California higher education hangs in the balance as UC, Cal State search for new leaders
In a rare confluence that will shape the future of California higher education, the state’s two top university jobs are open, high-profile vacancies that position its leaders as national pacesetters because of the size and status of the two systems.
The dual searches at the University of California and California State University have generated a daunting list of desired job qualifications. The new chiefs will be expected to figure out how to meet enormous admission demands, increase student diversity, raise academic achievement, lower costs, secure stable sources of money and deal with fierce politics. All this while improving the quality and prestige of two of the nation’s most popular and renowned public university systems.
And this must be accomplished with limited state funding and salaries well below their comparable peers.
“They probably are two of the most important institutions on the planet in terms of their role and mission,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University who is viewed as one of the nation’s most innovative higher education leaders and is often mentioned as a potential candidate for the UC job.
The native Californian said he was too busy “doing my job as hard as I can” to even think about either position.
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, summed up the ideal skills as “walking on water with a thick skin.”
The two jobs - open after the recent announcements by UC President Janet Napolitano and Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White that they will step down next summer - share broad similarities and significant differences.
Cal State is the largest and most diverse four-year university system in the nation, educating 482,000 students on 23 campuses who are drawn from the top 40% of California’s annual high school graduates. The system is often referred to as the “job engine” of California, filling many of the state’s most pressing workforce needs, including half of the teachers and more than half of the nurses.
The 10-campus UC system educates 280,000 students who rank in the top 12.5% of the state’s senior class and is California’s lead generator of Ph.D.s, in addition to its bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The system is distinguished by its massive and top-ranked research enterprise, five medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories and an overall budget of $37.2 billion, bigger than those of more than 30 states.
Both systems enroll far higher proportions of low-income and first-generation students than do similar universities in other states. But both are struggling to close achievement gaps for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students.
The UC job is “probably the most complex and challenging job in higher education,” said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents North America’s top 65 research universities. “It could also be a very exciting job because the platform the UC system has is enormous and enormously important.”
Napolitano has been credited with using that platform to support immigrant students and sexual assault survivors. But some higher education leaders say the next UC president must step up to champion an even broader task: marshaling public support for the value of a university education amid mounting skepticism about rising costs and perceived political biases.
The UC regents recently released a list of 29 criteria for the next leader based on closed-door consultations with committees of students, staff, faculty and alumni. The top two criteria have drawn particular attention: knowledge of the academic enterprise and a demonstrated track record promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.
The regents themselves are believed to be the most diverse board in UC history, with both Chairman John A. Perez and Vice Chairwoman Cecilia Estolano of Mexican descent and nearly half of the 26 voting board members Latino, African American and Asian American. Perez has said UC particularly needs to work harder to increase geographical diversity, as most students come from urban areas.
Faculty were thrilled by the regents’ stated preference for candidates with “exceptional academic administrative experience” and the highest possible degree in their field. At recent faculty town halls at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Santa Barbara, participants lamented that regents ignored their desire for an academic in the last presidential search six years ago when they selected Napolitano, then U.S. Homeland Security secretary and a former Arizona governor.