California State University asks: What do you want in the next chancellor?
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. Castro will begin teaching at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business in San Luis Obispo after exercising retreat rights granted to him as chancellor.
“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 and 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.