Cal State University Chancellor Timothy White chats with students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before the coronavirus crisis. (Photo courtesy of CSU)

Timothy P. White, chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system since 2012, was supposed to be celebrating his imminent retirement right now, not dealing with the many academic and financial problems raised by the coronavirus.

But with the emergency, White agreed to stay on as chancellor of the 480,000-student system through the fall, about six months longer than previously planned. On Tuesday, he made what may prove to be one of the most consequential decisions of his tenure: announcing that most CSU classes in the fall will be online unless there is a significant improvement in the health situation. That move by the nation’s largest system of four-year universities has garnered widespread attention across the country.

White spoke with EdSource higher education reporters Larry Gordon and Michael Burke about the action. Here is an edited version of that interview.

Why did you make this decision now and not wait until the summer, as some other universities seem to be doing?

The health and well-being of our students and our faculty and our staff and our communities is the most important factor. We’ve been following the expert advice of epidemiologists and infectious disease practitioners and our public health officials and government leaders. The forecasting sees a much larger spike coming in the late fall of COVID-19, coupled with the influenza, which will be perhaps even a more difficult moment than the one we are going through right now. So we want to be in a position come fall to preserve as many options for as many students as possible. If we would have waited until summer, there would not have been enough time or the chance to invest in training and technology to make the fall term as robust as possible for those experiences that have to be done virtually. I hope I’m wrong. I hope when we get to fall that we can do more in-person than we’re anticipating right now, but I want to be prepared. I don’t want fall courses that may start in-person and then have to be pulled back.

Let me be clear, it would be primarily virtually, but with limited exceptions for in-person activities that can’t be done virtually. California needs a lot more nurses, and we are the largest producer of nurses. So they will be allowed to do their clinical practices and their mannequin practices, but it won’t be 20 students in a room. It’s going to be five students in a room, and they’ll be masked. It’s going to be important for students in engineering and agriculture who need hands-on experiences for their capstone projects. But they will be done in a different way, much less density with people, much more personal protective equipment.

Why all 23 campuses? Isn’t it possible that some might be in different circumstances, in more areas that don’t have as big a coronavirus outbreak?

Absolutely, there’ll be variability. Arcata in the north, where Humboldt State is located — and where there has not been as much of the disease — is quite different than a Cal State Los Angeles or San Diego State, where the disease is at a much higher frequency. And so, there will be variability across the 23. At the Maritime Academy in Vallejo, a smaller campus, there likely will be much more in-person than a big urban campus will have. It’s going to be driven by the facts around health, safety and welfare of our students, employees and the communities where we have 23 campuses from urban to rural to frontier.

So are you saying that there may be differences in how many classes are allowed to open depending on the areas surrounding the campuses, or will it be uniform?

No, it’s not uniform. There are two aspects to this. One is what is the prevalence of the disease where the campus is located when we get to the fall? And secondly, where are the students and faculty and staff? Where have they been? Are they are coming back to the university from a very high infectious area coming into a place that does not have high infections? But the important point here is planning for the most difficult circumstance. We will be able to then adjust as we get closer to the fall term based on the issues of the moment.

Having the virtual aspect helps unload the density of people so we can provide education and research experiences safely for those who have to be on that campus. We feel that we’re taking the right prudent approach to be prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.

Might some campuses fully open?

I doubt there will be any campus fully open with perhaps one exception and that may be the CSU Cal Maritime Academy, which has less than 2,000 students and whose curriculum is quite different than the rest of the 22 campuses.

Cal State University Chancellor Timothy White.

What circumstances would allow the campuses to resume in-person classes beyond the ones you’ve mentioned?

This isn’t an issue of being open or closed. It is an issue of how do we safely repopulate the universities in a way that meets all of the health and safety standards, particularly in the light of the fact that we’re anticipating another significant outbreak in the late fall. And, again, quite frankly, in the spring of 2021. … The notion of a vaccine that will be effective and distributed is not in the cards for the fall term.

Isn’t it possible that you will lose some students who don’t want online classes, particularly new freshmen?

First, I will say that our enrollments that have been committed to look exactly the same, if not up a little bit, as we’re looking at the early numbers. We’re sending a message that it is just not a time for an individual to stop out, but rather a great opportunity for them to continue or to start their education. There is still robust financial aid available. It’s a moment to persist and take that very first, very important first or next step toward the promise of a lifetime of upward mobility. I don’t see any evidence of (enrollment loss) as we speak today. I’m sure there are going to be individual students who are going to say: This is not for me and I’ll wait. And there are going to be other students who say: This is a time to lean in and get that education because I want a different kind of life in the years ahead. So we will have to see what the data say about enrollment.

When you prepared to make this announcement, did you have a sense that you could be a trendsetter for other public university systems across the country?

I know because of our importance and because of our size and the success we are having with our Graduation Initiative, that there are a lot of eyes on the California State University system. But I did not consider in the decision process as to whether or not this had an implication for others. That is for others to decide. But I’m also not naive and know that what we do does get attention and will make people think about how they want to go forward.

What role did any liability fears play in your decision? Were you concerned that somebody might contract COVID-19 on a campus and then sue the university?

The driving factor was health, safety and progress to degree. You know, we always think about risk management. We always think about liability. But the driving factors were to do the right thing, even though it may not be the popular.

Are you familiar with UC San Diego’s program for massive coronavirus testing of all its students and staff? What do you think about that example and could CSU undertake something like that?

It’s very ambitious. It’s going to be expensive. I think when you have a medical school on your campus and more basic science labs (as UC San Diego has), that goes into the realm of the possible. I will remind you that a COVID-19 test that is negative today doesn’t mean you don’t pick up the disease next week. But I applaud their announcement, and it will be very, very important to see if it is as effective as I hope it will be.

You’ve already postponed your retirement through at least fall 2020. Is there any possibility that you stay as chancellor and extend into spring 2021?

Well, you know, the board is in the process of selecting the next chancellor. A lot can happen between now and then. I was interested in stepping down on July 4. That was going to be my Independence Day. But I could not stop serving this beloved university, and I think it’s provided some comfort to our trustees and to our presidents and to our faculty and staff. One advantage of being where I am in life is that I have a lot of experiences and am sort of known to be a steady hand on the tiller. So, I feel honored and privileged to be in this role. I didn’t expect the last part of my time at CSU to be with this (emergency), but I am happy to provide whatever I can by way of leadership during this time. The future will express itself as it gets discovered.

Story originally published by EdSource.