The next chancellor of the CSU system should be a leader who can boldly address the needs of a diverse student body that, in the wake of the pandemic, has struggled mightily not only with academics but basic needs like food and housing.
That has been the overwhelming message from a series of public forums held throughout the state this week as the search for the next leader of the 23-campus system kicks into high gear.
The search comes as the institution has also been beset by internal scandal. Previous CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro resigned a year ago after allegations that as Fresno State’s president, he mishandled a sexual harassment case involving Frank Lamas, an administrator. CSU is currently investigating how sexual harassment cases have been handled systemwide.
“I want somebody who is not just aware of and willing to address sexual discrimination and sexual assault and other forms of discrimination, but somebody who’s willing to address the systemic issues that enables and protects somebody like Frank Lamas on campus,” said Chris Beck, an academic counselor at Fresno State.
A 20-member search committee plans to interview candidates in May and June and present finalists to the CSU board in July. These public forums in Long Beach, Bakersfield and San Francisco are meant to help the board write its description for the job of CSU’s next leader.
Speakers said the CSU system — the largest statewide university system in the country with 477,466 students— needs to do more to serve the students it so often publicly hails in its messaging, such as first-generation students, immigrants, students of color.
“We need a chancellor who understands what diversity is,” said Maria Espinoza, a student leader at Cal State Bakersfield. “Diversity is not just you looking like me, it means understanding what I need, going through the same experiences I’ve been through.”
Student leaders said inflation and the state’s housing crisis have forced some students to live out of their cars and have created high demand at campus food banks. Cal State Bakersfield students said in a survey that they need more resources on campus, including mental health support, according to Espinoza.
Many students and employees who spoke at the forums said that the CSU system faces deep equity challenges, exemplified by low graduation rates among Black and Latino students and declining enrollment among students who may not feel that college is accessible and affordable. They said the next chancellor must also ensure that CSU campuses feel welcoming.
“Students want to know: If I come through your doors, how are you going to treat me? If I sit in your classroom, how are you going to look at me? If I’m navigating your campus spaces, do you even see me?” said Dwayne Cantrell, chief enrollment officer at Cal State Bakersfield.
Given that a majority of CSU campuses qualify as Hispanic-Serving Institutions — where over a quarter of undergraduates are Latino — it is important that the next chancellor attends to the needs of faculty and staff of color in addition to students of color, said Valerie Talavera-Bustillos, a professor of Chicanx and Latinx Studies at CSU Los Angeles.
“Research shows that this is critical to everyone’s success,” said Talavera-Bustillos.
Key to tackling the CSU system’s many challenges will be increased investment from the state, said Debra Jackson, Cal State Bakersfield’s associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of academic programs. In her two decades at the university, she said there has been a steady stream of calls for belt-tightening and a charge to do more with less.
“It’s very exhausting and demoralizing to work under those conditions,” said Jackson. “We need a champion who can bring in the resources we need to do the work we do so well.”
Several nonfaculty staff said that the CSU system underpays them — a claim corroborated by an independent study that came out in May. It found that pay failed to keep up with peer institutions nationally, and that the CSU lacks a step-salary structure that recognizes tenure, expertise and performance. This has led to discrimination in pay rates and high turnover, CSU staff told the search committee.
“Decades of the same old, same old is why we have the salaries that we do, the decaying infrastructure that we have, and the mentality to go somewhere else if we don’t like it here,” said Paula Van, an administrative professional at CSU Los Angeles.
Faculty and staff, particularly in San Francisco, asked for cost-of-living adjustments and support for housing. Sandee Noda, chapter president for the San Francisco State employee union, said that a custodian recently fought to get their pay to $49,000.
“I’m not sure how people can afford to live in the Bay Area with that salary,” she said.
The forum in San Francisco highlighted the needs of Northern California universities facing deep cuts due to an enrollment decline. Faculty members said the focus on enrollment numbers is misplaced, and cuts risk hurting the quality of education in an underfunded system.
Students at Cal Poly Humboldt told the search committee they are experiencing the effects of the state’s push for enrollment growth in an acute way. They described a sudden and severe shortage of housing.
Kristin Tran, a first-year transfer student, said the university is scrambling to find off-campus housing and has only found local motels.
“We are scared, and many of us are trying to transfer to other universities to escape these conditions,” she said.
She called the push for enrollment growth “unsustainable” and wants a cap on growth until there is sufficient housing for all students.
The forums included a discussion about the role of the modern university. Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh said she seeks a “visionary, outside-the-box leader who will advance educational and workforce development pathways for our industries.”
Other faculty said they hope the liberal arts will not be pushed aside, as they are crucial to graduating well-rounded California citizens. Alyssa Sepinwall, a history professor at CSU San Marcos, said she hopes the next chancellor does not “cheapen degrees by seeing a college education as something to be optimized and who also focuses too much on career readiness, narrowly creating employees with tech skills of the moment for corporations.”
The search committee includes trustees, interim CSU Chancellor Jolene Koester, CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny, CSU Channel Islands President Richard Yao and representatives for the academic senate, students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community. SP&A Executive Search is serving as the search consultant.
Board Chair Wenda Fong encouraged the public to fill out a survey, send in comments via confidential email to email@example.com, or even nominate potential candidates.
Officials declined to identify any of the candidates. Koester, who is not an applicant, emphasized the importance of a confidential search process. She acknowledged that this is a “controversial point of view” but she said that candidates whose identities are revealed may be judged to no longer be loyal and committed to their current institutions.
“Many of the very best candidates will not even consider having their name even raised in this search unless we assure them it is being done in a confidential process and manner,” Koester said.
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