By Josh Dulaney
LONG BEACH -- Don’t let the suit, tie and corner office overlooking the ocean fool you. Timothy P. White, the new chancellor of the Cal State University system, knows how to relate to students.
He’s played quidditch on the campus of San Jose State University and marched with Humboldt State’s band. And in his first nine months, he’s already visited 15 of CSU’s 23 campuses.
His highlight? “Getting a chance to get beyond the brochures and numbers and meet faculty and students,” White said recently from his Golden Shore office, decorated with the ball caps of each university he’s visited.
A product of California’s higher education system, White, 64, has already drawn praise from those who say he shows genuine affection for the university system and those who work in it.
Dorothy Wills, chapter president of the California Faculty Association at Cal Poly Pomona, said White has been a breath of fresh air for faculty wanting an open door to discuss policy issues.
“He’s a real academic,” Wills said. “He came up through the ranks of being a department chair, and the dean and so on. He was a college professor like us. He understands our issues and he’s a product of institutions like ours. That’s very, very important to the faculty.” White is the seventh chancellor of CSU. He took over the post in December from Charles B. Reed, who served 14 years.
White is the first in his family to attend college. He was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to Canada with his family when he was young. He began his higher education at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area then earned a bachelor’s degree from Fresno State, a master’s from Cal State, East Bay in Hayward and a doctorate at UC Berkeley.
He has an approachable demeanor.
“People see me for the title and the position, and I see myself as Tim, and I’m both actually,” White said. “But I’m coming at it as somebody who has been in the system, sent kids to the system and now is responsible for the system, so I want to know, how can I make things better for you.”
White and wife Karen have four sons.
After stints in Ann Arbor, Mich., at Berkeley and Oregon State, in 2008 he became the eighth chancellor of UC Riverside, where he spearheaded the university’s effort for the establishment of a School of Medicine by securing $100 million in gifts and financing.
“He was an absolute advocate and champion for students’ interests and was actually very engaged with the students and made it a point to go to as many of their events as he could,” said Jim Sandoval, vice chancellor of Student Affairs at UCR. “It’s not an exaggeration to say he was beloved by our students.”
At CSU, White will have to steer a ship battered by budget cuts, enrollment constraints and increasing criticism about the cost and necessity of higher education.
One of his top priorities will be increasing graduation rates at CSU.
“We’ve always crowed about access, affordability and equality, and those are three very important things, and now it’s just we add one more, and that’s completion,” White said.
White said completion of college by a blue-collar worker returning to school and churning out a handful of credits a year while raising a family is a success story, as much as that of the student who comes from an advantaged situation and graduates at 22 years old.
CSU has seen a stretching of the age and economic background of its students, he said.
“Today I think a lot of our students are carrying bigger financial burdens with their families,” White said. “They may be the only breadwinner in the family, or one of two or three, and going to school. ... I think there’s a lot of life that gets in the way of students today.”
White is a champion of grants that ease the financial burden of students. Sandoval said while at UCR, White was unwavering in his commitment to maintain financial aid.
White also is a fan of integrating online technology to help students navigate college while balancing work and family life.
But he says that it’s not a panacea. Some students may not have much experience with online learning and still need the human touch.
Technology, he said, provides another arrow in the quiver of higher education, adding that it can make CSU more efficient and effective, but he doesn’t want to “jump on something that sounds cool, smells cool, looks cool, but may turn out to not be helpful to students.”
That may bring a dose of comfort to faculty worried about losing their jobs to technology.
“Let us make a change in a way that will not be too much of a shock to us,” Wills said.
It’s one of many issues that those watching White’s tenure say he must address, including pay for professors.
“If you ask people what their first issue is, it’s a livelihood issue,” Wills said. “One person cannot solve that problem, of course, but at least he’s admitted it’s a problem. We haven’t had a substantial raise in 10 years.”
Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Campaign for College Opportunity, addressed her key issues when she met with White: access for minority students, closing the achievement gap and completion rates.
“We’re obviously excited by his new position and leadership in the Chancellor’s Office, especially given his work at UC Riverside and given his work among all ethnicities,” Siqueiros said. “He’s definitely smart, and I think the bottom line is he seems very authentic in serving students and putting students first.”
Siqueiros wants to see White raise his voice for CSU funding, which has been hit with a nearly $1-billion loss from the state since 2007.
White appears willing to carry the funding torch. But budget disagreements don’t have to turn hostile, he said.
“It’s easier when there’s more food on the table,” White said. “When the crumbs on the table become fewer, manners around the table change.”