Remarks by Dr. Timothy P. White – May 12, 2020

Chancellor, California State University
CSU Board of Trustees Meeting
Committee of the Whole (as delivered)
Long Beach, California
May 12, 2020


Thank you, Chair Day and good morning.

On January 28th, when I delivered my annual State of the California State University address, I described “a story of a university on a steady ascent, helping to drive California’s future prosperity as it elevates individuals, families and communities across the state, throughout the nation and around the world through the transformative power of a prestigious degree earned from a campus of the California State University.”

Then and now – just 105 days later – that story continues and there is much evidence to support the notion that the state of the CSU remains strong. This is fortunate, because today and over the next few years, make no bones about it, we are and will continue to be challenged by the extraordinarily difficult circumstances imposed by the historic pandemic of COVID-19.

Let me start by reaching out to those individuals who themselves or whose loved ones have been affected directly by this disease. I offer my personal support, understanding and well wishes, along with those of the entire CSU community. And for those who have lost a loved one or friend, we offer our heartfelt condolences.

This morning I’d like to cover three main points. The first will briefly review where we have been as a university and the challenges now in front of us due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its health and financial impacts.  Secondly, I will speak to the rationale for our planning efforts for the fall 2020 term and beyond. Thirdly, I’ll close with some thoughts about the future for our students, faculty and staff.

Turning to the first point, it is not an understatement that the COVID-19 era presents remarkable challenges to our health and welfare, to our economy, and to the way we sustain a vibrant university that embraces inclusive excellence while executing our core mission of teaching and learning, of discovery and innovative contribution, and of engagement with and service to the communities, state and nation we call home.

I stated in January that this university “will continue to advance bold, creative and principled solutions to public higher education’s most pressing and complex challenges.”

Well, it goes without saying, in the intervening 105 days, they’ve become infinitely more pressing and complex.

I stated then, and underscore today, “that moving forward, the CSU [will] continue to be committed to courageously doing the right thing…. [We will] stay the course, but [we won’t] stay the same.”

Over the past few months, as we have tracked, analyzed and discussed the progression of COVID-19, I have witnessed a remarkable growth in the sense of community and resolve among the faculty, staff and students, and among the presidents and vice chancellors – a stirring and gratifying expression of compassion, care and commitment to our students, faculty and staff.

Our resilience is being tested, but I see evidence every day that we are more than up to the challenges now and in the journey ahead. And I see evidence that we are courageously doing the right thing, for the moment and for the short- and long-term future of our beloved university. Indeed, courage to do the right thing, even when it is unpopular.

And, finally, on January 28th I stated, “Of course, the list of challenges and opportunities is much longer and will change over time…” 

I assure you, this is not what I had in mind.

In spring 2020 in response to the rapidly emerging pandemic, the CSU quickly transitioned courses and student-support services to virtual modalities to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, and to enable completion of the academic term.

And we are grateful to those students, faculty and staff for their alacrity, skill, commitment and perseverance during this massive pivot.

In addition to the COVID-19-related alterations in the university, we are also facing significant budgetary constraints over the next several years that will be discussed in greater detail later today in the Committee on Finance.

These alterations include a decrease in revenues – inclusive of that generated by auxiliary support enterprises – as well as increased costs associated with the mitigation of COVID-19, such as those related to sanitation, personal protective equipment, facility modifications, and enhanced technology to facilitate virtual learning and business operations for the university. 

It is this confluence of the demands of the pandemic and the austere budget realities we face that makes our planning efforts for the next academic year complex and yet essential.

But let me be very clear: The California State University remains open, is steadfast in our commitment to inclusive excellence and stands ready to meet California’s higher education needs in the 2020-21 academic year.

The CSU encourages all admitted and continuing students to enroll, and is committed to providing the best and richest possible educational experience for our students, enabling progress to degree completion and licensure in those fields for which it is required. Moreover, the health, safety and welfare of students, employees, guests and our local communities are first-order requirements for the CSU always, and especially in the COVID-19 era.

Let me turn to my second of three points, and that is the necessary and responsible approach to planning for the next academic year.

While the planning horizon is for the 2020-21 academic year, currently we have enough clarity to focus only on fall 2020. The planning framework for course delivery has been and will continue to necessarily be virtual.

This virtual planning approach for the next academic year is necessary because of the evolving data surrounding the progression of COVID-19 – current and as forecast throughout the 2020-21 academic year. As the initial wave of infections, morbidity and mortality is beginning to plateau or subside in some – but not all – regions of California, nonpartisan academic researchers and medical and public health experts forecast a second smaller wave later in summer – followed by a very significant wave coupled with influenza forecast for late fall – and another wave in the first quarter of 2021.

Experts also point out that immunity in the population is approaching the two- to three-percent range – and needs to be in the 60- to 80-percent range to begin to achieve the so-called “herd immunity.” That won’t happen during the next 18 months. There is no vaccine yet – and while hope springs eternal – it is unlikely that one will become widely available throughout the coming academic year.

We cannot change the biology of this disease.

As a society, all we can do is mitigate it through our personal and collective preventative measures. In this regard, the university must do its part. Indeed, on May 8th, Governor Newsom emphasized that COVID-19 will be present in our communities until there is a vaccine or therapeutic, and it will be up to all of us to change our behaviors to eliminate opportunities for the disease to spread.

Let me emphasize that this virtual planning approach is necessary because a course that might begin in a face-to-face modality would likely have to be switched to a virtual format during the term if the serious second wave of the pandemic occurs, as forecast, late fall.

And this approach to virtual planning is necessary because it might not be possible for some students, faculty and staff to safely travel to campus; thus, we should have the option of remote learning available throughout the curriculum, to every extent possible. 

Said another way, this virtual planning approach preserves as many options for as many students as possible and is consistent with our guiding principle of meeting students where they are.

Consequently, our planning approach will result in CSU courses primarily being delivered virtually for the fall 2020 term, with limited exceptions for in-person activities that cannot be delivered virtually, are indispensable to the university’s core mission and can be conducted within rigorous standards of safety and welfare. There will be hybrid approaches, and there will be variability across the 23 campuses due to specific context and circumstances.

Some possible examples of potential exceptions – and only when there are sufficient resources available and protocols in place to assure that rigorous health and safety requirements are in place – include clinical classes with training mannequins for our nursing students such that we keep students on track for licensure and entry into the state’s healthcare workforce; essential physical and life science laboratory classes enabling degree completion and entry into the energy and bioscience fields; access to kilns and other unique facilities to enable students in the performing and creative arts to explore and express the depth, breadth and beauty of humanity; hands-on experience with unique instrumentation and senior capstone projects for engineering, architecture and agriculture students; and access to the blue-water hands-on interactive simulator for boat and ship handling, to provide students with knowledge, understanding and skills necessary for the maritime industry and required for licensure by the US Coast Guard and UN International Maritime Organization.

But anything done on campus this fall won’t be as it was in the past. It will be different.

“Meeting rigorous standards of safety and welfare” is a new and expensive reality: for those limited courses where in-person instruction is indispensable and can be justified, the enrollment per section will be less; for instruction and research laboratories the distance between participants greater; the need for personal protective equipment appropriate to the circumstance prevalent; and the need to sanitize and disinfect spaces and equipment between users essential. Indeed, the health, safety and welfare of students, employees, guests and the local community are first-order requirements for the CSU.

The granting of limited exceptions to permit in-person activities will continue to be informed by thoughtful consultation with academic senates, associated students, staff councils and union leadership, and will be based on compelling educational and research needs, while continuing to meet safety benchmarks. Any exceptions may be permitted only in the continued presence of the aforementioned rigorous safety measures and training, in consideration of resource availability and other matters of local context, and be in accordance with the guidance of local and state public health agencies, the repopulation directives of governmental authorities along with other relevant regulatory agencies.

This combination of factors will result in variability across the 23 campuses due to specific context and circumstances, but predominately there will be limited in-person experiential learning occurring on campuses for the fall 2020 term. There will be hybrid models on some campuses, and in some academic disciplines course offerings are likely to be exclusively virtual.  

The availability of on-campus student housing will of necessity be reduced.

The CSU acknowledges that our decisions positively affect the communities with which our campuses are interconnected by minimizing the spread of COVID-19, and yet also negatively affect local economies by impacting commerce and reducing the availability of cultural and athletic events.

Students and families, along with faculty and staff, will receive preliminary information this month from their respective CSU campuses regarding the nature of their instructional modality and the types of accommodations that will be available to ensure a rich and meaningful learning experience.

Let me close with some thoughts about the future.

I hope that our approach to planning for next academic year turns out not to be as necessary as it now appears. In other words, I hope we are wrong. But look, our university, when open without restrictions and fully in person – as is the traditional norm of the past – is a place where over 500,000 people come together in close and vibrant proximity with each other on a daily basis. That approach just isn’t in the cards now, as I have described.

There are some people today who will say that we are moving too far too fast in our planning. I acknowledge and respect that point of view.  But we sit with a different reality.  And that is we are finishing up over the next few weeks our current academic year with finals and in some cases virtual or sadly no commencement celebrations. Most academic year faculty are just a few weeks away from being off contract until August when they return, and our excellent and dedicated faculty are of course vital to ensure the vibrancy and efficacy of our learning and discovery environment with every modality of course delivery – face-to-face, virtual, hybrid. While there will be more clarity of disease status in August across the varying regions of California where our campuses are located, it would be irresponsible to wait until summer to plan for predominately virtual learning across the curriculum. 

Said another way, it is wise to plan now and over the next several months with enriched training and improvements in virtual learning environments coupled with robust academic and student support, only to pull back a bit in the fall to more in-person as circumstances allow. 

But it would be irresponsible to approach it the other way around and wait until August to only then scramble and not be prepared to provide a robust learning and support environment for our students.

And to our students – new and ongoing, undergraduate and graduate – this is not the time to pause or decline an opportunity to attend a CSU campus. And remember that robust financial aid remains available.

This is the moment to persist, to take that very important first or next step to a degree that promises a lifetime of upward economic and social mobility for students, their families and their communities.

Indeed, with the benefit of ongoing planning and deep consultation with university stakeholders – coupled with additional training and professional development during the summer – CSU faculty, staff and administrators will be prepared to deliver an even more comprehensive and robust virtual education experience for students in fall 2020, including extensive academic and student support.

We expect bold, emerging innovations that will leverage the power of the system within and across campuses, such that working together in new, imaginative and creative ways, we will further enrich the experiences of our new and returning students in the coming academic year. 

As President Mahoney wrote so eloquently last week in the San Francisco Chronicle regarding the fall term: “Some or all of this may have to be done remotely depending upon what ‘protecting public health’ requires. But we, and many other universities, are working hard to perfect remote instruction and build virtual communities. No, it won’t be the same, but it will be good. Most importantly, it will enable students to maintain their academic progress, to maintain momentum toward a degree that will be transformative… personally and economically. This is not the time to pause an education.”

Chair Day, my colleagues and I are here to answer any questions you and your fellow Trustees have, and to hear your thoughts about our beloved university.