California State University's new chancellor, Timothy P. White, began his job in December and he's plugging away at visiting all 23 campuses. He comes in at a time when the nation's largest and most diverse state university system struggles to ensure access to students and, more important, to improve graduation rates.
White is the right leader for this daunting task.
As he told The Sacramento Bee editorial board last week, he came to the United States as an immigrant born in Argentina, and was pretty much a dead-end kid in high school. He started at Diablo Valley Community College and earned a bachelor's degree from Fresno State, the first in his family to earn a college degree.
He went on to get a master's degree from Cal State Hayward (East Bay), and a doctorate at UC Berkeley.
The first CSU system chancellor who is a CSU product, White speaks eloquently about reaching out to students who have the intellect to succeed, but not necessarily the high school preparation or family background of college education: "Our duty is to embrace these kids who don't necessarily have the lifelines in their homes or schools."
At UC Riverside the most diverse campus in the University of California system white, Latino and black students graduate at roughly the same rates. While it aims to do still better, two-thirds of all students graduate within six years, proving that California universities can have diverse student bodies and success.
White was chancellor at UC Riverside for the past four years. He brings that experience and commitment to the CSU, which recognizes that it needs to dramatically improve the rates at which students complete degrees. Two Education Trust reports from 2010 place three CSU campuses Chico, Fresno and Bakersfield among the worst for big gaps in graduation rates.
Nationally, 57 percent of all students who start college earn a bachelor's degree within six years 60 percent of white students, 49 percent of Latino students and 40 percent of black students. That is dismal.
Four years ago, the CSU joined the national Access to Success initiative, a partnership with Education Trust, and pledged to improve its overall six-year graduation rate from 46 percent to54 percent for freshmen entering in fall 2009 as well as to halve success-rate gaps that separate black and Latino students from their white peers.
We won't have results until 2015. But we do have some indications of success. Education Trust highlights San Diego State, which has increased graduation rates for all students while posting double-digit increases in graduation rates for underrepresented students. Six CSU campuses are "top gainers" in closing gaps for black students Pomona, San Jose, San Francisco, Northridge, San Luis Obispo and Long Beach.
Education Trust expects that the CSU system will meet its 2015 goals.
Then what? White needs to lay out a bold vision and an effective partnership with the faculty for even better overall graduation rates and eliminating graduation gaps.
This can be done, as White knows from Riverside.