you do better?

Castro: I personally remember having had that opportunity to meet and then become mentored by faculty of color when I was at UC Berkeley. There were not many of them, but I found them and I still stay in touch. It’s just so vitally important for women and men of all different backgrounds to be able to relate to their professor or their advisor in a way that’s authentic.  That inspires my leadership to want to change this in ways where we have a faculty that reflects the diversity of our students.  Every CSU president believes that, and together we can make it happen.

Lozano: How do you balance system integration (of CSU) with campus autonomy?

Castro: I would like us to do as much as we can to empower and support our campuses.  At the same time we have to be accountable to state government and to the federal government, and we must follow laws, policies and regulations. But to the extent that it’s up to us, then it should be done in a way that really does empower the campuses to be successful.

Lozano: Where do you think the CSU can actually be a leader in creating perhaps a more equitable or even playing field for students and their families and their communities?

Castro: This is a really special moment in time though. Black lives matter and racial injustice exists. And I think the CSU has an opportunity to really lean in even more aggressively in addressing these issues of inequality. I do intend to have that conversation with the presidents in January. What are some of the ways in which we together could elevate the conversations that we’re having? How can we build on the things that we’re already doing? And maybe think about something that’s coherent across the system that is empowering and elevates the conversation in ways that will perhaps lead us to changes in our own policies and practices. And I think that’s a good thing.

Lozano:  Regardless of where federal policy goes, any thoughts about what you can do to make sure that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students are made to feel welcome, that they get the supports they need?

Castro: We must stay focused on supporting our DACA students. I feel like we’ve been modeling the way nationally in that area.  At Fresno State, with over 600 DACA students, we were one of the early Dream Success Center adopters and have built a system of support to a very significant level. One of the things I love about the work that we’ve done in this area, and I’ve seen it across the system, is that alumni and businesses and foundations are helping us. They understand and empathize with the situation of extraordinarily talented students. They’ve overcome so many barriers, and they’re here, and they’re wanting to get their education, and they want to be part of the next generation of leaders. So I believe we must be aggressive in supporting them no matter what happens in Washington D.C.

Lozano: If you were to look back five years from now, what would you hope to have accomplished?

Castro:  I would hope that we could say that we’ve achieved our Graduation Initiative 2025 goals. If we have done that, we will have done something incredibly important for California, and we will have modeled something very powerfully for the whole country.  I feel confident that we can do that. That would be number one in my view. And number two would be to have a more secure and stable funding base. And I would to inspire our elected officials to want to support us even more and to see us as one of their very highest priorities.

And third I’d like us to say we really innovated in some exciting ways, that we leveraged technological advances, and that we thought creatively and accelerated opportunities for our talented students to get their degrees or quality degrees in a timely way. I  imagine we’re going to be even more diverse from a staff, faculty and student perspective. That will be very important as well. And that first-generation metric is extraordinarily important to me because that’s really about how we’re going to lift California even more in terms of opportunity.

Lozano: What do you want people to remember from this first opportunity to get to know the chancellor-elect for the California State University?

Castro: I’m hopeful that I can inspire the very best in everybody so that we can go down that path and elevate the CSU to new heights of greatness that, you know, our board of trustees is so interested in as well. And I know we’ll have their support to do that.

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