On cusp of retirement, CSU chancellor reflects on tenure, leading 23 universities through pandemic

One of California's leading educators is stepping down at the end of the month.

Dr. Timothy White, chancellor of the California State University system, is retiring. The chancellor stayed longer than he planned, to adapt the nation's largest four-year public university system to the pandemic.

White was stepping down after eight years as chancellor, then the pandemic hit. He delayed retirement to oversee 23 universities convert to online learning.

"As the spring emerged with the pandemic hitting the world and the university and getting instruction in the virtual space almost overnight, we flipped 72,000 courses in the course of about (one week's) time back in March."

In May, on Eyewitness Newsmakers, White joined the leaders of the U.C.'s and the community colleges when he announced that remote learning would continue at all CSU's the next school year.

"We believe it will provide the greatest access for the greatest amount of students in the greatest number of courses," he said.

That decision begged the question of enrollment: Would students sit out this year?

"This term, this year, we have the largest student body in the history of the university, almost 490,000 students."

The California State University System is the largest public university system in the United States, with nearly four million living alumni.

White said, in fact, there has been no measurable enrollment decline.

"Actually, for us, it's been an increase unlike most places across the country," he said. "In the spring, we had the largest graduating class in the 60-year history of the California State University. Over the summer, we had an 85% retention rate."

Chancellor White's sendoff from the Board of Trustees was virtual, just like this year's graduation ceremonies. About the time White started, the state legislature had slashed the CSU budget by a billion dollars. That money has been restored and then some, but the chancellor points out virtual learning is expensive.

Cal State Fresno President Joseph Castro will succeed Chancellor White in January and he plans to continue White's Graduation Initiative 2025.

"We established, back in 2015, a 10-year plan to increase this achievement of our students, as measured by a high-quality education and the time it takes to earn a degree. And every year, year in, year out, we have increased the graduation rates," White said.

Over his tenure, the chancellor says it was important that new campus leaders look like California, with under-represented communities, including women.

"And indeed today, 12 of our 23 presidents are women," he said. "And they bring a richness to the conversations among all the presidents in a way that everybody benefits."

When asked what he considers to be his greatest achievement in his tenure, Chancellor White said: "Single greatest thing is probably that my signature is on almost a million degrees. At the end of the day, it's about earning that degree."
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