President Leroy M. Morishita: Fall 2020 Convocation speech

Good morning. I am Leroy Morishita, president of Cal State East Bay and I am pleased to speak to you, our students, staff and faculty, on the occasion of our Fall 2020 Convocation. This is my 10th and final convocation as your President and this year is not at all what I anticipated nor expected.  Usually I am extremely hopeful, excited and energized by the coming year.  This year I am still hopeful but the reality is that there are many uncertainties and sobering realities we are facing. I would like to take this opportunity to speak about the state of the university and our goals for the upcoming year. We have a busy year ahead and I appreciate you watching the video messages from Provost Inch, Senate Chair Lee, and ASI President Sanchez to hear about what we will be working on in the new academic year. I look forward to working with this great group of leaders.  Today I will be sharing my remarks from some familiar locations on the Hayward campus, so I hope you enjoy this virtual visit back to the university.

Before I begin, I want to express my heartfelt appreciation once again for how each of you have adapted to our new environment during the Coronavirus pandemic. Our profession has always required agility and flexibility but we had to immediately pivot from how we were used to working and do nearly everything in a new way.  I am proud of how Cal State East Bay continues to rise to the occasion.  Our students switched from primarily in-person instruction to online classes, overcoming computing, visual, audio and connectivity obstacles, amongst other challenges.  Our faculty did the same and had to modify and creatively move to teaching online, some for the first time.  And, our staff continued to provide as best they could the services to serve our students and the university to continue to operate effectively.  At our core, our mission is to provide students with a high quality education that will allow them to lift up themselves, their families and their communities. And, everyone did all that they could to meet our mission. Thank you.

I also want to extend a special welcome to our new faculty, staff, and administrators who are joining us for the first time. As many of you know, I was going to retire on June 30th, but at Chancellor White’s request, I extended my presidency until the end of this calendar year.  I believe that over the past nine years I have led the university, we have grown together as a strong and vibrant community.  We have worked together collaboratively and listened to the ideas, concerns and issues of all our community partners.  Also, we have strived to include and involve our campus community when significant decision-making occurs.  These are uncertain times – very scary and emotionally draining.  Now, more than ever, is the time to pull together as a community to support our students and each other in this time of great uncertainty. 

2020 has been an extraordinary and unexpected year.  In mid-March, Covid-19 dramatically changed our lives.  George Floyd’s killing on May 25 ignited a call for action which continues to grow throughout our state, nation and other parts of the world. This year, not only are we transforming the university from the ways we teach students and work, but we have an opportunity to more deeply examine how we interact with each other. The Diversity and Inclusion Center and the Office of Diversity have offered webinars and trainings over the summer to help us uncover areas where each of us can do more work. While it is easy to point to overt signs of racism, such as 2020 marking the fourth consecutive year in rising numbers of hate groups, we also need to look inwards reflecting upon ourselves and our practices where white supremacy is embedded. Too often, we make decisions based on convenience and routine, without thinking about whom we might be impacting. Practicing anti-racist behavior and in particular, anti-Black racism cannot wait. I urge you to look at the many resources available on the Office of Diversity website and make a commitment to take action.

While this work is not easy and the results will not be immediately realized, we can do more as members of a university committed to developing “socially responsible contributors to society.” You are not alone and I hope we can continue this journey towards building an anti-racist community together. After this summer, we cannot go back to “normal”-- instead, we should strive for something better and more just. We have exciting speakers virtually visiting campus in the coming year including one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Oakland native Alicia Garza, and Robin diAngelo, the author of White Fragility. University Communications has prepared a preview of what to expect and I hope you will make the most of all the speakers’ presentations.

With COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders in March, we had to change dramatically the way we educate and work.  We were fortunate that we were over halfway through the Spring semester when we switched to online. Prior to COVID, 25% of our courses were taught online and about one third of our students were taking at least one online class per semester. Now, we start a new academic year with continuing and new students who begin as freshmen or transfers which presents new and different challenges. Many outside Cal State East Bay thought we closed in mid-March, when shelter in place began. However, I know how hard many of you worked to ensure our students were cared for and that keeping their progress on track for graduation was top of mind.

Despite the challenges, we had more graduates this year and fewer students withdrew compared to Spring 2019. Overall, our student’s academic progress was better than last spring. During the summer, our students continued to give back to the community. Some of our students helped with the Alameda County Food Bank and the Hayward Recreation and Parks Department.  Nearly 50 nursing students and alumni answered a call to help staff the Hayward COVID-19 testing site held in parking lot A. I am proud that so many Pioneers have gone above and beyond to meet our community’s needs during this unprecedented crisis. 

The campus remained open, as we continued to house students on campus and they needed our assistance and services requiring staff to come to campus to perform them.  And others came to keep the plant operating, complete payroll and accounting functions, provide computing support, keep the campus safe, and perform other essential duties.

Academic Affairs and the Academic Senate jointly convened a Rapid Action Advisory group which provided recommendations during the Spring semester and informed how Summer and Fall semester classes should be conducted. The 12 person committee was tasked with making recommendations for how in-person classes could be held, taking into consideration the values of the University, the success of our students, how to continue the work towards 2025 Graduation Initiative goals, as well as the new stresses of COVID-19. This was difficult, complex work to accomplish in a short amount of time and I am grateful to the members for their thoughtful contributions throughout.

I would also like to thank members of Student Affairs and Administration and Finance for their teamwork developing a process to help students affected financially due to the pandemic. Towards the end of last year, over 10,000 students received emergency grants through the federal CARES Act, Presidential Pioneer Emergency Fund, Project Hope and financial aid. In just a few weeks, applications were processed and over $6,000,000 was distributed to students in need of assistance. This academic year, we expect to provide additional Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds and Presidential Pioneer emergency funds to our students.

Students have been able to seek medical and counseling appointments through Student Health and Counseling Services throughout the summer. Medical services were extended to our May graduates and returning students throughout the summer. Counselors have been available for individual and group therapy and will continue to provide quality healthcare and adapt to student needs, with telehealth appointments and in-person appointments when needed. Ensuring that students are aware of our virtual health and wellness services will be part of our challenge this year.

Over the summer, our Administration and Finance division successfully implemented Adobe Sign which we now all use (including me). Some of you may have picked up computer equipment from IT during their curbside pick-up days. And of course, we have all received training and are now experts in Zoom. I am appreciative of these departments who worked to keep our bills paid, onboarded new employees and managed our facilities during this entire time, as well as the work of Risk Management to implement necessary protocols and safety measures. 

Due to COVID-19, our campus developed virtual activities to engage and welcome new students. Over the summer, approximately 2700 students participated in virtual orientation. They met each other in small groups led by student peers and were encouraged to make plans for online study groups in the fall. Campus life is planning a socially distanced “drive-in movie” experience in one of our parking lots. I know this is not the college experience any of us were expecting this year, but I am grateful to those of you who have taken extra steps to help our students, especially those new to college, feel welcome. I appreciate the more than 100 faculty and staff who have volunteered to be part of the Campus Connectors program and thank you for taking this extra step.

Those of you who meet with students regularly, especially our faculty, have the ability to share information about the many services we offer. I hope you will remind them in the first few classes that Pioneers for Hope is still providing access to students via a mobile food pantry, once a week. By showing their Bay Card, students will be able to obtain a grab-and-go box of food. I ask that you direct students to the Project HOPE website which will have information on dates and locations. 

Many of you participated in the Advising Redesign and you understand that having a clearer idea of the barriers to success for our students is especially critical this year. Now we can move towards ensuring our advising structures are organized in a way that supports students in a consistent manner, from the time they begin as freshmen to graduation. 

Entering freshmen are taking General Studies courses synchronously, allowing them to make a direct connection with a faculty member during their first classes. Over 160 faculty participated in online training this summer to develop robust and personalized online teaching practices. Building connections to faculty, learning and our campus in a virtual manner will be critical to our students’ success and retention. 

To better support graduation progress and cultivate inclusion, we are hiring a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA coordinator, and have hired a coordinator for African American students. We are exploring plans to provide cultural centers to better connect DACA students and African American students to resources, faculty and staff support, as well as to each other.

All of us recognize this has been a difficult and tumultuous summer for our DACA students and international students. While we are pleased that the US Supreme Court overturned the current administration's attempts to end the program, we still have much work to do to protect our Dreamer students and staff.  At the time of this recording, the administration has shortened the window for Dreamer recipients to renew their status from two years to one, and is rejecting new applicants.  In addition, our new international students coming from abroad have not been allowed to enter the country to begin their studies. We are working with our members of Congress and our Senators to have these problems resolved as quickly as possible. 

Representation matters even more this year with regards to the 2020 Census, as the push to ensure everyone is counted is even more critical. An undercount could result in less federal funding for services in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties or even the loss of a seat in Congress. I ask that you have the conversation with your students and friends to remind them that their responses count --no matter one’s citizenship status--and that strong laws are in place to protect their confidentiality. 

This Fall, one of the most significant and consequential US presidential elections will take place on November 3rd. By now, many of you (like me) may be enrolled to receive an absentee ballot. Encourage your students to register and to vote and, if possible, to register to vote by mail. The US Postal Service recommends signing up early to avoid any delays and it is the safest way we can all participate in the election. A lot more is at stake than just deciding on the presidency - in California, there are ballot issues such as Proposition 7, which restores the right to vote to people on parole and Proposition 16, which would repeal the ban on affirmative action and allow public institutions to directly address systemic bias. In my lifetime, I can’t think of a time when voting has mattered more and I urge you to discuss why participating is critical. 

By now you’ve likely heard that the California State University system is facing a difficult future regarding our budget.  Today, the CSU faces a permanent base budget reduction from the state of $299 million because of COVID-19-imposed impacts to the state’s economy.  We hope that this reduction might be reduced in October, on a one-time basis, if the Federal Government provides the state with much needed relief dollars to fight COVID.  However, the current reality is that our university will be facing a deficit of $15-20 million this year, which is likely to be the first of a three to four-year budget problem.  Additionally, we are experiencing a student enrollment decrease which exacerbates our budget issue since half of our budget is State support and the other half tuition.  

In order to reduce the deficit, we will use a portion of our limited reserves, reduce or eliminate expenditures where possible, and, regrettably, have to reduce our workforce. Updates will be shared as soon as information becomes available.

We are living in a time of great uncertainty.  Many closed businesses are not sure if they can reopen and others have already made the decision to close their doors.  In all sectors of business we hear about planned layoffs and universities are not immune to this economic reality.  Thus it was great to hear some good news last week.  Cal State East Bay was named in CNBC’s study as one of the Top 25 public universities in the country that Pay Off the Most in 2020.  This was determined by comparing cost factors including tuition and highest average salaries among graduates ten years after graduation. We were the only CSU ranked, and were listed among seven of the University of California campuses. We know the difference a college education can make in the lives of our students and we are succeeding.  Thanks again to all of you. 

In a recent webinar titled “Dismantling Racism & Anti-Blackness,” Dr. Kathy Obear and Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington discussed how in this moment, people are listening differently. The question they ask, and that we need to ask ourselves is -- do we have the momentum to keep the focus on systemic change? Today we have an opportunity to move the needle and examine how anti-Blackness is baked into our systems and institutions. As President of Cal State East Bay, I know we need to shine a light on areas where oppression is embedded in our culture and practices. 

Our Cabinet had the opportunity to work with Dr. Obear last December, which was an important and necessary step to develop our capacity as leaders who want to collectively demonstrate our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Cabinet members reviewed their divisions’ policies, practices, programs and services in order to develop equity goals specific to their departments. The next step will be for them to meet with our Chief Diversity Officer Kimberly Baker-Flowers and me to determine how accountability will be measured. Developing the capacity for this type of examination and change requires patience, vulnerability and flexibility -- traits not often spoken about in Western leadership culture. My own career path began a long time ago, in the Central Valley, when I questioned why some of my Chicano high school classmates were not encouraged to go to college or did not receive support in the same way I did. Inequity in education began long before me and continues today, but that does not mean we don’t stop fighting to ensure all students can reach their full potential.

As I stated at the beginning of this message, we begin the academic year with uncertainty and many unknowns, but Cal State East Bay remains a beacon of hope for our continuing and new students. I know how hard each of you are working to ensure the best possible experience for our students, inside and outside the mostly virtual classroom. The challenges are considerable but not insurmountable and I have faith that each of you and our university will rise to meet them.

I have often used our university motto – “Per Aspera Ad Astra” “through adversity to the stars” – as not just an inspirational slogan but also what I believe each of us – students, faculty and staff – have accomplished by being here at Cal State East Bay and will accomplish going forward. I am excited to work with you through December as we support our students during this extraordinary time.

Thank you and stay strong, well and safe.

And Go Pioneers!