Remarks by Dr. Timothy P. White - April 23, 2019

Remarks by Timothy P. White
Chancellor, The California State University
Keynote Address (as prepared)
Taking Student Success to Scale (TS3) Convening
National Association of System Heads (NASH)
Baltimore, Maryland
April 23, 2019

Thank you, Rebecca, and good afternoon.

As I prepared for today's remarks and reflected upon systems of higher education…the ways in which system leaders can work with their constituent campuses to leverage synergies and scale to enhance the student experience and improve outcomes…it occurred to me again and again just how much the discussion and dialogue we'll have over the course of the next two days has evolved as compared to that of just a few years ago.

The debate is changing. Discussions about centralization versus decentralization are moving toward more nuanced conversations about optimization. And we're thinking deeply about ways that policies can be effectively implemented…and positive changes effected…across systems comprised of sometimes very disparate institutions…with very different and perhaps even conflicting challenges and needs.

I think back to my days as a campus leader, particularly my time as the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside. I recall grumbling with other chancellors – sometimes facetiously, sometimes anything but – about the UC leadership when they were contemplating some policy that we didn't agree with or about which we didn't feel there had been adequate consultation.

“Those turkeys in Oakland don't know anything about running a campus."

After I was named the California State University system chancellor in 2012 and began walking our campuses, speaking to various stakeholder groups, I was caught a bit off guard when it became apparent…readily apparent – “Wow…now I'm the turkey!"

So now, as the Big Turkey in Long Beach, it's been my mission to move from “command and control" to “enable and facilitate." The leaders in my office share that mission. We work hard to build relationships with campus presidents, academic senates, student leadership and other campus stakeholders. Those who are engaged on the frontlines inform our ideas and policies. During our senior leadership meetings every second month, I always make a point of leaving two or three hours with no agenda. I share what's on my mind; campus presidents share what's on their minds. We deliberate carefully about matters before moving from issue to dictum, recognizing that it's only when the campuses succeed that the system succeeds.

Of course, there are challenges. We never get it perfect. Systems are stronger and wiser for shared governance, but we can't get caught up in a cycle of indefinite debate and consultation. As system leaders, we ultimately need to have the courage to advance bold initiatives that may not have complete stakeholder consensus…and to measure, communicate and optimize the results. Our boards rightly expect us to take action…our public and elected officials and agency heads who decide our state appropriation demand it.

So, we are fully immersed in a culture of collaboration and consultation. And while we're laser-focused on systemwide goals, we're mindful to be flexible on the means, recognizing that the implementation of a policy at San Diego State or Cal State Fullerton will necessarily look different than at Cal Maritime or Cal State Bakersfield.

But even while we strive for this flexible, consultative and symbiotic relationship, all of us in this room recognize the sheer power of our system, the California State University.

We see it in our operations. In 2018 alone, Cal State was able to enjoy $101.4 million in cost savings and avoidance, leveraging the system's purchasing power to reduce procurement costs and by implementing energy management processes, systemwide risk-management strategies and other initiatives. That's over $100 million that can be diverted to other measures to support student success.

We see it in our advocacy efforts. Thanks to the hard work of our state and federal relations teams, we consistently have been able to gather systemwide coalitions of stakeholders – university presidents, academic senate leadership, students, union and collective bargaining representatives – to speak with one unified, clear and powerful voice…around the three or four things we all agree on…to our legislators in Sacramento and Washington.

And we see it demonstrated in response to emergency. Last November 8th, a gunman tragically shot and killed 12 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. It was “college night." Forty-eight students from Cal State Channel Islands were there to witness the unimaginable horror that night. Days later, as the Channel Islands campus was preparing for a campus-wide vigil, the Hill Fire…one of California's many devastating wildfires last year…broke out without warning. An hour later, the Woolsey Fire erupted. Between the two, more than 100,000 acres and 600 structures were destroyed – the Channel Island campus was evacuated for several days. Classes did not resume until five days later.

Cal State systemwide resources were activated immediately. The system's Emergency Operations Center was deployed to Channel Islands and other campuses affected by the wildfires, such as Chico and the Paradise Fire. Cal State's virtual emergency operation center software allowed police chiefs to communicate with one another and with my office. Cal State Los Angeles supplied officers to supplement the Channel Islands campus police force, which was stretched beyond its capacity. Emergency management staff from Cal State Northridge arrived to provide support for the multiple incidents. Counselors and psychologists from across the Cal State system traveled to the Channel Islands campus to provide urgently needed care for grieving students.

It was a stark, yet stirring reminder that higher education systems are also compassionate communities.

Today, though, I would like to focus beyond the ways that we leverage the power of systems in our day-to-day operations, as mission-critical as they are. Some may call it “system-ness"…and that's okay, but structural. I prefer a more functional description. With apologies to Merriam-Webster: maybe “optimize-ness," “enabler-ness" or, probably most apt, effectiveness.

The great value of a system – its most awesome power – is that the system allows us to take on work and to scale results in ways that a single university simply can't. A system – after an authentic, collaborative effort to gather input and understand the campus viewpoint – is uniquely positioned to take bold, courageous measures, spurring its collective membership to undergo what may be uncomfortable change…discomfort that a university campus might hesitate to bring upon itself. And the system can then support these efforts through the provision of resources and expertise…and by facilitating the systemwide sharing of data and best practices.

This is how the big, challenging issues are tackled. This is how student success is brought to scale.

Although our first campus (what is now San Jose State University) was birthed in 1857…just seven years after California became a state…and 11 years before the University of California was established in Oakland in 1868 before moving to Berkeley five years later…the Cal State system was founded six decades ago.

It was founded upon – and still driven by today – the idea that all Californians – regardless of background, circumstance, ethnicity, gender, orientation, location or status – should have the opportunity to attend college, work hard, learn new things, make positive change and set a course toward lifelong success.

It's the idea that inspires our work every day. And it's the idea behind Graduation Initiative 2025… our ambitious, multi-faceted approach to increase graduation rates for all students while completely eliminating equity gaps for students of color and low-income students.

We're doing it because California is facing a workforce skills gap and is projected to face a shortfall of one million bachelor's degree holders by 2030. We're doing it to expand our capacity and increase access for thousands of Californians looking to better themselves and better their lives. But most of all, we're doing it because it is the right thing to do.

Indeed, for California to succeed, all who have the aptitude and willingness to do the work need access to earn a high-quality baccalaureate degree. Otherwise, we will have to account for an even further polarized and inequitable society that is unfair and unjust – and one that won't end well.

To consider the potential of the Graduation Initiative for bringing student success to scale, let me step back a moment to say a few words about the California State University, for those of you in the audience who might not be familiar with our system.

We're comprised of 23 campuses, with a footprint that stretches 800 miles from Humboldt State University in the north to San Diego State University in the south. (To put that into immediate context, that's roughly the distance from here at Baltimore's Inner Harbor to St. Louis's Gateway Arch.) We educate approximately 481,000 students and employ nearly 53,000 faculty and staff. More than half of our enrollment is comprised of students of color. One third of Cal State undergraduates are first-generation students. Forty-eight percent receive the Pell Grant. Last year, we awarded almost 106,000 bachelor's degrees – that's about half of the total number of bachelor degrees awarded in the state of California…and more than 61,000 of them were awarded to Pell recipients.

So when you consider the size of the Cal State footprint, if Graduation Initiative 2025 produces even modest improvements in graduation rates across our diverse student body, the impact will be significant. If the promising early results hold, the impact could be staggering.

I say this not to be self-aggrandizing, but rather to emphasize to you the extraordinary power of the levers we hold.

Pause for a moment and consider the educational systems represented in this room.

Think about the combined power we have to bring positive change to our nation and to our world.

When you really consider the collective impact we could have on student success, equity of opportunity, social mobility and economic prosperity…taking “the bold, courageous step" becomes more than simply the right thing to do.

It becomes a moral imperative.

Two years ago… we took the bold, courageous step to fundamentally change our approach to supporting students who enter the California State University in need of additional academic preparation.

The need for action was undeniable; almost 40 percent of Cal State students were arriving in need of additional preparation in mathematics and/or English. The majority of these students were relegated to stand-alone developmental education courses in their first year… courses for which they did not earn college credit. So-called remediation. Well, we remediated remediation.

Of the 25,000 students who arrived on our campuses each year in need of additional preparation in mathematics, one in four did not return for their second year. Less than half earned a degree after six years. And these statistics had a disproportionate impact on students from historically underserved communities.

The status quo was unacceptable. Cal State could not achieve our Graduation Initiative 2025 student success goals until we fundamentally retooled our approach to supporting these students.

And so… in August 2017 – after more than a year of broad consultation – I issued a policy change (within the CSU system, it is known as Executive Order 1110). The policy change did three things: First, it revised the methods used for assessment and placement. Second, it strengthened our summer programming. Finally – and most importantly – it discontinued stand-alone developmental education courses for no credit.

Cal State faculty and campus leaders worked diligently to restructure courses, develop academic support resources attached to new credit-bearing courses and to make the necessary administrative changes.

The policy change was implemented at scale…system wide.

And it was implemented…in one year.

Today, no Cal State student is required to take a stand-alone developmental education course. Instead, they are earning college credit… while receiving the additional learning support they need.

Change of this magnitude is not without its challenges… and its naysayers. The policy change was met with some cheers… but also some skepticism. In a system as large and diverse as ours… that is to be anticipated, accepted and welcomed.

Much of that skepticism fell silent, however, with the results from the fall 2018 cohort of students… the first to enter the university under the new policy.

In 2018… roughly the same number of students entered the CSU needing additional academic support in math as in 2017… a little over 17,000.

But whereas fewer than 1,000 of those students completed a lower-division math course in 2017… nearly 8,000 completed the course in 2018… an eightfold increase.

That is consequential.

Consider one of those 17,000… Rogelio Perez, a first-year student at Cal State Dominguez Hills who was featured recently in the LA Times.

Rogelio has long struggled with math… and if he had entered the Cal State system in 2017, he would likely have been relegated to a stand-alone developmental education course.

He would not have received credit for the course… costing him money and causing him to fall behind his classmates. He could easily have been one of the 25 percent who didn't return for a second year.

Instead… Rogelio is enrolled in a college-level math course… and receiving 150 minutes of extra instruction each week to help ensure his success. He's earning an “A"… and college credit.

That is transformational.

Executive Order 1110… and its early indicators of success… highlight one of the great powers of the system I mentioned earlier – the ability to make bold policy changes that impact students at scale. Changes uncomfortable enough that they might not have been made on the campus level.

But the policy lever is not the only tool that systems wield to enact change. The power of the system also lies in its ability to act as a convener… facilitating learning communities and encouraging the sharing of best practices across campuses. To identify skills and knowledge gaps and create professional development opportunities.

Another… and a perennial favorite among campuses: the power to reprioritize funding to support campus initiatives that are having a proven impact on students.

These are some of the tools we use day-in and day-out at Cal State to support campuses in their Graduation Initiative 2025 efforts.

Whether we are developing professional development webinars aimed at supporting the ongoing redesign of courses to facilitate student success…

Or providing campuses with additional funding to scale best practices in advising, such as degree planners and early-alert systems …

Or bringing together campus and county mental health staff to develop partnerships aimed at supporting students' well-being both inside—and outside—the classroom…

Our system office is focused on recognizing where our brilliant campus leaders are best left to approach issues with autonomy and creativity… and supporting those Graduation Initiative efforts appropriately.

But success for an initiative of this magnitude requires more than the involvement of the system office and campus leadership.

Success requires the engagement of every member of your staff, your faculty members, your students, your alumni and your community partners.

We will succeed – or fail – based on whether or not the university community “buys in" to our efforts. Whether or not they embrace our mission of student success… as theirs.

To facilitate this engagement… our system office has made data-driven decision-making a key focal area for the initiative. Simply put, we collect, synthesize and strategically share data to elicit and focus the support of the university community to help us achieve our goals.

I am particularly excited about our systemwide data dashboards. The dashboards provide actionable data that enable our high school, community and faculty partners to better support students through their educational journey… from admission through graduation.

The faculty dashboards are particularly innovative… and important. For many students, the most influential person in their college experience is a faculty member. Given this outsized influence … it is imperative that they have most effective tools to support their students.

The faculty dashboards provide extensive and actionable data. For example… a professor in the School of Arts and Humanities at Cal State Bakersfield can look at the first-year students who enrolled as history majors in 2012 and identify how many graduated in four years… and how many dropped out. They can identify which courses in the major have the highest failure rate… and which ones have significant achievement gaps.

The data is rich. To help our faculty and staff better understand the wealth of available data and how to leverage its power for student success… our system office recently began a Certificate Program in Student Success Analytics.

An assistant professor from Cal State East Bay was part of this program's first cohort. She herself had been a first-generation college student, so it was no surprise that… when it came time to do a deep dive into the data… she chose to focus on the persistence rate of first-year, first-generation college students.

Using what she learned from the student success analytics program, she submitted a proposal to speak to her fellow faculty at their professional development day, “Back to the Bay." At its conclusion, she was approached by numerous colleagues who wanted to serve as mentors in a first-generation student program.

It's another great example of the power of the system. By providing a faculty member at Cal State East Bay with data about her students… and the training on how to understand and leverage that data… she, in turn, is informing and inspiring her colleagues to action regarding a vulnerable student population… and those students in turn will be receiving mentoring and additional support to ensure their success.

This conference provides us with a powerful data-sharing opportunity. I urge you to connect with colleagues familiar and new. To share or brainstorm innovative ways to leverage our systems to bring student success to scale. To find inspiration for that next bold, courageous step.

I believe we have a few minutes for questions. Before we begin the Q and A, I would like to invite to the stage two valued members of my staff (fellow turkeys from Long Beach) who have been instrumental to the success of our Graduation Initiative 2025…and who can provide more details about some of the aspects of the initiative I've shared today:

James Minor, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Senior Strategist for Academic and Student Affairs, and

Jeff Gold, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Student Success Strategic Initiatives, Research and Innovation.

As James and Jeff make their way to the stage – I'd like to quickly walk you through some of key data points indicating the early results of the policy change that eliminated stand-alone developmental education courses – they're truly consequential and worthy of additional attention.

  • The first line in this chart indicates the number of students who arrived on campus – in 2017 and 2018 – in need of additional academic support in mathematics. The totals are virtually the same.
  • The second line is critical. 10,550 additional students attempted a lower-division in 2018 versus 2017 – with added academic support. 10,550 more students were given a chance.
  • I'll jump to the last line. Completion rates were unchanged. Given the chance, students passed the course – at the same rate – and earned college credit.
  • The key number? 7,002. That's the number of additional students who completed a lower-division math course, earned credit—saved money—and now remain on track to earn their degrees and achieve their goals.
  • Look – this isn't rocket science – it's more important – because one of those 7,000 students will go on to astrophysics and make a discovery that transforms rocketry and life away from earth.​