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Joint Commission on Sports Medicine and Science

Remarks by Dr. Timothy P. White
Chancellor, California State University
Joint Commission on Sports Medicine and Science
Anaheim, CA
February 12, 2016

Thank you, Jim, for that introduction… and for the invitation to speak today. It was very kind of you to pick up all of my first class travel costs… so I sat in the front seat on my 17 minute drive.

As you learned, I’ve been a 44-year member and a fellow since 1972… and I previously held a small role with the American College of Sports Medicine. It is an absolute joy to be back with all of you.

In fact, those leadership years at ACSM gave me the skills, insights and aspirations to redirect into senior academic leadership… to coach at a high level.

You know, in my office at the California State University… when I bring up my background as a life scientist… or I try to draw a connection between graduation rates and muscle plasticity and regeneration… or paint the parallels of academic leadership with coaching water polo at Cal in the 1970s with Pete Cutino… I do tend to get a few deep sighs and blank stares… so today is a welcome change of pace… to get deep sighs and blank stares from colleagues instead of employees!

But in all seriousness, it is an absolute pleasure to be a part of today’s panel on collegiate sports in the 21st century… and to discuss the ways that the California State University is connecting athletics, academics and student wellness… mental and physical health… together to ensure success for our students.

Today, I want to touch on four things that I believe impact how I, as chancellor, view the role of the university in regards to academics, athletics and student support for mental and physical health and wellness:

  • First, my own personal history as a student-athlete turned scientist turned academic leader;
  • Second, our systemwide network of research and student support centers for mental health and wellness;
  • Third, the unique qualities and characteristics of CSU athletic programs; and,
  • Fourth, how these ideas come together under the guiding principle at the CSU of inclusive excellence, which stands at the nexus of opportunity, diversity, quality and success.

A focus on student success has always been part of the CSU… built into the DNA of the system when it was founded nearly six decades ago. As Jim mentioned in my introduction, the CSU is the largest bachelor’s and master’s degree-producing public university in the country, with over 472,000 students, 47,000 faculty and staff, and 3 million alumni.

Just think about the fact that one in 10 college graduates in California came from a CSU campus… and one in 20 nationally. That’s quite an impact on the state and nation.

Our 23 campuses are spread throughout California – from Humboldt to San Diego – and we are driven by our founding mission to serve the public good and the diverse population of California.

Because of our scale and commitment to educating the top one-third of academically qualified Californians, regardless of their financial status… we are a certainly a driving force behind California’s economic and social success over the past six decades.

That last point is the reason why I am a product of the CSU.

This university’s commitment to inclusive excellence and the public benefit – along with an  athletic scholarship – allowed me to pursue a career as a coach, researcher, professor, department chair, dean, provost, president of three research universities, ACSM president and, now, chancellor.

In high school, I was a tall, skinny kid. I also skipped a grade when I emigrated to the U.S. from Argentina via Canada, so I was also very young in my class.

Long story short, when I was a freshman in high school, I was 5 foot 11 and 118 pounds. As an immigrant, I really wanted to assimilate with the other guys, so I decided I would go and play football.

The coaches, being jerks perhaps… although maybe they’d claim in retrospect that it was divine intervention… said I ought to play offensive tackle.

Of course, I broke my arm within the first two weeks.

One of the assistant coaches took me to the hospital. As we sat there for a few hours waiting for my mom, through nervous small talk, he convinced me to go out for swimming… and fast forward to senior year, I was a pretty good swimmer and water polo player.

Basically, due to this experience with an educator and assistant coach, I decided to go to college at Diablo Valley Community College and Fresno State University in order to become a teacher and a coach.

I coached a high school age group and tried coaching at a junior college while getting my master’s degree at Cal State East Bay. I decided I wanted to coach at a four-year college, but back then you needed to be on the faculty to be a coach.

So, that’s when I decided to go to UC Berkeley, get a PhD and coach with Pete Cutino. In those days, sorry Adam Wright… Cal won several NCAA titles.

To be at Cal as a PhD student, I had to get involved in science and had that ‘ah-ha’ moment, and thought, Whoa! This is interesting!

When I got my doctorate from UC Berkeley, I essentially completed the path envisioned by the California Master Plan for Higher Education… the pathway from the California Community Colleges… to the California State University… and the University of California.

Then I started working on a post-doc in physiology in the medical school at the University of Michigan. Ultimately, I got my own lab as a professor…

And as those of you who were also student-athletes, or have competed at any level, will understand – the skills I acquired as a student-athlete and coach were absolutely critical to success in the laboratory… they also helped me succeed as a department chair, and now, in running the largest public university in the country:

  • You get a group of people together;
  • You set and work hard on the goal;
  • You practice every day to succeed;
  • You aspire to be successful;
  • No matter what, you maintain a strong work ethic and commitment; and,
  • You learn how to manage failure.

Training for a water polo match… researching muscle plasticity… developing curriculum… or working with the legislature to ensure opportunities for California’s students… they all require the same skills in order to reach the end goal:

  • Teamwork;
  • Collaboration;
  • Problem-solving through critical thinking;
  • Leadership; and,
  • Aspiring and failing. Never quitting.

Our athletic and academic affairs departments on each campus work to develop these skills in our student-athletes, most of whom will not go pro in their respective sports, but will become the next generation of teachers, engineers, nurses and business leaders.

With that in mind, we end up having a unique set of responsibilities for our student-athletes… developing a supportive network of coaches, teammates, faculty and staff to help keep the athletes accountable in the classroom and on the field… helping them prepare and thrive in a college experience that is likely to be different from their peers who are not student-athletes.

In fact, when we look at graduation rates, our student-athletes at each of our 23 CSU campuses are actually more likely to persist to completion than their non-athlete peers. That’s regardless of campus, sport, gender, race, ethnicity, etcetera.

Our student athletes who entered in 2006 had graduation rates fully 7 percentage points higher than non-athletes. Why? Well, I believe it was because they had built-in peer support... there were organized connections to campus life… and financial aid works better as a two-way street, where there are expectations placed in return for aid.

When we compare the data on the academic performance of our student-athletes to the national average – using the NCAA Division I Academic Progress Rate – the CSU’s overall score of 967 exceeds the average for all other comprehensive universities in the nation.

And, our own data shows that our Division II and III student-athletes are faring just as well.
Supporting academic success is, of course, the primary responsibility. Yet, we are also responsible, as a university, to support their mental and physical well-being.

And perhaps most importantly, and most consequentially… we as an institution must continue to learn more about how to address issues of stress, of time management, of mental and physical health… through research, data analysis, and anecdotal experiences with our students and student-athletes… and develop best practices that we can deploy across our system and can be adopted at other university systems, too.

At Humboldt State University, our northernmost campus located near the California-Oregon border, the North Coast Concussion Program provides baseline and post-injury management services for thousands of local residents each year, including Humboldt State student-athletes, high school athletes, and participants from area youth and adult sports leagues.

The goal of the program is to make the science of concussion accessible to a broader audience… which is imperative for minimizing the incidences of – and harm from – brain injuries.

Humboldt’s concussion program… led by CSU faculty member Justus Ortega… has been recognized throughout the country for adding to the body of research knowledge in this field and developed partnerships with the NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense aimed at developing new technologies to prevent concussions and other brain injuries.

And Cal State Los Angeles has developed two initiatives that seek to improve the mental and physical well-being of students…The Student Health Advisory Committee – known as SHAC (Shack) – is a group of around 50 students trained by counseling professionals to be liaisons and guides for peer support.

I recently visited with these dedicated students… a diverse group of public health, nutrition and kinesiology majors with an undeniable passion for helping their fellow students in need… and devoted to educating and empowering others about mental and physical wellness.

And Cal State LA’s president launched the Mind Matters Initiative in 2014… an innovative, campus-wide push to integrate inner well-being into the framework of university life as a means of supporting a holistic approach to student success.

The initiative, in conjunction with SHAC, helps students navigate the demands of academic excellence, family responsibilities and employment… by providing resources and programs to help students achieve academic and personal success.

We also want to help better identify and assist students in distress, who may not have reached out to someone for help.

Last year, the CSU developed the Red Folder program on all 23 campuses… which is a collection of resources and training programs that helps faculty and staff identify symptoms of mental distress and urges them to intervene, depending on a variety of factors.

The Red Folder itself exists in three forms… as a hardcopy folder… as a digital folder available on faculty and staff computers… and as a mobile application, built by computer science students from Cal State San Bernardino.

What’s perhaps the most unique aspect of sports and athletics in the CSU is the wide array of programs, teams and specialties that we compete in… many with a long history of national success like San Jose State, Fresno State, Long Beach State and San Diego State. And of course, there is Cal State Fullerton, a towering home-run hit from here – with its NCAA Division I baseball championships.

We also have division II and division III schools that excel regionally and nationally… and the sailing and rugby teams from the CSU Maritime Academy… two of our most unique programs, which are ranked among the best in the country.

So you’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse assortment of athletic programs at any other university system in the country, participating and excelling on all levels of collegiate athletics.

That distinctive diversity of athletic programs are definitely a benefit to the CSU.

We know that sports are a platform with many co-benefits and stakeholders... and with 23 campuses, we can see how these benefits and roles that athletics plays helps ensure our guiding principle of inclusive excellence.

There is certainly a socialization and integration role… using athletics to bring students from communities or circumstances into the academic support system that otherwise would not.

That’s an area that I can closely relate to… where my ability to become a student-athlete with a scholarship from Fresno State, permanently altered my life’s trajectory… and provided me with the opportunities to succeed inside and outside the pool.

Many of our student-athletes have similar stories… where their talents and determination on the field have provided a gateway to college… that many students and their families might have previously considered not possible due to finances and other obstacles.

And it is our responsibility to ensure that when student-athletes join the California State University family… we support their athletic goals, their academic pursuits and their mental and physical wellness.

And so let me thank you. While your daily work is focused on coaching, medicine, administration and science… what you are really doing is contributing to the positive fabric of society… providing social mobility for student athletes… many who came from the margins… and economic vitality for the country.