Remarks by Dr. Timothy P. White - February 28, 2020

Chancellor, The California State University
California Chamber of Commerce
Board of Directors Meeting (as prepared)
La Jolla, California
February 28, 2020

Good morning. Thank you, Mark, for the kind introduction.

Allan, thank you, as well for the opportunity to address the CalChamber board today and also for your decades of skilled and dedicated leadership at this esteemed organization and in California’s business community writ large. It’s been to California’s great benefit.

I always welcome opportunities to speak about the California State University and our inextricable link to the business community, as together we work to drive California toward its brightest future.

However, as I sprint to the finish line that is the conclusion of my tenure as CSU chancellor, I know that the time is rapidly nearing when fewer people will be interested in hearing my views – though I’ll always be keen to share them.

And so, I thank you again for the opportunity to address the Board of Directors today.

Given how passionate I am about the importance of higher education and the mission of the CSU – and, of course, how obviously youthful and spritely I am – I am often asked why I am choosing now to retire.

It’s certainly not because I’m ready. If that were my benchmark, I would perhaps never retire.

No, it’s because the CSU is ready.

We have strong leadership, both in our system office and on our 23 campuses – leadership with a clear vision and roadmap for moving the university ever forward.

Our student success goals – which I will speak more about later – continue to have a positive impact, with more students graduating every year.

Our university is more diverse and more inclusive than ever before.

And our leaders in Sacramento continue to demonstrate their belief in us by investing substantially in our work, although we will always have needs to fill.

In my view, it’s best to change leadership during times of stability and success, when an organization is on a steady ascent. And so, the CSU is ready.

This is important, not only for our university, but for our state and for you and the businesses you represent.

Because the future of the California State University and the future of California are one and the same.

No other institution touches everything Californians value and hold dear. Through education, research, creative activity and discovery, the CSU impacts transportation, communication, art, entertainment, tourism, healthcare, education, safety, agriculture, public policy, law enforcement, our judicial system, information systems, libraries, manufacturing innovation, air/water/soil quality, and sustainability and social services.

Our 23 campuses – from Humboldt State in the north to San Diego State in the south – educate more than 480,000 students, producing nearly half of the state’s bachelor’s degrees and one-third of the state’s master’s degrees.

This includes half – or more – of the state’s bachelor’s degrees in engineering, public administration and criminal justice.

Nearly half of the degrees in life sciences, nursing, media, culture and design.

Three out of every four degrees serving California’s iconic agriculture and wine industries, alongside unique programs supporting California’s world-renowned hospitality and tourism sectors.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the CSU also prepares more than half of the state’s teachers.

In total, one in ten California employees have earned a degree at the California State University.

With an astounding 3.8 million living alumni around the world, Cal State graduates are leaders in every industry sector.

In fact, if our alumni were the population of a state, it would be the 29th largest state in the U.S.!

Cal State!

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.

But even more important than the quantity of alumni who are “Made in the CSU” is the quality. Our graduates not only possess the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in the workforce but also the disposition.

They look to the future rather than wade in the past. They reach beyond the known to consider what’s possible. They demonstrate keen intelligence and remarkable grit.

I was recently reminded of this when I watched Cal State alumnus Jonas Rivera make history at this month’s Academy Awards as the first U.S.-born member of the Latinx community to win multiple Oscars.

I love Jonas’s story. It is Cal State to the core.

Growing up in Castro Valley, a passion for Star Wars movies and old Disney classics fueled his desire to become a filmmaker – more specifically, an animator – so he enrolled at San Francisco State to study film production.

In 1994, while working on his cinema degree, Jonas became fascinated with Pixar’s brilliant computer-animated short-film “Luxo, Jr.”

He cold-called the now-legendary animation studio, seeking an internship. The problem was, Pixar didn’t offer internships.

But apparently Pixar hadn’t yet come across a student with Jonas’s moxie, persuasion skills and steadfast refusal to take no for an answer.

His internship started the next day.

Jonas became the first production intern for Toy Story, sweeping floors and getting lunches for the crew.

Still, he considered it his dream job.

Jonas’ responsibilities increased with every subsequent Pixar feature until he eventually was named producer of the 2009 animated classic “Up,” the first-ever computer-animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination, although it did not win that year.

But in 2016, Jonas did go home with the trophy – as producer of Pixar’s computer-animated comedy “Inside Out” – when that film received an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

And just three weeks ago, Jonas received his second – and history-making – Oscar as producer of Toy Story 4, when that film also won for Best Animated Feature.

From his first role sweeping floors as a production intern, Jonas now serves as senior vice president of production, overseeing all feature film production at Pixar Studios.

That shows the power of a Cal State degree to fulfill dreams and to break barriers. But, perhaps more importantly, it speaks to the intrinsic qualities of CSU alumni.

It also highlights another important role of our university, educating a student population that reflects California’s dynamic and growing diversity.

The CSU provides more than half of all undergraduate degrees earned by California’s Latinx, African American and Native American students. In fact, like our state, the CSU has no ethnic or racial majority – the largest plurality is comprised of Latinx students.

I often tout that the CSU is the largest and most diverse public four-year higher education institution in the country.

I raise this point, not because it’s true (although it is) and not because it’s a point of pride for our university (although it certainly is), but because it is so central to our mission.

At its core, the Cal State is about opportunity, prosperity, mobility and justice. It is about empowering Californians to be the best and most successful version of themselves so that California as a whole succeeds.

The increased diversity of our university means greater access and opportunity for Californians from all backgrounds, who will lead us to a brighter, more united, more inclusive future. 

This is tremendously important for the future of California’s business community. As I am sure you would all attest, nothing is more damaging to a company than stagnation.

Stagnant thinking.

Stagnant action.

​Stagnant results.

An increasingly diverse, educated workforce is the antidote. Our graduates’ diversity provides a range of backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences that enrich the workplace and give rise to fresh thinking that sparks new ideas.

At the same time that the CSU is helping to change the face of California’s workforce, we are also radically changing – for the better – the prospects of individuals and communities across California.

Our university is arguably the United States’ most powerful escalator of social mobility. Recently, CollegeNET released its latest Social Mobility Index, which ranks nearly 1,400 colleges on their track record of moving people from economic disadvantage to economic success.

All 23 CSU campuses were ranked in the top quartile of that index. That’s consequential.

And it’s you who deserve much of the recognition and thanks. Because, while we provide the sheepskin, you take it from there: offering our graduates well-paying jobs that change the trajectories of their lives, transforming families and elevating entire communities.

So, how do we continue this momentum? How do we collectively continue building a prosperous future for California and all Californians?

At the CSU, it means staying the course on our commitment to student achievement and success. This commitment is embodied by what we call Graduation Initiative 2025, our flagship effort to significantly improve graduation rates while eliminating graduation rate gaps between historically underserved students and their peers – all by 2025.

So far, the results of the initiative have been nothing short of remarkable. A record 107,319 students earned bachelor’s degrees in 2019. That’s 20,000 more than in 2015, the year before the initiative was launched. 20,000 more graduates! If those students were to join hands, they’d form a line that would stretch more than 21 miles long. As the crow flies, that’s almost from here in La Jolla to the Mexican border!

And graduation rates – across the board, for students from all backgrounds and walks of life – are at all-time highs. In the four years since the initiative was launched, the systemwide four-year graduation rate has risen by 8.2 percentage points. And the two-year graduation rate for students who transfer into the CSU has gone up by about 10 points.

These metrics have very real – and very positive – implications for our students and for our state. As students graduate more quickly, they save time and money. In fact, by graduating just one term earlier, our students enjoy an immediate financial gain of $13,000. And for every percentage point of improvement we make to our graduation rates, we create additional – and much-needed – enrollment capacity for approximately 2,500 students.

Freeing capacity in conjunction with securing state funding for additional enrollment growth allows us to provide more Californians with the life-changing opportunities associated with a Cal State degree. Moreover, it’s essential if we are to do our part to help California meet its ever-growing and critical demand for an educated workforce. I’m sure many of you are aware that – according to a much-cited 2015 report published by the Public Policy Institute of California – the state is projected to fall 1.1 million college graduates short of the number required by economic demand in 2030, just a decade away. This “workforce skills gap” looms ominous for the state’s rapidly evolving economy.

So it gives me great pleasure to report to you that just three days ago, the PPIC published an update indicating that – thanks in large part to state funding for enrollment growth, coupled with student success efforts like our Graduation Initiative 2025 – California is now on track to close that workforce skills gap. It’s a powerful and timely example of how the CSU – and our partners at the University of California and California’s Community Colleges – can move the needle for California’s economy. Our efforts are working and the momentum is building, but maintaining this momentum will require sustained investment from our leaders in Sacramento.

Another way we’re helping California – and California businesses – meet future workforce needs is through our efforts to increase incoming students’ level of academic preparation. One such example is the recently approved phased implementation plan to modify the CSU’s admission requirements. Beginning in the fall of 2027, high school students will enhance their preparation for college by completing one additional course of quantitative reasoning to be eligible for admission to the CSU.

We all know that the nature of work is evolving perhaps faster than ever before. Our students’ academic preparation must therefore also evolve. With an additional course in quantitative reasoning – which could be a math course, a course in financial literacy, computer programming or a dozen other subject areas – students will be better prepared for success in college and, ultimately, for the changing future of work, no matter what career path they choose.

I want to emphasize that the data indicates the vast majority – almost 94 percent – of our students would already have satisfied this additional quantitative reasoning requirement. So, you might reasonably ask, “Why bother to make the change?” The answer is simple. Every. Student. Matters. According to our data, 3,200 out of 63,198 incoming students would not have satisfied the proposed requirement. Of these students, 845 – one in four – did not return to the CSU for their second year. And 73 percent of those who did not return were African American or Latinx students.    

So, at its essence, the requirement is about equity. It’s about eliminating disparities in preparation so that students from all backgrounds have authentic access to the CSU, which ensures that our students not only are admitted to one of our outstanding campuses, but that, once there, they are empowered to succeed, to discover and follow their interests and passions to a career of their choosing.

These are some of the key steps the CSU is taking to ensure that we’re preparing the next generation of Californians for success in the workforce. However, we’re also bridging the traditional spheres of influence for public higher education institutions and the business community to find innovative ways we can work together to achieve our shared objective, a California with opportunity for all.

One example is through regional partnerships aimed at ensuring that CSU academic programming is addressing the needs of local businesses and the larger community.

Examples of these partnerships exist on every campus across the CSU. Here are just a few:

Thanks to collaboration with agribusinesses throughout the Central Valley, CSU campuses in Bakersfield and Fresno are becoming centers of innovation – helping to ensure the future vitality of a region that feeds the world, even as the field of agriculture continues to rapidly evolve. At Bakersfield, students work directly with local ag business leaders, both in the field and at the new Grimm Family Center for Agricultural Business. And in Fresno, the University Agricultural Laboratory is operated in close association with industry partners and is a hub for research in water-use efficiency and soil-management practices, among many other areas.

The School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State is the first in the country to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees focused exclusively on the business aspects of the wine industry. Students take classes in the Wine Spectator Learning Center, a world-class collaborative space for faculty and business leaders.

Partnership with local business is shaping the curriculum and enriching the student learning and discovery experience in the engineering program at San Marcos, just a few miles from where we sit this morning.

At Cal State Monterey Bay, the campus worked closely with local healthcare organizations to develop an innovative physician assistant program to address the region’s urgent disparities in healthcare access that are disproportionately impacting underserved populations.

And in the entertainment and hospitality fields, advisory boards comprised of industry leaders have been instrumental in providing mentorship, professional learning experiences, internships and networking opportunities for CSU students systemwide.

These regional collaborations have tremendous benefits to Cal State students and to the participating businesses, but collectively, we must do more.

We must find new opportunities for partnership to ensure that our students are graduating with the skills your companies need.

We must be innovative and look to the future to identify areas of emerging opportunity and need.

And we must continue to collaborate. To speak up and to listen, and when there is an opportunity to improve, to evolve.

The asks are high but so are the stakes. The future of your businesses requires graduates who are skilled, able to adjust to rapid change, to problem-solve, to work in groups, while remaining self-motivated, and to be ready for a future that exists beyond our collective imagination here today.

Those graduates will be found among our half a million students.

I will conclude by simply saying thank you. Thank you for being strong and constant partners. Thank you for your insight and leadership. And thank you for being champions of the California State University, our students and our alumni.