"I have a great deal of empathy for people who have been hurt either in their health, economics or the situation because of this pandemic," said CSU Chancellor Timothy White. (Photo courtesy of California State University)

When California State University Chancellor Timothy White announced in October 2019 that he would be retiring this year from the 23-campus system, no one imagined the universities would be facing an unprecedented pandemic, budget cuts and nearly a year of mostly online learning.

Despite those changes, the CSU boasts higher graduation rates than when White first took the helm in 2012, retains a higher percentage of first-year students, and has its largest enrollment ever. In January, Fresno State President Joseph Castro will replace White.

EdSource reporter Ashley A. Smith talked with White on Dec. 1. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

EdSource: Do you feel encouraged or discouraged by the Graduation Initiative 2025 progress? The four-year rate for first-time freshmen increased to 31% from 27.5%, and the goal is to reach 40%. But the six-year rate stayed the same as last year at 62% and the goal is 70%.

Chancellor White: When you look at the year-over-year improvements in graduation rates, the ones you just described as well as the those for transfer students, we are right on schedule making progress towards our 2025 goals.

I’m very pleased by the effort, not only by our faculty and staff, but also by our students, to change their approach to how they pursue a college education and carrying full loads whenever possible, so they can get through in a shorter amount of time.

The fact that we pivoted to the virtual space this last spring and finished out that semester. We had the highest number of students earning their degrees in June 2021 that we’ve ever had in the history of the university.

We’ve also had the highest retention rate of first-year students last year who came back as second-year students this year, approaching 86%.

Even though we’ve pivoted into the virtual space temporarily during this pandemic, our students, faculty and staff have really, quite frankly, leaned into this moment to continue this effort on our graduation initiative with stunning success.

And so, one of the things that we’re asking Gov. (Gavin) Newsom in his budget is to continue this investment in the graduation initiative. It creates the seed corn of California’s future. And it is not a time to pull back on funding the CSU. It’s actually time to increase investment because the return is so powerful.

EdSource: Speaking of the state budget, are you worried about CSU’s financial future? Should the CSU expect and prepare for significant cuts next year? (CSU is requesting more than half a billion dollars from the state, which includes restoring $299 million that the state cut this past summer, $150 million for the Graduation Initiative 2025 and $16.5 million to fund a new mandatory ethnic studies requirement known as Assembly Bill 1460.)

Chancellor White: I’m both an optimist and a realist. Our goal in making our budget presentation and then submitting it to the governor is assessing our needs and recognizing that the economy in California is in trouble. As we speak, there is this current flare in the virus spiking at rates that we haven’t ever seen before. And it’s going to have an economic impact as restaurants are now closing again. So, the governor’s budget is going to have a lot of mouths at the trough to be responsibly taken care of.

We will make our case. But there are also other, very legitimate, necessary needs in California that will also be making the case. And so, at the end of the day, I’m hopeful that we’ll have some movement in our budget, but also the economy could collapse again. And some of these one-time dollars that came in over expectations over the last several months could very quickly be used up in a continuing downturn in our economy.

We’re approaching it at the university as a three-year austere budget. We are now, about six months into it. … And going for the next three years. The sense I have is that the next fiscal year — the July 2021 to June 2022 year — will be a more difficult financial year than this year. And then, starting the year after that, things might start to ease up.

We’re not interested in raising tuition. We’re not raising it this year. Financial aid is as strong as ever. So, students and families who run into financial difficulty at home can have their financial aid package recalculated. And if there’s room for more, they will be able to be awarded that.

EdSource: Within CSU’s budget request to the governor’s office is $16.5 million to implement the mandatory ethnic studies requirement. Do you think the legislature overstepped the mark by denying CSU’s initial recommendation to offer social justice, along with the traditional ethnic studies classes, that would have perhaps lowered the cost?

Chancellor White: The law is the reality of how we go forward as a state university and I accept that. There’s no difference between the legislation or the CSU approach. Back during the days when we had two parallel paths forming for our students, we were thinking of this in a broader sense beyond just the four historical groups (Black American, Indigenous American, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander studies). Whereas the legislation is limited to those four historical groups. And so now the faculty on the campuses are thinking through how best to do that.

But when the Legislature creates a mandate for us in any area, there’s a cost associated with it; it’s only fair that they also pick up the financial tab. Unfunded mandates are ways in which you actually weaken the university. So now that this has been signed into law by the governor, they simply need to come forward and pay for the additional costs.

EdSource: We have a new presidential administration coming in nationally with President-elect Joe Biden. What policies do you expect or hope to see the new Biden administration tackle from Washington?

Chancellor White: There’s now a great opportunity to create a permanent solution for our DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students and our DACA employees and our Dreamers to get this threat of deportation off their backs and put a permanent legislation in place that actually solves the problem and allows these men and women to live their lives and work their lives here in the United States of America.

I think there’s a good probability of increased help with respect to financial support for low-income students through the Pell grant and other targeted programs that focus on the low-income segment of society.

There’s also good opportunity to have some regulation that has been stripped away from the predatory for-profit universities and colleges just to have those restrictions put back in place. Not all for-profits, there are some that are honorable. But many are predatory. They’re just wasting hundreds of millions of dollars of federal grant money and providing no value to the students who take those courses.

And finally, there will be some rethinking a bit around certain Title IX aspects of how do we protect and respond to complainants when it comes to a sexual assault and sexual harassment issues among our students and employees.

EdSource: We’re still in the coronavirus pandemic, but looking back over this past summer and early fall, is there anything you would have done differently with how the CSU has handled the pandemic?

Chancellor White: I’m actually very proud of the decisions we made and the timeline by which we announced them because it created certainty in a moment of incredible uncertainty for students and for faculty and staff and for our communities. It hasn’t gone without hurt. And I acknowledge the hurt. I have a great deal of empathy for people who have been hurt either in their health, economics or the situation because of this pandemic.

I regret the fact that we don’t have the same vibrant in-person campus life that so many students and faculty and staff look forward to all the time. But this is a temporary accommodation to a worldwide pandemic of historic proportions.

EdSource: Are you concerned about learning loss and the consistent complaints from students that learning online is not the same as in-person classes?

Chancellor White: Our students are understandably disappointed not to be on campus in the way they had hoped for this year, but they’re also learning how to succeed in the virtual space. So many big employers — Facebook, General Motors and others — are saying, “We’re not going back to the traditional workplace in a big office downtown. We’re going to do so much of our work with employees working from home in remote locations.” And so, one of the benefits, if you will, of the current moment for our students, is they’re learning how to succeed and interact in the virtual space in ways that may very well be like their first job. And they can point back in their resume to say, “Look, I was successful in the virtual space. So please hire me, and I’ll work remotely for your company.”

EdSource: What lessons has higher education learned from this pandemic? And are there any new methods or policies that will continue even after a vaccine is widely available and communities reopen?

Chancellor White: The rich and great opportunity in front of higher education is to take the very best that we’re learning in the pandemic and keep those aspects. And then rethink the traditional aspects and find a way to merge a high tech and high touch environment that provide that degree of engagement … by using technology in all the ways that can facilitate that, as well as the in-person activities.

We’ve also learned on the business side of the university, there are enormous savings using technology. We used to travel quite a bit for meetings among deans, provosts or presidents or the board of trustees, with these in-person meetings. And we stopped doing that for all the obvious reasons, and we’re saving tens of millions of dollars on travel costs of employees. We’ve streamlined some of our business services on procurement and getting signatures authorized for purchases and doing it all electronically now rather than in the old way.

Story originally published by EdSource.