Joseph I. Castro has spent the last few weeks preparing to move from Fresno to Long Beach, where he will take the helm of the 23-campus California State University in early January.
With him, he hopes to take knowledge of how to remove barriers for underprivileged students, like he once was, growing up in a beauty salon with his mother and sister in Hanford.
What he’s accomplished as the president of Fresno State for the past seven years will help him, he said.
“I’ve learned a lot of lessons here,” Castro said over a Zoom call in December with The Bee. “What I want to take to this chancellorship is a real continued focus on the success of our students.”
Castro has already met with President-elect Joseph Biden’s transition team and talked about goals, he said. Number one on the list? He wants to work with the federal government to make undocumented students eligible for Pell grants, a federal aid program aimed at helping lower-income students pay for college.
“Number two is to increase the Pell grants,” he said. “There is a gap between Pell students and other students in terms of graduation, and I do believe that over time, by investing more in our Pell students, they’ll have to work a little bit less, and that will enable them to get their degrees faster.”
Castro already has experience working with majority Pell grant recipients. Sixty-five percent of Fresno State students qualify for federal aid.
Graduation rates at Fresno State moved up over 10 points during his presidency, he said. “Prior to that time, it had been mostly kind of flatline graduation rates.”
Although a significant accomplishment, he said, there are still equity gaps that need to be closed.
“Right now, there’s about a 10% gap in graduation rates between Pell Grant students and other students,” he said.
“I’d like to try to do more system-wide to support campuses like Fresno States so we can get that gap as close to zero as possible.”
The transferring of students from community colleges will also be a focus.
“The pandemic might make that a little bit harder in the short term,” he said. “However, I think once we get through the pandemic and the stress of the pandemic starts to go away, and there’s more courses that are offered in person, I think we’re going to see even higher enrollments in community colleges and in the CSU.”
Castro’s appointment as CSU chancellor makes history
Castro’s naming as the eighth chancellor of the CSU system came in September, nearly a year after the current chancellor, Timothy White, announced, then postponed, his retirement.
In several ways, Castro’s appointment is historic, a fact that is not lost on him, he said.
He is the first California native to lead the CSU, and as a Mexican-American, he is also the first person of color to do so since the CSU’s inception in 1961.
When Castro begins his tenure, he will join the state’s three other public school leaders, who, for the first time, are all people of color. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond was elected in 2018. California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley has held his position since 2016, and University of California President Michael Drake was appointed in August.
Both Castro and the trustees were surprised at the lack of diversity in the CSU’s history, he said.
“I’d also like to inspire more faculty diversity so that our faculty better reflect the rich diversity of our students,” Castro said of his plans. “I hope there’ll be other native Californians to follow, and also more chancellors of color, and women as well, in the future years ahead.”
The CSU system is home to some 485,000 students and is the United States’ largest public university system. A third are first-generation students, and 60% are people of color.
“A majority of them come from backgrounds like mine,” Castro said, “so I have a chance to give back and support the next generation of leaders.”
Although Castro’s appointment is unique, he is not a stranger to the public figures he will be working with.
“One of the great things is that we all know each other,” Castro said about his colleagues. “We’ve worked together before. I’ve been on Chancellor Oakley’s advisory board for the last several years, and we’ve developed a personal relationship. He’s helped us a lot with increasing transfer (rates) here in the Central Valley.”
Castro said he and Drake helped establish the UCSF Fresno Doctors Academy more than 20 years ago.
“We all have the same vision for California … and we want to support all of our students, especially those who come from underrepresented backgrounds so that they can succeed and go on to become leaders here in California and beyond.”
Lillian Kimbell, chair of the CSU board of trustees, described Castro as a passionate and effective student advocate.
“Above all, he is a leader who inspires greatness in students, faculty, and in the broader community. He is the right leader for the California State University in our current circumstance and for our future,” she said in a statement in September.
Gov. Gavin Newsom also poured on accolades during a virtual chat hosted in December with public school leaders.
“Joe is a rockstar,” Newsom said. “I told him, I was tearing up when he got the job because of the work he’s been doing … not just in terms of the agenda that we’re advancing today as it relates to inclusion and equity, but economic development, workforce development, and really focusing on regions.”
Before accepting the chancellor job, Castro had withdrawn his name
For all the jubilation Castro’s appointment has created, it almost didn’t happen.
When White announced his retirement in October 2019, the CSU was supposed to announce a successor the following March. Castro was on a list of candidates.
At the time, Castro’s mother-in-law was fighting cancer, and his mother and father-in-law were in the hospital, he said.
“I made a personal decision that we were going to stay in Fresno with our family and I continue as president of Fresno State and not be a candidate for the job,” he said.
But as the year wore on, his circumstances changed. His mother-in-law passed away, but his mother and father-in-law’s health improved. By then, White had postponed his retirement due to the pandemic, stretching out the hiring process.
“Our personal situation was different, and the trustees asked me if I’d reconsider,” he said. “Later toward the summer, I agreed to do that.”
Castro’s plans as CSU chancellor
Castro had a say in the final decision whether to open CSUs primarily in-person in fall 2021, he said. Before the decision was announced in December, he and White discussed it with his cabinet and consulted with other presidents.
“I think it’s the right decision,” he said. “It’s based on the science that we’re aware of, in terms of the upcoming vaccines and the plans for distribution. I think there’s good reasons to be optimistic about the fall.
“If things don’t go exactly as planned, we’ll definitely make sure we stay in touch,” he continued. “But we wanted (to announce it for) students who might be worried that we’re going to be primarily virtual next year.”
He said some students and faculty prefer to remain virtual, and that option will remain.
Castro said he leaves unfinished business for the new president, which for now is interim Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, the university’s provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.
Castro pushed for a lot of infrastructure renovation while president, he said, and the campus’ electrical system was rebuilt, and the central heating and cooling is in the process of being reworked.
The new student union, projected to cost about $60 million, is expected to open in fall 2021. Students voted in 2018 to help fund the building with a $149 per semester fee hike.
“We’ve enhanced and renovated a lot of labs and classrooms, and yet there’s a lot more work that needs to be done,” he said. “The campus site is about 70 years old, and some of the original buildings still need more love and care.”
Controversies at Fresno State under Castro
“We’ve not had many controversies,” Castro said of his seven years at Fresno State.
“Sometimes controversy has found me. Unfortunately, when you’re president, that’s what happens from time to time. But I think the way we’ve addressed different controversies has been a principled approach that people in the community have understood. I felt very comfortable with the way we’ve handled tough issues that have come up.”
Those issues include the furor surrounding English professor Randa Jarra’s tweet in 2018 criticizing Barbara Bush, shortly after the former First Lady’s death, and in 2017 when lecturer Lars Maischak tweeted “Trump must hang.”
The Bulldogs’ athletic department stability has also come into question.
During Castro’s tenure, university support of Fresno State athletics budget 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.
Castro grew up in the rural central San Joaquin Valley
Castro’s great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico, about 100 years ago, where the family lived in tents as they worked along the Santa Fe railroad before becoming farmworkers.
His mother was born “in a little shed on Second Street in Hanford” and became a beautician.
“A lot of people know her because she cut their hair for decades,” he said. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time in beauty salons and helping the ladies there with different errands. I learned a lot about women through those experiences, listening to all their different stories.”
His mother raised him and his sister alone, and both went on to earn degrees.
“I was the first in my family to go to a university,” he said. “I went to (UC) Berkeley because of a program there to recruit more students from the Central Valley. That was a huge leap for me personally, to go from the small town of Hanford, where at the time (there were) maybe 10 or 15,000 people, to this campus — it was bigger than the whole city of Hanford.”
He describes his admission as the “best decision of my life — other than marrying my wife, Mary — because it just altered the trajectory of my whole life.”
He said it was that experience that inspired him to want to work in higher education.
Colleges are one of the “few institutions in our society that can have that transformational impact on a human being,” he said, “opening up all these different avenues for growth.”
“It’s been a wonderful experience here at Fresno State, and it’s very hard to leave from that standpoint,” he said. “Yet, the Golden State is my home too, so now I get to do (this) at a statewide level.”
The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Read more from The Bee’s Education Lab on our website.