Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


​Part 2: Timothy White, Chancellor of the California State University System

​​​​​Cal State—the largest university system in the country with 480,000 students—was the first institution to announce it would be holding all classes online during the 2020 fall semester. Chancellor Timothy White talks about the rationale behind this decision, along with what the university is doing to support students, faculty, and staff, and how they plan to make sure students have a vibrant and engaging educational experience despite the distance. (Recorded July 9, 2020)

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this episode:

CSU Responds to Coronavirus Pandemic

Facts About the CSU

A Major Test: Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on the Future of Higher Education
Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee hearing | July 7, 2020

Fearing a Second Wave, Cal State Will Keep Classes Online in the Fall
The New York Times (sub. req.) | May 12, 2020

CSU Chancellor Says System Could Go Virtual for Entire Academic Year
EdSource | July 7, 2020

CSU Faculty Continue to Enhance Virtual Instruction

Hosts and Guests
Timothy P.  White - Chancellor Emeritus, California State University; Professor, California State University, Long Beach -
Timothy P. White
Chancellor Emeritus, California State University; Professor, California State University, Long Beach

 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: Welcome to a rapid response episode of ACE Engage Conversations, focused on leadership and higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Philip Rogers, and today's conversation is part two in a series of episodes about how institutions are navigating the sustained period of change in higher education as a result of the health pandemic we continue to face. And specifically, we'll be talking with leaders during this series about what they've planned for the fall, what they're learning during early experiments and how they're adapting in real time to the emerging issues of this crisis. And my co-host Sherri Hughes is back with us today. And Sherri, I know you're eager to get into this dialogue together.

Sherri Hughes: I am. It feels so important for us to share how our institutions are making decisions and responding to this in this difficult time.

Philip Rogers: Absolutely. And something tells me that we'll certainly spend a lot of time today talking about one of your own areas of expertise, which is what teaching and learning will really look like in this virtual world that we're all living in. And I'm pleased to welcome in our guest for today, Dr. Timothy White, Chancellor of California State University, one of the largest and most diverse systems of higher education in the United States. Chancellor, welcome to Engage conversations.

Dr. Timothy White: Happy to be with you, Philip and Sherri.

Philip Rogers: We're glad to have you with us. And before we move into the heart of the dialogue today, I'd love for you to share with us just a little bit about your system to give our listeners some of the context, before we dive into the conversation.

Dr. Timothy White: The California State University, we have over 481,000 students on 23 campuses spread across the State of California. The southernmost campus just north of the Mexican border is San Diego State and then Cal State San Marcos, several campuses in the Los Angeles Basin area up through the Central Valley, through the San Francisco Bay Area along the central coast and the North coast, the most Northern campus is Humboldt State in Arcata, just South of the Oregon border. It's a university spread out over 800 miles of the state with a number of students I just mentioned and about 52,000 employees. We provide bachelor's degrees, masters, applied doctoral degrees like physical therapy and audiology and some joint PhD degrees with the University of California system. And I've been at the helm of the CSU for eight years now. And back last century when I was a student, I started in the community colleges in California, and then I went to two of the Cal State campuses, Fresno and East Bay. And then I got my PhD at UC Berkeley. So the master plan in California, I'm a product of that master plan. And it is public higher education has created a remarkable set of experiences for me that I otherwise wouldn't have had. This is a vocation as well as a passion of mine to give back to public higher education.

Philip Rogers: We're grateful for your service, and I'm sure that in all of your time in California, this is one of the most uncertain and challenging that you've likely faced as a leader. And the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly struck and not spared the State of California in a serious way. And first of all, how are you doing? Leadership is hard work during times of crisis. And we're hoping that you're holding up as a part of this process here.

Dr. Timothy White: Thank you. And I think for the last three or four months, late February through now, this has been the most challenging, most complex, intellectually intriguing. There's so many moving parts that can influence not only of the disease, but the economic impact of the disease. And then more recently on top of that, the impact of racial tensions flaring and racial policing becoming a national debate again, thankfully, hoping for progress there. And then just this week with the administration's release of a really capricious set of things that are affecting our international students on very short order, where we and everybody else's is trying to fight back against that. That confluence of things is all around the university and it's difficult, but important work because we serve our students. And by doing that, we serve our state and our nation and can't lose track of the importance of that.

Philip Rogers: Absolutely. And one of the things we've been hearing a lot from leaders around the country over the last couple of weeks and months is a lot of talk about reopening institutions in the face of the pandemic, but you've been quite intentional about saying that Cal State never closed in the first place. And why is that such an important distinction for you during this time?

Dr. Timothy White: Yeah. Because we didn't close and we want people to know that we are ready, able, and willing to provide access for our students so they can continue to make timely progress to degree. And we didn't cancel classes. We didn't close the university. And when we and everybody else has pivoted back in March, we had over 70,000 courses we had to take from the physical space to the virtual space and incredible effort by our faculty and support staff and our students to be able to make that pivot in about two and a half weeks time. But the students, many of them left the residence halls. We did want to get people down to one person per room. We kept our health centers open by appointment and a lot of telemed. We kept our advising services, financial aid, our affinity group centers, everything stayed open, but in the virtual space to support our students and our faculty to finish out the term. And we've moved to that same concept for the fall, to where we're going to do the university primarily in the virtual space. And we announced early and publicly and which got a lot of attention across the country. Now, one of the reasons for doing it early was to enable our faculty and staff to plan around one goal rather than say, maybe this and maybe that, and it was very difficult without having a focus to actually make progress. So with making this decision, we've now been able to engage our faculty who are on academic year appointments to, over the summertime, dive into professional training opportunities, to learn how to use the modalities more effectively, to think about their pedagogy in the virtual space, what they might do differently, and to get feedback from people that can do this well. And it's going to be a different experience in the fall, but it's going to be vibrant and engaging and allow students to make progress to degree.

Sherri Hughes: Tim, that's an incredible story of resilience, I think on the part of your faculty and your institutions that not only did they pivot so quickly to make the spring semester something that could continue to serve the education of your students, but that they're diving in deep with a real sense of focus on what they need to do for the fall. Can you talk a little bit about how you are preparing your faculty to adapt to be fully virtual and how are they responding?

Dr. Timothy White: Yeah. Responding with enthusiasm. It's really very gratifying. I've always thought we were a good community in the California State University despite our enormous size, but I have seen a stronger sense of community ever and sense of purpose ever since this pandemic of historic proportions has got a grip on us. Every campus has engaged. The system engaged, I engaged in creating what are our policies going to be and at first they were very mechanical policies, how are we going to change grading for this semester? What are we going to do about cutting costs? We're going to have a hiring freeze. We're not going to travel anymore and by taking out half of our travel, we save $44 million a year. There's a whole bunch of things that we were doing of that nature, mechanical, transactional things. And then we turned our attention to the fall and said, the confluence of the health issues, coupled with the economic impact, not only to the university's budget, but to our students and their families' employment and budgets. And then more lately, on top of the confluence of those two issues, we added racial unrest and racial policing, national uproar over racial issues. And then just this week we added the international students piece. You've had all these confluence of major things happening all at one time. And we had to set our sights on how do we make good decisions in that sort of an environment. And we set our sights on two north stars. One, was the health and safety of our students and our faculty and our staff and the communities in which our campuses are closely embedded. Up in Chico and Humboldt, they recruit students from Los Angeles Basin. What does it mean if 5,000 students come from LA, where COVID is rampant today up to a North Coast community, that's small where they don't have a lot of COVID? We thought about the health and safety writ large for one of our north stars. And the other one is how do we create progress to degree for our students, the most access and the most progress for the most number of students? And when we put those two north stars in place, it became very clear that the best path forward was pivoting from saying, how do we hang on to as much face to face stuff as we could to changing the approach to saying, how do we get rid of as much face to face stuff as we possibly can? And then how do we manage those things that can't be done in a virtual space? And that was a big shift and became a very clear goal of mine. And we were almost clear on the goal and loose on the means. One of the advantages of being a campus president earlier in my life at several places is you don't like the system telling you what to do. I want the system to enable and facilitate the campuses to succeed, but we have this goal of safety and progress to degree. And the campuses then went about in the shared governance space with senates and with faculty and chairs and deans and provosts and students and support staff to come up with a plan for the fall that provides a very limited number of things in person. And then within those things that are in person, such as laboratories, and you can't do in the virtual space, such as clinical trainings for the health science students, such as capstone project in engineering and agriculture and architecture, art projects. It's hard to have a wheel and throw your own bowl and have a kiln at home. You can't do some of those things and some of the things in the music world as well. Those are the ones that the campuses came back and presented a plan as to how they're going to do those courses, but with the physical distancing and the personal protective equipment in place and the cleaning of the lab benches in between each student and so on and so forth. It's a much more expensive way to teach a class. In the past you maybe had 20 students in a laboratory and now we're going to have five. We have to teach four sections of it just to get 20 students that experience and that quadruples the cost, in addition to the masking and the cleaning and plexiglass and all that stuff. Every campus had to answer and come back with a plan that had 12 different factors in it. And the president had to attest that this was the irreducible minimum, and here's why. They had to give us information as to what percentage of courses for this upcoming fall as a percentage of last fall. It was very easy to see...Somebody came forward and said, "50%," we say, "Eh, time out. You missed the assignment." And we're going to have some campuses with 2-3% of the number of courses face to face this next fall compared to last fall. And others may be in the 10% or even 12 -13% range. It has been remarkable. I have to agree to the academic plan. I have to agree to the housing and dining plan. And in that case instead of having triples, we're going to have students in singles. And I know there's a cost-revenue issue there for the campus system to manage residence hall service, but we put health and safety above the financial piece of it. And then I have to approve intercollegiate athletics and we've not made any decisions. In the CSU, we have some mid-major/upper-mid-major schools that play in Mountain West, San Diego and San Jose and Fresno. And then we have several that play in the Big West and the Big Sky, in the CCAA and at the Division II level. Our Division II schools didn't get much attention for this, but a month and a half ago canceled the entire fall sports season. Kept any students who were on scholarship, of course on scholarship and tried to reassign the coaching and support staff to other duties, but it is the way we will be in the fall. And there's one other thing that I would like to mention that is, I think there has been a lot of attention given to how are we going to grade? How are we going to deliver the class is equally important. How do you deliver student support services that are vibrant and affinity groups? The LGBTQ community can get together virtually and support each other and the veterans can get together and support each other, just like you would at a vet center or a LGBTQ center on a campus and the physical space. But there's the human factor side that I don't think is getting any attention yet and I'm worried about this. The university is not a bunch of buildings. The university is a collection of amazing people, all learning and discovering and focusing on that enterprise. And if you are somebody who's come back to campus, as a faculty member, you're going to be thinking, "My students are going to be having vibrant conversations as office hour," and they going to walk in and they're going to be behind a piece of plexiglass with a mask on their face and there'll be students spread out and the students can't even get close. So that normal vibrancy will be gone and you go, "Man, this isn't what I signed up for." Students who think coming back to campus, " Oh man, back with all my pals." No, all the outbreaks are happening when pals come back together and socialize and boom, there's, not our campus, but 50 new cases for some students that showed up last week, now they're all infected. And then those who are working remotely are going to say, "This doesn't feel the same. Am I a second tier staff member or faculty member now because I'm not at department meetings in person?" And this whole issue of the human factors piece, of how you stay focused and engaged is going to be a challenge as we go forward across America in many industries but particularly the, I think, higher education and probably K-12 as well, where that in person stuff will be so different and the remote stuff will be different. How do we make it vibrant and engaging? And that's why we're doing the professional development over the summer to focus on that stuff.

Sherri Hughes: That's just a wonderful story of the North Stars of those two things and really giving your entire community the opportunity to say, "How do we do this right. And how do we do it, less about us, how do we make do, but really how do we celebrate what we do well and come together?" That's just really wonderful. We certainly at ACE have heard a lot of people talking about the equity issues that come with going to being all virtual. Can you talk a little bit about what you all have done to address that, to make sure that in this different manifestation, you're making sure that all of your students have access and can do their best work?

Dr. Timothy White: Yeah. Part of it is the training of faculty and staff to support learning in the virtual space. And part of it is getting instrumentation in the hand of our students, who otherwise would not be able to have a laptop or an iPad that was of sufficient capacity to do the work. And we've purchased and loaedn out millions of dollars worth of hardware, firmware, software, et cetera. We have created a hot wifis in our parking lots and parking structures so students who live in an area where there is not broadband enough in their community, they can drive to the campus in a safe space, there's security and it's not optimal, but it's doable to work in your car and do your emails or take your Zoom class. Governor Newsom of California established a governor's council for postsecondary education, which I am on as along with the President of the University of California and the Chancellor of the community colleges and the private independent colleges in the state, as well as the Secretary of Education for K-12. It's a group of about 10 of us. And we've proposed and the administration has accepted that one of the top priorities, even in this tough budget time, is to get more broadband across the State of California in both urban and suburban and rural communities. Now that'll take a little bit of time, but we can buy MiFis and give them to students. They can check them out. And we've kept open all the wellbeing activities. If a student is food insecure or housing insecure, they can get into the residence halls and live there. They can do a curbside pickup of food that they don't have to pay for because they can access CalFresh, which is our California's food stamp program, if you will. They can get groceries at the grocery store without paying for them. They can access the health centers, do telemedicine or have a referral on appointment to see a practitioner, either on campus or whatever affiliated groups. We've tried to continue these wraparound approaches to be inclusive, and to recognize that there is a digital divide and to make accommodations that are costing us hundreds of millions of dollars, but is the right thing to do when you have a North Star of inclusive excellence, health, safety and progress to degree.

Philip Rogers: Tim, as you think about the next 6-8 months, moving through the fall in a period of uncertainty, we've already started to see this resurgence in some parts of the country, campuses are being called upon to be agile and to be adaptive, and to be able to pivot on a dime as the situation changes. As you talk with your 23 campuses and as you think about the issues ahead, what are the top one or two that really keep you awake at night, as you think about the future of higher education?

Dr. Timothy White: I think there is a belief in many places of the country that this is an issue to figure out for the next couple of months. You can't change the biology of this disease. This is not a two month or a six month issue. This is a 18 to 24 month issue. And we're just at the beginning of that. And to lose track about that longer view, I think makes myopic decisionmaking that you're going to have to undo. And just like in dieting, yo-yo dieting is the worst thing you can do for metabolic syndrome and diabetes and so forth. Yo-yo delivery of higher education is tough on faculty, tough on staff and tough as hell on students and their families. And we have so few courses in person in the fall and each of those courses has a pivot plan if all hell breaks loose and they can't continue. But we also know that right here in California right now is, we're having a resurgence in all of the communities that got very lackadaisical on physical distancing and masking and so forth. We know that the forecast for California and for the nation, but let me just speak to where we have our pinpoint forecasting is, there's going to be another huge surge of COVID in the fall, October, November, coupled with influenza, that will make what we just went through in terms of the disease and the morbidity and mortality, it'll seem like that was small, what we'd just gone through. And then there's another one coming in February/March. When you think about that, why plan and cross your fingers versus plan for what the reality is going to play out to be? And if we're wrong, I can live with that mistake. But what I didn't want to do is have that yo-yo, we talked earlier about the huge pivot, but you don't want to plan to do huge pivots every semester, that just isn't going to work. What keeps me up at night is how do we afford all of this? Our state appropriation understandably has gone down. We have chosen not to raise tuition because of the high unemployment in our families. Costs have gone up and incomes have gone down. We're tightening our belt everywhere that we can, delaying projects and using one time money to help support ongoing activities. We got criticized last summer for building a reserve for a rainy day. Well guess what? It's raining now and we're using that reserve to dampen the negative impact on the university. We've stopped hiring unless it's wildly essential and only the president can sign off on any hire at any level of the institution and we've stopped travel. And we're still looking at other things on nutrition that would help us work within our means. On the good side is I think there are some business practices that we've all of sudden discovered, the finance officers don't have to travel and meet every month together in person and at a $100,000 per meeting. Zoom works just fine for that, thank you. We've learned how to deliver HR services and legal services and audit services in the virtual space. Auditors don't have to travel around all these campuses, but can do most of it remotely. We're going to do so much software developing in the learning environment. There's going to be some fantastic laboratories that people used to think could only be done in person. It can be done perhaps better in the virtual space with technology that comes out of the entertainment industry. People say virtual is not as good, I say, Hollywood seems to be doing okay. They create a lot of virtual things that a lot of people enjoy. I worry about the finances and I worry about students who might say, "I'm going to stopout." Usually if you stopout, take a gap year coming out of high school, it's because you're going to go travel or work in a company as an intern to get a sense of what it's going to be like when you finish your degree, four or five years later. Those opportunities don't exist anymore. And the one truth is that no matter what the economy is, those with a college degree, their rate of unemployment is half of whatever the rate of unemployment is. And trying to encourage new students and continuing students that despite it being different, it's a time to lean in and continue to make progress here to degree because when you have that degree, it can't be taken away. And finally, so many companies have in the last 2-3 months, I'll pick on Twitter and Facebook who have said, "You know what? We're working great in the remote space. Even after COVID, employees don't have to come back to an office. We're going to be a remote workplace going forward." And for our students now who are needing to be successful in a remote, in the virtual space, they're getting training of what is going to be more and more likely what their career path is going to be, working in a virtual space. And there is a silver lining here. It's not all negative by any means. It will be different. And the final complaint that I've gotten in some letters, but not a lot is, "Gosh, darn it, Mr. White, you're taking away my daughter's college experience. She's worked her entire life to go off to college and now look what you're doing, by doing it in a virtual space." But not often nice words like that. But my answer is, it is going to be different and I acknowledged and respect the concerns. But if we do this right, it's only going to be about 20 or 25% of her college experience years, that if she's a new student, she'll get those experiences maybe next year, if she's an ongoing student, she had those experiences last year. But it is an adaptation to the historic moment that we're in. And while I understand the concern, I'm personally more concerned about the 25% of the people who've lost their jobs and can't pay their rent or pay their mortgage or get enough food. This is a tough time and everybody is hurt and everybody can be part of the solution.

Sherri Hughes: We always say this, we make this last question our regular feature on this podcast. And I know we're running short on time. Is there one piece of advice or a takeaway that you would give to aspiring leaders or others who are making these tough decisions during the pandemic and dealing with its effects? What might that one piece of advice be?

Dr. Timothy White: One piece of advice: be authentic and ask for help. Asking for help in difficult, unchartered waters is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength and clairvoyance. ACE, organizations ask you, APLU, AAU, colleagues you know or other universities, test your ideas with them. You can't navigate this in isolation and it has to be authentic. It's okay to say, "I don't know." But that's to me where the real importance is, having thought about what are your values? And then every time you get to a decision point. Yogi Berra says, We've come to a fork in the road, we're going to take it." We're going to take it around our values, health, safety, progress to degree and inclusion. It's made the complexity a lot simpler to navigate, hasn't made it easier to do, but it's made it clearer to make good decisions. And our decision at CSU that we announced early has now ended up doing some downfield blocking for some other places across the country who initially said, "We're going to be in person," and who over the last several weeks have pivoted identical to what we're doing, both private and public R1s. Because it took some courage to get out there and we could have been wrong, but I think it turns out, I think we moved in the direction that works for California.

Philip Rogers: Tim, this has been a fantastic conversation. And you started off talking about the two North Stars for California State University. And I want to summarize briefly by mentioning those, and then adding three more North Stars to your two, because I thought you made some really thoughtful points. Number one is, that health and safety of students, staff and faculty is priority number one.

Dr. Timothy White: And community.

Philip Rogers: And community. And your second North Star was focusing on creating the environment that supports students in their progress towards a degree. And then I thought it was really thoughtful to connect to those two things, this idea of maintaining and sustaining the human factor side, as a critical part of the education process, not losing track of the long view and accepting this yo-yo version of higher education, that's not good for anyone. And then finally your walk-off statement around how values really matter and how being authentic and asking for help is not in any way a sign of weakness, but certainly a sign of strength. And I think that you have embodied those as a leader of a really critical system of higher education in the United States. And we're grateful for your leadership in the field and for your time today with us.

Dr. Timothy White: Philip and Sherri, it's been a delight to have this conversation and I wish you well. I wish all of us well and happy to have the chance to join you.

Philip Rogers: Great. That concludes this special rapid response episode of ACE Engage Conversations. You can listen to the other podcasts in this series at And you can also register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engage Conversations and many more, including plenty of content on COVID-19 at Thanks again for your time. And we look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you to learn and lead in the flow of your work.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go.  

Part of ACE Engage Conversations. Sign up at to listen to past episodes.


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

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