California is the most diverse state in the nation, so having a diverse leadership of its schools and colleges shouldn’t be that notable.
But it is. Even for California.
This January when Joseph Castro, a Mexican-American and native Californian, becomes chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system, for the first time, leaders of color will head up all four systems of public education in the state.
All will have an impact by being powerful role models for the millions of students, faculty and staff in the systems they lead. A fundamental question, however, is whether the new leadership will translate into concrete changes that create more equitable institutions and contribute to improved education outcomes.
Leaders in the field think it is more likely that it will.
“Diversification of leadership is quite important and significant to meeting the goals of racial equity,” said Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. “Certainly others are capable of such leadership, but the ability to speak from your heart and authentically about this issue and to have a vision for a direction forward is much more likely to happen with leaders of color.”
In addition to Castro, Dr. Michael Drake, who is African American, became president of the nine-campus University of California system in August. Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who is Latino, is chancellor of the 116 colleges that make up the California community colleges.
Then there is State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who was elected in 2018 to oversee the state’s vast K-12 public education system. Of mixed African American and Panamanian background, he is only the second African American schools chief since the legendary Wilson Riles occupied the post for a dozen years until 1982. Out of 50 state schools chiefs, only one other is Black and a half dozen are Latinos or Latinas.
Together, the four Californians — all of them men — oversee institutions with enrollments of nine million students, more than the enrollments in most countries. Their student bodies are extraordinarily diverse, with white students comprising 26% or less of their enrollments, depending on the system (see box below).
If this new generation of leaders is able to improve the educational success of their students, they will have an outsize impact not only on California’s future, but on the nation as a whole. How they work together will also make a difference as the state attempts to create a more unified “cradle to career” system of education.
What’s also notable is that they are leading their institutions at a time of extraordinary activism and ferment around a range of issues related to racial equity. With that energy and momentum behind them, that could help them move forward on these issues within their institutions. It could also make running them more complicated.
One reality that all four systems of education face is the impact of the pandemic on their budgets, exacerbated by Congress’ inability so far to come up with any additional funds for education, which will trigger huge state funding reductions as well. That could place additional limits on launching any major initiatives on the race and ethnicity front.
Another constraining factor may be whether voters approve Proposition 16, the initiative on the November ballot intended to undo the 25-year-old ban on affirmative action in the state. The outcome of the election could make a difference in whether education leaders will have an additional tool to use in making headway on racial and ethnic inequities.
To varying degrees, the four leaders won’t be taking on entirely new issues on the race and ethnicity front. These include introducing policies for improved education outcomes for all students, but especially for Black and Latino students who may lag behind their peers, and equally importantly diversifying the teaching force and the professoriate, which is still largely white.
They will also have to confront emerging controversies, such as the tougher issues regarding implicit bias and institutional or structural racism, and pressures to offer curricula and courses that more directly reflect the nation’s racial and ethnic history. They will face pressures to change the names of buildings, programs or schools named after historical figures with unacceptable racial views or pasts. Police violence, along with the question of the role of police on campuses themselves, is likely to be an ongoing focus of student activism, including on high school campuses.
‘A tough period’
“This is a tough period to be a leader of any of our educational institutions,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council of Education, the coordinating body for higher education in the United States. “I don’t envy the four leaders that we’re talking about today, and the tasks that are ahead.”
He acknowledged that there may be “heightened expectations” of the new leaders, perhaps precisely because they come from the communities who have been on the receiving end of racial injustices. “Some might be tempted to say, ‘Oh, they’ll fix it,’” said Mitchell, who is a former undersecretary of education and has deep roots in California as an education leader at both the K-12 and higher education.
But he cautioned that this is not a one-person job.
“This is going take all of us,” he said. “It always needed to take all of us, and we need to rally to their support to make sure that they are as successful as we need them to be.”
It’s also the case that many education leaders in California, including those who don’t come from diverse backgrounds have for decades attempted, to varying degrees, to address the reverberations of racial and ethnic inequality in their institutions.
Two years ago, for example, UC President Janet Napolitano launched an expanded initiative on faculty diversity, pledging $7 million to the task. That was only the latest of multiple efforts going back many years. Those efforts have put UC ahead of the 65 other comparable institutions represented by the Association of American Universities. But much remains to be done. Only 10% of UC’s tenured or tenure track faculty were Black, Latino or Native American in the fall of 2017, compared to 8% at public AAU universities and 7% at private ones, according to a recent UC report.
At CSU, Chancellor Tim White launched the Graduation Initiative 2025, whose goal is to radically boost graduation rates. If successful, Black, Latino and Native American students would be major beneficiaries because their graduation rates continue to lag white and Asian students. Earlier this year in an op-article White pledged to take “deeper, systemic action to promote social justice in its full breadth and to reevaluate the structures that constrain us from becoming the full embodiment of our core values.”
Yet the power of the lived experiences of leaders of color can’t be underestimated, says the ACE’s Mitchell.
‘A diversity of experience’
“What diverse leadership brings is critically a diversity of experience,” he said. “These new leaders have grown up in a system that was stacked against them, and so they know what it takes to succeed and thrive in those institutions. And they will bring that experience to bear when they are thinking about faculty recruitment, about the recruitment of presidents and chancellors on their campuses, about high stakes testing in the K-12 schools. It’s those experiences that we count to help us really make diversity, equity and inclusion work.”
And it is those experiences that will help the leaders of California’s public education systems to respond to hurtful and at times fatal consequences of racism that the Black Lives Matter movement and the activism it has inspired and forced the nation to confront. In one of his first interviews after being appointed president of UC, Drake, a physician who received his medical degree from UC San Francisco, talked about having been pulled over by police multiple times — even while driving from LAX to his home in Los Angeles. “I am acutely and have been personally aware of the harsh and disrespectful policing that people of color face. I’ve faced it. My sons have faced it. It’s been a part of American life for all too long, and it’s something that needs to stop,” he recounted.
At the same time, a major challenge for all four leaders is that the systems they head are, to varying degrees, decentralized. How much they are able to accomplish will depend to some extent on how much they are able to bring the institutions that make up each system along with them and their powers of persuasion.
That is especially the case in the K-12 system, fragmented in the form of nearly 1,000 school districts, varying tremendously in size and diversity, and run by locally elected boards over which the state has very little control. It is also a challenge in the community college system, with 116 colleges, each of which also has its own elected board of trustees.
So what can Californians expect? At CSU, Castro has yet to take office, and Drake at UC has been in office less than three months, so it is too soon to know the extent to which they will make racial equity a focus of their work.
But Thurmond and Oakley have been in office longer, and provide examples of how their backgrounds are informing what they do.
Even before being elected in November 2018, Thurmond talked powerfully on the campaign trail about being raised by a single mother who died when he was 6 and being raised by relatives in Philadelphia before returning to California. On taking office, he made making California’s teaching force more diverse one of his top priorities, with a goal of increasing the number of male teachers of color. Black male teachers now make up a paltry 1% of California’s teaching force.
Early in his tenure, he launched a “Closing the Achievement Gap” initiative and established a task force to promote it. After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, he established an “Implicit Bias Training Initiative.” “I believe we need more than talk and platitudes in this country,” he said at the time. “We must not let this moment go unnoticed.”
Just this month, he launched an “Education to End Hate” initiative that, among other things, will award mini-grants of up to $20,000 for professional development for teachers in “anti-racism and bias.” “By equipping our school communities with the tools to teach and promote tolerance, we can use education as the powerful path forward to healing our society so desperately needs,” Thurmond said in announcing the initiative.
At the community colleges this summer, Oakley issued a “Call To Action” to “actively strategize and to take action against structural racism.” The six-part agenda calls for campuses to “audit classroom climate” and to “create an action plan to create inclusive classrooms and anti-racism curriculum.”
He also wants to accelerate implementing the system’s five-year diversity, equity and inclusion plan, and to review police training programs run by the community colleges to ensure that they include training on implicit bias and “deescalation training” with cultural sensitivity.
Oakley has also responded in personal terms to the racial justice issues that have come up in recent months, including the killing of George Floyd. “I’m angry with you, I hurt for you, I stand with you,” he said in a statement to Black students, faculty and administrators. “I want you to know that I will do everything I can to support you. And to everyone in our colleges, let’s go out and do what we do best, engage with our communities, and do what we have always done, and help them heal.”
The pandemic will surely make it more difficult for California’s education leaders to achieve their goals. But in one regard they may be fortunate. Most students are off campus because of the pandemic. Thus, they will be spared, for now at least, having to cope with a wave of campus protests and conflict centered on complex and often deeply emotional racial justice issues.
But in practical terms that will do little to offset the multi-layered set of challenges they face. “This is really a perfect storm,” said the ACE’s Mitchell. “We have an economic downturn that’s impacting low-income families at the precise moment when state support for higher education is under threat. At the same time, we’re striving for racial justice. At the same time, we’re trying to keep ourselves and our communities safe. That’s a lot.”