Joseph I. Castro, the grandson of farmworkers and a first-generation college student who rose during a career in higher education to lead Fresno State, has been named chancellor of California State University, the largest four-year system in the nation, trustees announced Wednesday.
He will be the first person of color to lead the system with a life story that will sound familiar to many of CSU’s 480,000 students, 43% of whom are Latino and nearly half of whom come from low-income families.
A native of the San Joaquin Valley whose great-grandparents immigrated from Mexico and lived in tents by the Santa Fe Railroad, not far from the Fresno State campus, Castro is the son of a single mother who worked as a beautician. He attended UC Berkeley through a program for promising Latino students from farming communities. At Fresno State he made his mark as a thoughtful listener and an advocate for student needs and equity, colleagues said.
Castro, 53, will become the eighth chancellor of a 23-campus system that is a production engine for the state’s nurses, teachers, engineers and architects. In fall 2019, 62% of its students were people of color and 54% were the first in their families to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
In an interview, Castro recalled how, through the Berkeley admission program, he was invited to bring a filled-out application to a meeting with a counselor, who stamped it “admitted” on the spot.
“I had no idea that was going to happen — it changed my whole life. That’s a gift that I continue to try to pay back,” Castro said, his voice breaking with emotion. “There’s no way I would have been able to even imagine that, without the initiative of the leader of that campus at the time and their interest in more students from the San Joaquin Valley.
“That really drove me to think about higher education as a career, as a student feeling that transformational impact,” he said.
Castro earned a B.A. in political science and later a Master of Public Policy degree at Berkeley. He went on to earn a doctorate in higher education policy and leadership from Stanford, where he wrote his dissertation on university presidents.
Castro said it has been “gratifying” to serve students at Fresno State who come from backgrounds just like his. “I’m looking forward to doing that at the CSU system level,” he said.
Castro takes the helm amid the coronavirus crisis that has forced the vast majority of the system’s students online for the remainder of the academic year and caused $750 million in losses systemwide so far. The recession has also taken a toll, leading the state to slash its funding for the CSU by $299 million. And the current round of wildfires, among the worst in California’s history, have affected areas near several CSU campuses, including Humboldt State, Chico State and San Francisco State, where enrollment was already dipping.
The board of trustees and system Chancellor Timothy B. White have made diversity in leadership a top priority, appointing 12 women as campus presidents during White’s tenure — including one Black woman, one Latina and two Asian American women.
Castro was selected after a months-long search process that began last fall after White announced his plan to retire.
“Joe, more than anybody, really embodies the students,” said CSU board chair Lillian Kimbell, adding that his fundraising success, relationships in the community and ability to connect with students combined to make him “the whole package that we need right now.”
Castro is expected to begin his duties on Jan. 4. He will receive a salary of $625,000, a 31% increase over White’s salary of $477,771.
Under ordinary circumstances, the top job is a difficult one, requiring advocacy before the governor and Legislature for funds; negotiation in collective bargaining with powerful faculty and trade unions; a commitment to shared governance with campus presidents and faculty; and bold policymaking that broadens access and improves success rates for a diverse student population while ensuring the long-term viability of the institution.
Before the pandemic, the CSU had been on track to continue increasing its budget, partly to meet growing student demand. At seven campuses — San Luis Obispo, Fresno, Fullerton, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego and San Jose — the number of qualified applicants exceeds available spots in every program. While fall enrollment is down at some campuses, including Chico, Humboldt and San Francisco, others have seen steady or even increased enrollment amid the pandemic.
But COVID-19 dealt heavy blows to the system. In addition to the $750 million in campus losses since March, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a permanent reduction of $299 million, or 7.4%, to the state’s base budget allocation to the CSU. Even with money from the federal government and reserves, that left the CSU with a hole in its budget, forcing campuses to cancel employee travel, forego building upgrades, freeze new hiring and, most recently, implement layoffs.
The pivot to online classes has been difficult for many faculty members and students, who have reported a lack of access to and familiarity with remote learning technology. Many students say they don’t have quiet study space or are unable to get help from tutors and other support personnel. With remote instruction continuing across the system until next summer, some faculty members have expressed concern that hard-fought gains in closing achievement gaps may be undone.
In addition, significant shares of Cal State students face food and housing insecurity — a priority issue White sought to address during his tenure through his “basic needs initiative” and one expected to continue.
These issues will not be foreign to the incoming chancellor, who has led Fresno State since 2013 after serving for 23 years in the University of California system, including in the office of the president, and as vice chancellor of student academic affairs and professor of family and community medicine at UC San Francisco, one of the nation’s top medical schools.
At Fresno State, Castro, whose motto is “Be Bold,” earned a reputation as an able fundraiser, a listener and someone who was easy to work with. “He’s essentially a quiet, self-effacing person,” said Fresno State academic senate chair Thomas Holyoke.
CSU board chair Kimbell called Castro “unflappable.”
In 2018, when Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar received widespread condemnation for tweeting disparaging remarks about former first lady Barbara Bush, Castro defended Jarrar’s freedom of speech to funders and members of the community who thought she should be fired.
At one meeting “he was being heckled, and cursed. And he took it — he took it with grace,” recalled Kimbell.
Hisham Qutob, executive vice president of the Associated Students at Fresno State, said Castro’s accessibility to students was a hallmark of his presidency. “He doesn’t leave any questions unanswered, he replies to all his emails himself, also on Twitter,” Qutob said.
Qutob, a business major from Fresno who will graduate in May, said Castro’s legacy will also be rooted in the partnerships he forged between Fresno State and the surrounding community, which reinforced the importance of students giving back to the Valley.
In 2019-20 Fresno State raised $32.9 million in private donations, an increase of 19% in overall giving from the previous year and the second-highest total in the university’s history of private support, according to Fresno State.
Castro also kept his sights on “increasing student graduation rates, fighting for funding, and ensuring access for students who are often not talked about or championed,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity.
She said Castro had expressed “huge frustration” at having to turn away qualified students.
“When a student from Madera County or Hanford gets into Fresno State, that’s life-changing — and if they don’t, that’s life-changing, too, in a negative way. He gets that,” Siqueiros said.
Together with his wife Mary, who has been actively involved in the university, Castro was a leader within the CSU in creating food pantry and clothing closet programs for students, relying mainly on community donations.
Fresno State launched “DISCOVER-e,” a program that provides students with loaner tablets and integrates mobile technology into the classroom. That helped the university respond quickly when the pandemic hit, Qutob said.