By Vic Bedoian
Dr. Joseph Castro, San Joaquin Valley born and bred, son of immigrant parents, was the first Hispanic to become president of Fresno State. Now, in another historic milestone, he has been selected to be the next chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system.
The CSU system is the largest and probably the most ethnically diverse university institution in the United States. Sprawling throughout the Golden State CSU are 482,000 students on 23 campuses with 55,000 faculty and staff.
The official announcement was made by Lillian Kimbell, chair of the CSU Board of Trustees and shared at a Zoom press briefing on Sept. 23 in a wide-ranging interview with local journalists.
(Author’s note. The questions below were asked by several journalists including the author. Both the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
What are your top priorities as chancellor of the CSU system?
Castro: I think the most important thing is to continue the positive trajectory that we’ve been on under Chancellor [Timothy] White’s leadership. The continued focus on our Graduation Initiative 2025 is really my highest priority to make sure that we meet those goals that we’ve set. They’re ambitious goals for the system and for each campus.
Looking ahead, once there’s a vaccine and it’s distributed in a way that we hope that will enable us to repopulate the campus and the system beginning in the summer. And hopefully the fall looks a lot more like pre-Covid than it does right now. So, we’ll see how the conditions evolve, but it’s vitally important that we continue to support the success of our students.
As the first Hispanic to become chancellor, how are you going to use that to further the future of CSU campuses?
The CSU, I believe, is the most important and consequential public higher education system in our country. And I’m deeply honored to be able to lead during this time. And I promise you that we’re going to get stronger in the years to come.
We have such talented students and faculty and staff and a great board led by Chair [Lillian] Kimbell. We have the right ingredients to be stronger after Covid. As a system, we’ve made early decisions that have helped our students.
And as you know, we have record enrollment this semester, historically record enrollment, which is wonderful as it relates to safety. Each of the campuses is going to be learning from the fall semester and then making its plans for the spring.
Fresno State has had only 10 cases [of coronavirus] in the past six months since the pandemic. Other schools have not been as fortunate.
What can you take away from the protocols that you put in place at Fresno State that could apply to the CSU?
We, as a system, made some early decisions that helped our students. Each of the campuses is going to be learning from the fall semester. We’ll get better and better at this.
And I want to make sure that we utilize the very best practices. I mean, we’ve talked about it together. Frequent hand washing, social distancing, masking as appropriate, testing when we can and temperature checking, [and using] the app that asks questions and makes sure everybody’s healthy when they come to campus. I think what I’ve learned here is that all those things together have helped us keep the cases down near zero.
I think the other decision we made that helped is that we have relatively few students in the housing university courtyard. So, I think that each campus needs to make that judgment in consultation with the chancellor.
During your time at Fresno State, you have been a proponent of the Hispanic community and defended the rights of Dreamers. How would you continue that fight at the chancellor level?
I’m going to take positions that I think are important for the CSU and especially for the support of our talented students and faculty and staff. And the Dreamer issue resonates with me because my grandfather was a dreamer, and I believe we need to provide support to Dreamers and all other students as well.
What are the three accomplishments at Fresno State that you are most proud of?
Today, we’ve been able to increase graduation rates from about 48% to now getting close to 60%. And we’ve done that while the student body has become much more diverse over that period of time. So, I’m particularly proud of the fact that we’ve been able to do that.
The other thing I’m very proud of is the excitement here in the Valley about Fresno State. We can see that even during the pandemic where we have the largest enrollment in our history, the largest entering class in our history. And I’m very proud of that, that students and families are really looking to us as their primary option here and in our part of the Valley and even beyond. So that would be No. 2.
And I think No. 3 would be the programs that we’ve put together to really support our talented students. Our Student Cupboard started in 2014 and has really flourished. The Clothing Closet. Discovery, which has brought technology into the hands of our students.
Because of the Covid-19 protocols, Fresno State athletics have been put on hold. What about student sports in the future?
I’ve been one of the few presidents of a Division I university in the country to not bring student athletes back, but we do plan to do that now because we found a path that is safe for them, and that’s been the key ingredient in my opinion. And so, we have found a path. I think that if conditions continue to improve, we should be able to successfully get that path approved by the county public health department and by the Chancellor’s Office and move forward in that way.
Throughout your tenure, you have employed the skills and talents of your wife, Mary. How will she be used at the Chancellor’s Office?
She loves the basic needs work that we’ve done, especially around food security and housing security and clothing. So, if I were to guess, I think it would be an area where she could contribute at a system-wide level, things supportive. She’s helped to raise a lot of money here. And I think she could be a real asset to our different campus efforts that are still trying, kind of emerging in this space.
The last year of your tenure as president of Fresno State has been historically unprecedented. Pandemic-driven challenges and adaptations have changed everything. As chancellor of the CSU, will you carry forward the lessons learned from the pandemic?
I do see opportunities for us to do things a little differently with technology. And I think Covid has given us the chance to experiment. And I believe that some of those experiments without the stress of Covid are going to be really exciting. So, I’m looking at possibilities there in terms of using technology, perhaps more strategically to position the CSU to support its students even more effectively.
Lillian Kimbell is the chair of the CSU Board of Trustees, and she headed the search committee that hired Dr. Castro as the next chancellor. Many qualified academics were considered. Here’s why they made that historic choice and selected Dr. Castro.
“He stood out,” says Kimbell. “We started the search way back pre-Covid, and then we had to stop. And then we started again. So, in that time, I think some of our priorities may have changed.
“When we came toward the decision, it was really evident to all of us that President Castro embodied what the CSU would need. Now, in this Covid environment, we need somebody with a steady hand. We need somebody who’s a good listener. Somebody who was unflappable, which is what more than one person called him.
“And with deep experience, I think with a campus with a lot of first-gen[eration] students, students of color, it was the totality of this, of who he is, and the situation we’re living in.”
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at email@example.com.