Joseph I. Castro, the grandson of Mexican immigrants and a first-generation college student who rose during a career in higher education to lead Fresno State, has been named chancellor of the California State University system, trustees announced Wednesday.

Castro, 53, will be the first chancellor of color to lead CSU, the nation’s largest four-year system, serving 480,000 students, nearly two-thirds of whom identify as Latino, Asian American or Black.

He will succeed Timothy P. White, who is retiring after eight years on the job.

“There is no other institution that makes this great of an impact on the entire state — the CSU is key to a growing and thriving California,” Castro said in a statement. “I am truly grateful for and excited about this unique and wonderful opportunity.”

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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.

Joseph I. Castro, president of California State University, Fresno

Joseph I. Castro, president of California State University, Fresno, was named Wednesday to become the eighth chancellor of the 23-campus university system.

( California State University)

He 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 the 481,929 total students enrolled were people of color and 54% were the first in their families to pursue earning a bachelor’s degree. Close to half of students are typically eligible for federal Pell grants for low-income students.

The current board of trustees and 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.

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Castro was selected after a months-long search process that began last fall after White announced his plan to retire. The search was put on hold after White delayed his retirement because of the pandemic and then resumed in the summer. A subcommittee of trustees led the process, together with the search firm Isaacson, Miller and an advisory committee made up of representatives from faculty, students and administration.

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 and across the campus as a whole. 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 campuses losses of about $750 million in losses since March. Faced with a $54-billion state deficit over the next three years, 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.

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During Tuesday’s portion of the trustees’ meeting, dozens of staff, faculty and students protested the staff layoffs announced across CSU campuses in recent weeks, pleading with trustees to use more of their $1.7-billion “rainy day fund” and find cuts at the management level instead.

Abraham Aguirre, a painter at Cal State Fullerton, said he just bought a house in July and was relying on his job to sponsor a green card for his wife, a Mexican citizen.

“By this layoff, you’re not only potentially taking my house away, you’re taking away her green card,” Aguirre said. “The other day my wife asked me, ‘when are we going to have a baby?’ We’re recently married. And I said [to her], ‘Baby, in nine months I’m not going to have health insurance … I don’t know.”

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.

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In addition, even before the virus hit, significant shares of Cal State students faced food and housing insecurity — an issue White sought to address during his tenure through his “basic needs initiative” and one likely to continue as a major student priority during the next chancellor’s tenure.

These issues will not be foreign to the incoming chancellor, who has led Fresno State since 2013.

A native of Hanford in the San Joaquin Valley, Castro’s story will sound familiar to many CSU students, 43% of whom identify as Latino and almost half of whom are eligible for Pell grants.

The grandson of farmworkers who immigrated from Mexico and the son of a single mother who worked as a beautician, Castro attended UC Berkeley through a program for promising Latino students from San Joaquin Valley farming communities — a turn of events that he has described as “transformational” in the course of his life.

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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 and leadership.

Before becoming president of Fresno State, Castro served 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.

Both at UC San Francisco and at Fresno State, he earned a reputation as an able fundraiser, someone who was easy to work with, and an advocate for students and their needs. “He’s essentially a quiet, self-effacing person,” said Fresno State academic senate chair Thomas Holyoke. “He has a tendency to admit his mistakes when they happen – a perfectly likeable person.”

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