Pioneer in Chief
Timothy P. White ’72 brings his comfortable style, plus unconventional moves, to his first tour of CSUEB since becoming leader of the California State University system
BY Monique Beeler
Alex White ’11 isn’t the only Cal State East Bay grad who thinks the man California State University hired was the right choice to lead the 23-campus system. He’s just the only one related to the top boss. The new CSU chancellor, Timothy P. “Tim” White ’72, happens to be Alex White’s father.
“My dad really just wants to help,” says Alex White during a recent break from his job as an associate producer for Indigo Films in San Rafael. “I remember (telling) him before he took it: ‘Some people are going to hate you. You know that, right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know, but I think I can make a difference on a bigger level.’”
“That’s inspiring,” Alex White says. “He took the job to try to change and affect all the CSU campuses.”
It’s quickly become clear that on Tim White’s watch, it won’t be business as usual for the Office of the Chancellor.
Before he showed up on the job to oversee the nation’s largest four-year college system, with a budget of approximately $5 billion and nearly 437,000 students and 44,000 faculty, Tim White announced he’d take a self-imposed pay cut. Also on his early agenda: visit every CSU campus. On his first stop in Northern California, he took off his jacket and joined a CSUEB student for an impromptu hip-hop lesson in the Harlem Shake that immediately landed on YouTube. Similar student-Chancellor activities quickly followed at CSU campuses from Chico to Dominguez Hills
Big boss on campus
Making unexpected moves long has been part of Tim White’s leadership style.
In his previous job as chancellor for University of California, Riverside — the equivalent of university president at a CSU campus — he took the unconventional step of donning a faux mustache and a pair of dark glasses and allowed a camera crew to follow him incognito on campus for a week. The results later aired as a 2011 episode of the CBS reality series “Undercover Boss.” His motive for participating on the TV show was similar to the reasons he’s given for embarking on his statewide system tour. Chancellor White wants to learn firsthand about the institutions he leads and what’s working — or not — for CSU students, faculty and staff members.
“It really is important to me that I get to know each of the campuses,” said Chancellor White at a meeting with members of the media, including student journalists, during his Hayward visit in February. “Because what might work at CSU East Bay might be different than at Humboldt and San Marcos.”
“Plus, it gets me out of the office,” he added, a lopsided grin brightening his boyish face.
It wouldn’t surprise the Chancellor’s former CSUEB graduate program adviser, Professor Emeritus Calvin Caplan, to hear that his one-time master’s student makes a point of spending time outside the ivory tower. In fact, Caplan’s earliest memories of Tim White took place in a swimming pool.
In the swim
“He was a very good water polo player,” says Caplan, who did his best to recruit Tim White for the CSUEB team as an undergrad.
“He was very highly skilled,” says Caplan, a coaching assistant to today’s successful Pioneers women’s water polo program. “He was a fast swimmer. He really knew the game and knew how to play it. He was very physical, very smart, a leader. It was tough to play against him for two years.”
Although White headed off to CSU Fresno to complete his bachelor’s degree, he revisited Caplan and the Hayward campus when he was ready for graduate studies.
“When I got him (as a grad student), I describe him as a diamond in the rough, academically,” says Caplan, adding that he also recognized in the young Tim White a bright and excellent student.
They made an arrangement in which White would enroll in a graduate level kinesiology course, and if he performed well enough, he’d be fully accepted into the program, Caplan said. White earned an A.
Acting as adviser, Caplan helped White plan his program of study including what courses he’d take; develop a thesis proposal; and carry out research, then present the results.
“His thesis had to do with a combination of exercise physiology and motor (skills) learning,” Caplan recounts. “He was bridging the gap between the physiological adaptation in muscles during the learning of motor skills.”
After earning his master’s degree from then-Cal State Hayward, White set his sights on pursuing a doctorate.
“I introduced him to some people at Berkeley, and he took it from there,” Caplan said.
White went on to become a professor and chair of the Department of Human Biodynamics at the University of California, Berkeley, and later served as dean, provost and interim president at Oregon State University. From 2004 to 2008, White was president of the University of Idaho, before becoming chancellor for UC Riverside.
During his Hayward talk with reporters, including student journalists with The Pioneer newspaper and Pioneer Web TV, White offered this advice to today’s CSUEB students: “Never lose track of where you’ve been. Always do the best in the circumstances you’re in, because that will open the next door. I did that and was successful.
“Give beyond self. It’s not just about Tim White, so now I’m reaching back and opening doors for the next students coming.
‘One of us’
His message, combined with his own story of success built on a foundation of a CSU education, resonated with many students who met the Chancellor during his visit to Cal State East Bay.
“He’s one of us — he was a Pioneer,” says Candese Charles, 21, a communications transfer student who previously attended Howard University and UC Berkeley. “It kind of makes me feel like there’s a good path ahead of me. I’ve talked to lots of alumni, and they are on good paths. It’s a good school.”
White is recognized internationally for his research on muscle plasticity, injury and aging, which clearly hasn’t stopped the 63-year-old from showing off his moves in face-to-face meetings with CSU students. During a spring tour of campuses, he tried out break dancing at Dominguez Hills and hopped on a bike for a brief spin around Chico. The interactive trend kicked off, however, during his two-day tour on the Hayward campus, his first formal visit to a Northern California CSU since assuming his new leadership role in December.
“He’s very laid back,” son Alex White says. “I saw the video of him dancing at the school. He loves interacting with people. It’s not just something he does when there are cameras around. He really cares.”
The dance to which Alex White refers was a lesson for the Chancellor in the Harlem Shake, instructed by a student on the walkway outside the University Bookstore. The hip-hop dance — which first gained popularity as a YouTube craze — occurred in February during Tim White’s visit to the Hayward Campus. Removing his jacket, Tim White, dressed in pinstripe slacks, a button up shirt and a silk Jerry Garcia necktie, gamely mirrored his student teacher’s moves — now holding his hands straight at his sides, now pulling his closed fists up to his chest as he shuffles to the right. Between moves, he and his beaming young instructor slap high fives in the air.
The informal performance illustrated a characteristic the Chancellor later discussed with an assembly of CSUEB staff and employees gathered at a formal reception in the New University Union multipurpose room: “I take my role seriously. I’ll never take myself seriously.”
He also took seriously a question-and-answer session with CSUEB faculty, responding directly to queries other leaders might shy away from as potentially too sensitive. Asked about a proposed switch from the quarter system to a semester schedule at several CSU campuses, White said he’s worked under both systems. “I’m a fan of the semester, because I think it’s a better learning environment for the student,” he said. On the subject of MOOCs, or massively open online courses, the Chancellor acknowledged the rapidly changing technological environment surrounding higher education. “How many of you knew what a MOOC was one year ago? I’m happy we’re testing some of the ideas around them. My thought is it’s one more arrow in the quiver.”
Alex White says his dad isn’t one to dodge tough issues, citing how he handled Occupy supporters rallying on the UC Riverside campus: “He walked right out to the protestors and said, ‘Hi, what’s up? … He doesn’t want to hide anything. He’d rather just face (things) and get in there and work. This guy, he almost works little too hard.”
CSUEB President Leroy Morishita, who has served on the Commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges with Chancellor White, has known him for years.
“He has a great intellect,” President Morishita told the CSUEB assembly. “He’s a great communicator. And more importantly, he’s a great person. I was very, very pleased when I heard he was announced as our new Chancellor.”
The public good
Tim White’s most recent two days at Cal State East Bay gave him an updated understanding of the university’s strengths – including nationally-funded faculty and student research happening in its laboratories, community engagement exemplified by the Promise Neighborhood Project and the university’s role as a leader in the CSU in online education offerings.
“He has a good sense of the concerns of our faculty, staff and students,” President Morishita says. “He’s learned a lot about what good things we’re doing.”
Media reports following Chancellor White’s Cal State East Bay visit noted his commitment to keeping the CSU focused on it’s core purpose of educating students and producing important research. Touring each of the system’s campuses, he told reporters, serves as a reminder to “never lose track of what it is we’re doing.”
“I’m concerned deeply about college-going rates and completion,” he says. “That college degree is the ticket to the middle class.
“This is the public good of Cal State East Bay: It’s as profound for the state as for the individual benefit to students.”