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Cal State Chancellor Talks Public Education

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On Wednesday, you may have watched or heard or read about the impeachment hearing. California congress members played a big role — notably, Representative Adam Schiff, who is chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Representative Devin Nunes, who is the top Republican on the panel.

Catch up on all our coverage of the hearings here.

While the University of California campuses are often held up as the crown jewel of the state’s array of public education systems, the C.S.U. doesn’t get as much attention.

But it has almost twice the number of students and 23 campuses compared with the U.C.’s 10 campuses, making the C.S.U. the largest four-year public university system in the nation. One in 10 people working in California is a C.S.U. graduate.

The system’s chancellor, Timothy P. White, announced last month that he plans to retire next year after seven years on the job. The announcement came not long after Janet Napolitano, president of the U.C. system, said she would step down in 2020.

Recently, I spoke with Mr. White about the system’s role in educating Californians.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

First, can you tell me about what initiatives or accomplishments you’re most proud of.

Day in, day out, that relentless focus on helping our students achieve and earn their degrees and have a degree that’s worthy for whatever their interests are, so they can lift themselves and their families and their communities. Our effort that we have branded as Graduation Initiative 2025 is central to that.

I’ve had a chance to work with the board of trustees and appoint many new presidents. I think I’ve been on 21 searches, and we’ve totally changed our presidential team. Half are women. And they come from the racial and ethnic identity groups that our students come from. It has totally changed the conversation around the table because they bring a set of experiences and views to policy issues that others can’t bring.

I commissioned the first study in the country on food insecurity and housing issues, which has now led to policy and food pantries and state funding. That’s part of student achievement. The issues around DACA and immigration are also tied to student success.

I’m proud of all of those things.

You’ve faced pushback over the move to reduce remedial education requirements before students could make progress toward a degree, as well as a proposal to increase high school math or quantitative reasoning class requirements for students.

Some have said that those could make things more difficult for lower-income or underrepresented students, and that you haven’t consulted enough stakeholders in undertaking the changes.

Can you respond to those concerns?

With respect to changing the remedial education, when we look back at the data, the very first semester when that policy was in place, we had 7,000 more students making progress to a degree than would have been before the change. And the vast majority of them were first-generation, low-income students of color. So it’s actually done exactly the opposite of what the critical voices said.

The quantitative reasoning issue is another one that is still active. We have been consulting broadly outside the university and we’ll be having more conversations with our public school leaders in the weeks and months ahead. If the board does agree to that policy change, it won’t go into effect probably for six or more years. There’s plenty of time, and we’ve committed to increasing the number of STEM teachers in California.

I want to ask you, from the C.S.U. perspective, about the college admissions scandal. What was your reaction? How do you think C.S.U. students felt?

I think it was difficult for our students who have overcome headwinds in their lives — of family income or even having a family, or maybe their schools weren’t the highest performing public schools or if they had issues around immigration and all of those hurdles that they’ve overcome with hard work, perseverance and grit.

And then realizing that those who come from high-end privilege were buying their way into universities elsewhere — it just accentuated the privileged few versus the mass majority of us who work hard and are willing to put in the work for a better future.

Was it also galvanizing in a sense? Because it brought to the fore discussions about the purpose of public education?

Yes, exactly right. I think it underscored that an education isn’t about having the sheepskin. It’s about what you did to earn that sheepskin — the knowledge and skills and experiences. We’ve tried to turn the conversation to insert a point of pride.

Finally, what are some of the biggest concerns your successor will face?

The demand for space of the California State University at the University of California is greater than our combined capacities today.

So how do we continue to grow the ability to serve more students in a timely way? And so that means the next chancellor needs to build upon our existing efforts to create great relationships in Sacramento with the people that fund us and to work with the business community and the education community.

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California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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