Six months ago, Tim White took over as chancellor of a California State University system that is a shadow of its former self. A bad economy led to nearly a billion dollars in state funding cuts over four years. University administrators more than doubled student tuition, canceled pay raises, and turned away thousands of qualified students.
Now, White has been given the luxury to put all that behind him. The budget for the 437,000 student system went up $125 million this year – in part because of voter-approved Proposition 30.
That’s allowed him to keep tuition flat for only the second time in more than a decade. He’s also proposing a 1.2 percent pool for raises to professors and all other university employees. Both moves have won him fans.
"He's really out there listening to the people, the little guys not just the upper management," Alisandra Brewer, a vice president with the California State University Employees Union.
The president of the California Faculty Association, which represents 23,000 Cal State professors and other employees, Lillian Taiz, said she also likes what she’s seen and heard of White so far. But he has a lot of hard work ahead of him.
“I think his challenge will be how do we really rebuild this system," she said. "How do we really move forward with this system in a way that is helpful to our students and not just trying to do education on the cheap.”
She's alluding to former chancellor Charles Reed’s push to aggressively grow Cal State’s online class offerings. White is not backing down from those plans. He said online education will help increase the graduation rate by getting more students into required courses.
White does face many challenges. He’s in charge of a $4 billion operating budget and the academic direction for the 23 campuses that, unlike the more elite University of California schools, are mandated to accept the top third of the state’s high school graduates.
Some campuses are bogged down by large numbers of freshmen who can’t do college level math and English. And the schools are running out of room.
“This upcoming year we’re probably going to turn away 20,000 to 30,000 fully qualified CSU students, California residents, because there’s no room at the inn," White said. "We’re going to start missing generations of students and that’s to California’s peril.”
Until now, White's tenure has in large part been a listening and lobbying tour. He has crisscrossed the state, visiting half of the massive system’s 23 campuses and he’s met face to face with Sacramento lawmakers who over the years had cut the university system’s budget -- and have now stabilized it.
“I’m trying to learn about this great California state university since I’m now responsible for overseeing the 23 campuses,” he said as he walked through the eucalyptus groves on a recent visit to Cal State Dominguez Hills, near Long Beach.
He’s presenting himself as a man of the people. Like many of Cal State’s students, Chancellor White doesn’t come from privilege. He’s the son of immigrants from Argentina and studied at a California community college and two Cal States on his way to a physiology doctorate from UC Berkeley.
So far, he's received a warm greeting. CSU board of trustee meetings used to be raucous events where students held up cartoons ridiculing the previous chancellor, Reed, as a corporate vampire. White has yet to get that treatment.
After a student hip-hop dance demonstration at Dominguez Hills, White did something few of those watching could believe. He took off his suit jacket and dress shoes, sat on the student union floor and took lessons from a theater major on how to do a backspin.
White did it. Twice. News of the break dancing chancellor spread fast after a video was posted on YouTube.
Later in the day, child development major Yvette Lee came looking for him. She caught up to White as he stepped into a classroom. He told her the backspin wasn’t easy for a 63 year-old man like him.
“That’s OK, that means you’ve got some swag," she told him. "Have you heard that one?”
That interaction shows how much the university system has changed.
Just two years ago, Dominguez Hills was the scene of a large student protest and one-day faculty strike over funding cuts. Students were angry that administrators raised tuition and cut classes and faculty were fuming that the former chancellor and trustees reneged on pay raises.
White said curriculum is next on his list of things to tackle. He said the most important part of his job will be to advocate for the university in order to turn out graduates ready for a 21st century workplace.
He wants Cal State graduates to learn problem solving and analytical skills and be culturally and technologically competent.
“I don’t want to be good at things that used to matter," he said. "I want to make sure we have learning experiences that matter for the future."