Fresno State president named chancellor of California State University

Eufemia Didonato

A Hanford native who led Fresno State for seven years will be the first Mexican-American chancellor of the California State University system.

The appointment of Joseph I. Castro to head the 23-campus university system — the largest in the United States — was announced early Wednesday in a statement to students and the communities.

“It is with mixed feelings that I share the news today of my appointment by the California State University Board of Trustees as the eighth chancellor of the CSU, effective Jan. 4, 2021,” he said via email.

Castro, 53, will replace Chancellor Timothy P. White, a Fresno State alum, who announced his retirement last year after serving since 2012.

When Castro takes the CSU system’s helm in early 2021, an interim president will take his place at Fresno State, he said. A search for a successor will begin around the same time.

“I would just like to see someone who really appreciates this region who loves it and wants to serve here,” Castro said during a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. “This is a unique part of California … and it deserves to have a leader who’s strongly committed to this region. So if it’s somebody from here, that’d be great, but we have no idea, we’ll get the strongest pool possible and select the best person.”

Castro will soon represent the 485,000 students in the California State University, the United States’ largest public university system. A third are first-generation students, and 60% are people of color.

The grandson of immigrants and the son of a single mother, Castro was the first in his family to graduate from college when he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy from UC Berkeley. He then earned his doctorate in higher education policy and leadership from Stanford University.

Castro worked at the University of California system for 23 years before returning to the central San Joaquin Valley. His prior positions include Vice Chancellor of Student Academic Affairs and Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UC San Francisco. He also held stints at UC Davis, UC Merced, and UC Santa Barbara.

Castro was Fresno State’s first Latino president, and described his appointment in 2013 as “coming home.” He made it his mission to advance education opportunities for Latino and “all the other students at Fresno State.”

“I’m going to be president for everybody,” he said in 2013. “I’m looking forward to meeting with leaders from all the different communities, including Latino community members throughout the Valley as I make visits.”

Mary Castro, his wife, is known for being an active part of the campus community, focusing on food insecurity. She had a large role in starting the university’s student cupboard. She could be seen at commencement ceremonies, hugging graduates every May.

The Castros marked their tenure with high visibility throughout the campus, attending football and basketball games, swim meets, and other events. The president is a regular Twitter user, often responding to student concerns on the social media site. When Fresno State switched most of its classes online in the spring, Castro often posted update videos.

The couple has three children — Isaac, Lauren, and Jess.

On Wednesday, Castro said that although it will be “hard to leave home,” he has his wife’s support.

“Mary and I will be eternally grateful for the support and inspiration you have so generously provided to us,” Castro said. “We will forever cherish being part of the Bulldog family.”

“Because of you, the best, brightest and boldest days for Fresno State and the Central Valley remain ahead.”

Castro’s current salary of $345,000 will be bumped to $625,000, plus a monthly housing allowance of nearly $8,000 and a car allowance of $1,000, according to EdSource. That’s a jump from White’s pay, which is $477,771 a year.

The California Faculty Association, on Twitter, criticized the pay bump, describing it as “tactless” and “irresponsible.”

Castro will be speaking with the CSU community on Friday from 11 a.m. to noon during a “Conversation with the Chancellor-select” webinar. He plans to share his vision for the future of the CSU.

Fresno-area leaders congratulate Castro

Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula congratulated Castro Wednesday morning.

“His story is the story of our Central Valley, rising to challenges and inspiring others to pursue lives of purpose and service,” Arambula said in a statement. “He is a true leader and a friend, and Fresno State has benefited from his steady influence and initiative. I’m excited to see how he brings his talents and vision to the entire California State University system…”

The Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit aimed at college equity for Californians, described Castro’s appointment as “perfect.”

“He is emblematic of California’s college-aged students and has spent his career working to ensure students who are just like him have the chance to go to college and earn their degrees,” said President Michele Siqueiros. “He understands the urgency for action to improve CSU’s capacity, graduation rates, and to replace racist policies that keep a college education away from too many Black, Asian, Native American, and Latinx students.”

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley also praised the decision.

“The California State University board of trustees could not have picked a more committed and student-centered leader,” Ortiz Oakley said. “Joe Castro will be a champion for students, and I look forward to working with him.”

Castro will lead the CSU system during an uncertain time, as higher education faces troubles due to the coronavirus pandemic. The state has threatened budget cuts, and distance learning is set to continue through at least spring 2021.

Obstacles and accolades

Although Castro has managed to garner much praise during his seven years, he has also weathered controversial decisions involving free speech at the university. Those issues included the furor surrounding English professor Randa Jarra’s tweet in 2018 criticizing Barbara Bush, shortly after the former First Lady’s death and in 217 when lecturer Lars Maischak tweeted “Trump must hang.”

During his tenure, Castro was criticized for not doing enough for Black student enrollment and success, a problem that is not unique to Fresno State. During a 2016 rally, students and professors said Black attendance had declined because the university neglected to reach out to communities and offer support to attend.

On the west side of Cedar Avenue, Fresno State won 13 Mountain West Conference regular-season or tournament championships during Castro’s tenure, including two in football (2013 and ’18), one in men’s basketball (2016), and two in women’s basketball (2014 and ’20).

But a series of moves and missteps by the university has impacted the Bulldogs’ athletics department’s stability.

During Castro’s tenure, university support of Fresno State athletics soared to more than $19 million from just $9.6 million the year he was appointed. With a budget shortfall in 2017-18, institutional support for athletics ended up at $20.9 million.

Fresno State restored wrestling and added a women’s water polo program in 2017-18, giving the Bulldogs 21 sports program and further taxing an athletics department that was having trouble keeping pace with the rapidly rising costs of college athletics.

Castro also scrapped an ambitious Bulldog Stadium renovation plan, committing $45 million in university funds to upgrade the aging venue. New lighting and a turf field were installed before the 2019 football season, but restroom facilities, suite upgrades, access around the stadium, and other fan amenities have run into a COVID-19 budget crunch.

Enrollment soared under Castro

Castro took over from former Fresno State president John Welty at a time when the university was in “survival mode,” recovering from the recession, he has previously said.

Fresno State held a groundbreaking ceremony in February for its new student union, named after Wonderful Company founders Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who contributed $10 million to the project. Other funds will come from raised student fees.

With his catchphrase, “Be bold,” Castro has continuously stood in support of undocumented students and has made his focus on diversity and equity in the last seven years.

He will not leave those focuses behind, he said Wednesday.

“The Dreamer issue resonates with me because my grandfather was a Dreamer,” Castro said, using the name commonly given to young undocumented people. “I believe that we need to provide support to Dreamers and all other students as well, so you can count on me to take positions as appropriate.”

The university has seen its Chicano/Latino Commencement ceremony bursting out of the doors of the Save Mart Center every year, prompting Castro to think about using the 40,000-seat Bulldog Stadium instead.

He’s seen record-breaking attendance during several of his years, including the 2020-2021 year, when it expected its largest incoming class, made up of freshmen and transfer students. Enrollment has a whole has grown to 24,000.

The university has garnered national accolades, making Washington Monthly’s top 25 list of national universities several years in a row, along with distinctions from U.S. News and World Report and Money Magazine.

Castro said he hadn’t even begun to think about what he would miss about Fresno State, but graduation would be a big one.

“There have been so many,” he said. “Mary and I have spent most of today together, and we just took a walk, and we were talking about different memories.”

CSU Board Chair Lillian Kimbell said trustees decided to appoint Castro only Monday night. But the whole process of choosing White’s successor was a long one, stretched out after White delayed his retirement during the pandemic.

As incoming chancellor, Castro wants to focus on Graduation Initiative 2025, a plan to increase CSU grad rates for several years.

He is proud of that accomplishment at Fresno State.

“We’ve been able to increase graduation rates from about 48% to now getting close to 60%,” he said. He also noted other initiatives such as the Student Cupboard, the clothing closet, and DISCOVERe, which has put tablets and laptops into the hands of students.

The Bee’s Robert Kuwada contributed to this report.

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