Interview with Chancellor White

Taken by Bryan Tuttle

The morning following the announcement that he will be leaving the University of California, Riverside to head the California State University system, Chancellor Timothy White sat down with Highlander Editor-in-Chief Chris LoCascio and News Editor Sandy Van to discuss his decision and what it will mean for the future of UCR. 

Highlander: How have the last 48 hours been for you?

Chancellor White: It’s been a confluence both at the emotional level and at the reality level.

You know, one of my big concerns when these folks [the CSU] talked to me seriously for the first time was that there is an amazing need in the state of California. They got my attention, but before I could think more about that—what does that mean to Riverside? To our students, to our community, to our employees? And of course the big elephant was, where’s the medical school accreditation process going? That was an absolute factor for me—if that was either going to be delayed again or negative, I’m not leaving here until we’re through that eye of the needle. It’s one of the big reasons that I came [to UCR]. And the second thing I thought about is, I know that when there’s a turnover in a position like this, the question is, do we have enough momentum, aspiration, direction, people, spirit, dreams, you know, all of that? There’s going to be a little ripple, I get that piece, but if I thought it was going to derail the campus I would have said I’m not interested in thinking about anything else.

When I thought about the achievements of our students, the increase in student applicants, the success of our faculty, the accreditation of the School of Medicine, the launching of the School of Public Policy, the 18,000 graduates that I’ve had the privilege of shaking hands with in four years, the leadership team, the fundraising campaign, new leadership in athletics, several new deans—I said you know, this place is just going to continue to blossom because we’ve got a plan, the strategic plan. We have people, top to bottom left to right. We have ambition and aspiration. We’re having success and we have momentum. I don’t want to diminish the fact that this office is sort of the face of the institution, but we’re going to be fine here.

When I got through that piece in my own thinking, I said to myself, “Okay, so what is this opportunity really about?” On Wednesday [Oct. 3], I met with a round table of eight to 10 people, sort of like the banquet tables where you have group dinners, and I had three 45 minute discussions with three different sets of people. The people were trustees of the Cal State system, analogous to our regents, including students, some faculty members, a couple members of the staff and presidents of two of the campuses. Unlike a normal interview where there’s a set of questions and then you ask one, and you ask one, and you ask one to a candidate for a job—it was much more of a discussion about what’s in front of public higher education, how do I do things. They knew my record, they knew our record, actually. Then I went back to my room and they said we’ll get back to you in about an hour, which became a couple of hours, and then they said we’ll get back to you in another hour. Then they said come on back down and now chat with those three tables, which had now been combined into one big room. I spent another 30 minutes with them answering questions about communications, relationships…nothing about spreadsheets or degrees. It was really about the much larger picture of public education. Then I was sent back to my room and somewhere around 3:30 or 3:45, they called me on my phone and said they’d like to come up to my room…which they did, and they made the offer. I had already gone through my, “How’s riverside going to be?” question and I accepted. We got into the mechanics of press releases and engaging our press people and their press people and organizing things for what happened yesterday morning [Oct. 4], which was a more formal announcement sequence and in between all that yesterday was a bunch of phone calls with different individuals. I spent 15-20 minutes with the governor and some of the elected leadership, talked to some staff members, some students who were in the building. Their building is over in Long Beach so it’s kind of like the UC building where all its got all the business functions.

It’s an interesting question for me actually, to go back and think about these last 48 hours. Last night, of course, was the Long Night downtown and I was on a panel. There were a lot of community members there and they were very kind to me.  I don’t think anyone really knows what to say or do because it’s new information for people and they’re trying to process it, generally. I feel like it was a bit of turbulence and confluence, if you will, and a lot of different emotions and things pulling and pushing all at once, but I feel this morning enormously proud about what we’re doing here and I really haven’t thought about the details about what’s going to start happening the next calendar year for me. I wore this for a purpose [points to UCR tartan tie], because tartan goes with everything, and I just needed to remind myself of that today.
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HL: You touched briefly on the selection process. Could you tell us a little more about how you were contacted by the search committee and what that process was like?

CW: Sure. First you just need to know that when you sit in an office like this and your campus is having success, a metaphoric phone rings once or twice a week, “Are you interesting in looking at place x?” There’s a lot of turnover in presidents and chancellors of campuses in America today, and it’s usually an email contact that comes in. Maybe it’s somebody I know either as a member of the faculty at the university of x or an executive search firm that a university employs to call people who are successful and take their temperature to see if they’re interested in talking. There’s a lot of euphemisms and usually the first contact will be, “We’d like to talk to you about any ideas you have for people who would fit this position,” and if I had an idea and then talked to them and they would say, “what about you?” So there’s this courting that goes on…

When this call came, sometime in the early summer, I actually said to the person who called me, “You must have called the wrong number,” somewhat tongue and cheek. It was a member of the executive search firm and I had been nominated by someone. I don’t know who the nominators are, because as it turns out, over the course of the summer, lots of voices were coming into this search process saying, “Hey, you ought to look at Riverside.” I immediately told them more about my commitment and concerns here and where we were with the School of Medicine and that was to be the driving factor whether I could even have an honest conversation [about the position].

Fast forward to summer, sometime, I want to say July-ish, but I’d have to actually look at my calendar. I was up in the Bay Area for UC business and at the end of that day, I zipped by one of the trustees who lives up in Northern California, and I just had a very casual conversation in his office. We actually didn’t talk about the position at all. We talked about the state and the economy, the role of education, about the students, K-12 and sports. It was just a wide ranging [conversation] and then they said, “Well thanks and we’ll give you a call sometime.” So July goes and August goes and I was actually on holiday in August when I got a call from the executive search firm and they said, “We decided to at least discuss you in front of a larger group and would you write a two-page letter, summarizing who you are?” So I did that and perhaps the easiest thing for me was I gave them my UCR webpage, where they can see anything and everything about me. I told them, “If you want to know style and substance, go here. You can see town halls, you can see unrest, you can see communications about the LGBT community and our students,” and so on and so forth.

So August came and went and then early in September I got a call saying they’d like to visit with me in person, with just a small subset of the trustees up in San Francisco. As good fortune would have it, it was the same day I was going to San Francisco for a regents meeting, so I went up a half-day earlier and went to an airport in Burlingames and sat down with maybe eight people for an hour and 15 minutes and we just had a conversation.

Towards the end of September, I got a call that said, “We’d like to bring you in as a finalist.” I reiterated that if the School of Medicine news wasn’t going to be forthcoming, I’m interested in having a conversation but if that goes south or gets delayed, I just won’t do it. They understood that and as life happens sometimes, I knew that the timing of the meeting on Wednesday was two days after the LCME started their deliberations. To be honest, I just knew that we were going to get accredited because of what we’ve done, so I didn’t really think there was a risk there. But I did not want to be in a position to publicly pronounce in advance of the LCME’s decision. When that happened earlier in the week, then I knew that, with a very clean conscience, I could go and have a final conversation.

I did not know who else was there. I think there were three people because there were these three different groups and they were very organized to keep people away from each other. There were hall monitors and walkie talkies and security and you’re in the bowels of a large hotel under pseudonyms. They really know how to keep the press away.

It’s interesting that when I think back to when I was entry-level coming into the University of Michigan and all the hiring we do here for assistant professors, you know there’s a job description, then you write this amount of stuff and you put your CV on there and then you get winnowed down and then you go to campus and then you spend two or three days with everybody under the sun and you give seminars, presentations and a whole host of stuff and then the selection gets made. Here it is on a different level of the responsibility on a campus, and it was just a series of conversations and a two-pager [chuckles]. There’s an inverse relationship between the magnitude and scale, not that the importance was any different, but the magnitude and scale of the task versus the process of going through getting selected.

HL: Can you explain the process to select the new chancellor of UCR?

CW: Well first of all, that’s going to be the decision of President Yudof.  There’s going to be two things that’ll happen: immediately the process of determining an interim person to come in by the end of this calendar year, who will likely sit in this office through next summer, roughly would be the typical way…at the same time launching a national search for a chancellor as a more time-dependent process. My instinct would be that that would have people being selected sometime in the spring to start sometime in the summer. The starting time is always depending on what it takes to wrap a ribbon around what they’re doing currently.

So there’s two phases. I’ve spoken to the president about it and it’s going to go quickly. They’ll be announcing stuff very soon. The decision about the leadership in this office, while they’ll seek a lot of input from students, faculty, staff and community the decision lies with the president of the system, and the advice of the regents, so we’ll have our input but it will be up to President Yudof to decide.

HL: Last week, you announced your decision to open the School of Public Policy. What made you decide to pursue that course at such a critical time?

CW: Several reasons. I think the most important one was that faculty and the deans and the community were saying, “Look, we know that resources are tight, but this is so important and we’d like you to do this and we recognize the risks, especially in November, where it will be another tight time.” I actually wanted to do it two years ago, and last year, and then you get another wrinkle out of Sacramento or the state economy. This office is an interesting office because at the end of the day, I’m a teacher, an academic, a faculty member, a believer in students, a believer in this place, so there’s that lean forward piece of me. But then there’s a responsibility to not be reckless with our money, and it was really a yin and a yang. So unsolicited in the spring I got a lot of people saying “C’mon Tim, we know the risks but we’re with you if you make this decision.” And secondly, by way of process, is when you get approval for a new school, it’s a big deal. There’s a lot of work that goes up to that process that ultimately—the faculty agree and the regents have to agree.

We did that almost four years ago, then you have I think it’s seven years to actually have your first student come into the program and if you don’t do that, then the deal’s off. So we’re at that place now where if we delay it much longer, we wouldn’t be able to get students in place before that six or seven year window expires and that would mean that all of the effort of all of the faculty and the people who went through this process would be for not, which would be horribly inefficient and maddening to everybody, including me. There was the reality of the clock ticking, but more importantly there was the need. The third piece is the need. A graduate school that focuses on public policy in this region of California is so desperately needed, and we have so many of the pieces already on this campus, that all this is really going to do is give us some organization to the strength that we already have. Today we’re every which way but focused on public policy, so this will be the focusing mechanism for that. You combine the interests of people that say even though it’s tough economically let’s take the risk, combine that with the need for the program and the fact that the clock was ticking, it was time to go.

I was going to do it actually in July, but a lot of the people most interested in this are either not on campus or off doing research somewhere else so I didn’t want to make an announcement and have it lost in the magnitude of the stuff in peoples’ email inboxes when they came back for the fall quarter, so I just delayed it. I actually wrote the letter in the summer time.

HL: I have a follow-up question to the school of public policy. When will construction on the school begin?

CW: The first thing to identify is the founding dean, and there’s a process just underway with that, which Provost Rabenstein is running. Through that process we’ll get nominees, we’ll get a small group of faculty and students to sort of evaluate the people that are interested, pick one, and then that person then starts building, just the way we did with the School of Medicine. Dick Olds was the first employee in the School of Medicine from an administrative point of view and then that person then brings in others to make it grow.

We’re not going to build a new building. We’re going to use existing space, and it could be somewhere in the CHASS buildings or interdisciplinary area, and these are all going to be worked out. There’s a commitment by Dean Cullenberg to allow space to the existing facilities. Then the curriculum gets established and they start recruiting students. I don’t know whether it’s going to be possible to recruit students for the fall of ‘13, I hope so, but if not then certainly the fall of ‘14. Then as the school grows and goes from an embryonic school and it starts getting shape and so forth and starts to mature, then I suspect that there will be facility needs. One of the things that we’re doing is the UC Path, the centralized human resource center and when that happens, we’ll have a new building and it’ll actually allow us to move some administrative functions there from some of these buildings around here into that new building and that will free up some space that is currently occupied right here at the center of campus. So the good news is that we don’t have to find $100 million to build a new building, we can do a bit of an investment.

The final thing on it is, I had the financial people do a financial analysis and, while I have to invest some money for people here at the front end, if you take this thing out just a couple of years, it’s a money maker for the campus because these are graduate students. Many will be national or international students. This thing will actually more than pay for itself really coming out of the box. And I guess the final point on the school of public policy is the strategic plan that calls for us to raise the portion of graduate and professional students to undergraduates. We’re currently something like 14 percent or 13 and a half percent. Our goal over the next several years is to make that closer to 20 percent. So we’ll grow the undergraduate student body like this [gestures incline with hands] but we need to grow the graduate and professional students like this [steeper incline] so the school of public policy and medicine will be the two that drive this up. I guess that’s going back to your question, that’s maybe the fourth or fifth piece is that it’s entirely consistent with the strategic plan that everybody agreed to.

HL: How will your role at CSU differ from that of UCR?

CW: There are no students in the building. That is going to be such a profound difference for me. You know I’ve been on a college campus with students since 1966—my entire life. So now to be in a building that doesn’t have students in a campus—it’s a business building.

The good news is, and I told the folks there this yesterday, is that I’m going to be out on all 22 campuses. Now there’s a reality to doing that, but I don’t want to show up and spend 30 minutes with the campus leadership. I want to spend a couple days in the campus community as I have been able to do here. I’m sure they willl be formalized to have a meeting with group x or y to talk about stuff, but I also going to say [to them] “I’ll see ya!” and I’ll walk in wherever the hub is on Chico or Humboldt or San Diego and just sit down and talk to students, or walk into a building, interrupt somebody in their office, a faculty member and say “Hey, I’m Tim, what are you doing?”

I think I learned in many places, but certainly found it to be so true on our wonderful campus, that I’m a tactile learner. I can read stuff, I can look at spreadsheets, I can get all that stuff down pretty quickly. Where I really learn is by touching, feeling, smelling, seeing the humanity and the struggles and the achievements. So if I’m going to be pushing levers in the system office, then I want to have better feel of what the campus is about—the student body and so forth. It’ll take a while. It’ll take a year probably, if I do two a month, and meaningful visits. But that’s what I’m going to miss the most, is not being directly with the students and directly with faculty. There were wonderful people that I met yesterday in that office who were very focused and very dedicated, but it’s going to be a different feeling than on campus and a sea change for my life.

HL: UCR’s strategic action plan—UCR 2020—has come to define the long term vision and path for growth for the university. As you make your transition to the CSU, do you have a similar vision in mind for the CSU system.

CW: Now they too have a plan and it’s called “Access to Excellence.” I actually don’t know the process it went through to be developed, whether it was developed top-down or whether there was a lot of involvement, but it is guiding the system right now. You can go on their website and see it, it has eight or nine points.

One of the things that they asked me about was what I thought about it. And that’s always a risky question because the people who asked me were probably the ones who wrote it and have committed to it. It’s got all the right stuff in it, but what it didn’t have, and I told them this, it didn’t have any comment about the quality of the learning experience. It was about the metrics of how many in and how many out, how many are this and how many are that, how do we keep faculty at the front of their game… a lot of important stuff. But I was struck by the fact it didn’t specifically address our students getting a quality learning experience while they’re on one of these campuses and when they leave, has that experience benefitted them going forward.

Most strategic plans are really plans of strategic intent. The day to day piece of those things has to change based on the environment. I look forward to implementing that. It’s two years into its existence. We’ll undoubtedly make some tweaks, but what I don’t know is actually how many people feel like they own that plan, and one of the things that I’ve learned in leadership is that if you don’t engage people to say, “I agree with this” or “I don’t agree with everything but this is such a good idea that I’m onboard.” Because things actually don’t get done in this office, they get done on the campus, by the faculty and by the students and by the staff. If they don’t feel like it’s a worthy plan, no matter how articulate and thoughtful it is, it won’t have an impact. So I have a lot to learn about the next place but if I think that we need to make a significant revision, we’ll go through that process but I suspect it will be a different scale of process. It’s one thing to get things done on a place of this size and something else to get something done on the scale of a system.

HL: You mentioned in your announcement to the students and the campus that the CSU is in a particularly unique situation right now. As you enter do you have a particular vision for what you might want to accomplish there, given the circumstances?

CW: I think one of the things that has to become stronger is to be student-centered and student-focused, and it undoubtedly exists on several of the campuses. I have to learn this so I may be off-base on this, but I want to make sure that no matter how challenging the moment is, that if you never forget your core of the creative side or intellectual side of things, then it makes it easier to weather really tough times. Sometimes it seems everywhere there’s been dust-ups, arguments around things that are secondary to the core mission. So I think that’ll be one thing: how do we stay focused on why we exist while we work through the very difficult things that exist? I have so much to learn about that system and I want to be smart about not pronouncing things broken or fixed until I really know how they function, what’s it really like out on campuses. And I view this central office to be supportive of the campus because the teaching, the learning and the research doesn’t happen in the Long Beach chancellor’s office. It happens on the 22 campuses and the university centers as well.

I think that’s the advantage of coming in being a campus guy, because I know what it means. I know what it means when there’s a tuition increase. I know what it means when there’s a budget cut. I know what it means when there’s people investing in a new program. I know the ups and the downs and how the face of all that stuff means. Sometimes when you sit with big old spreadsheets with a lot of numbers on them, they’re big old spreadsheets with a lot of numbers on them, but those are students, faculty and staff that we’re talking about.

HL: How do you intend to spend your final quarter here at UCR?

[Momentarily lays down outstretched on couch, arms behind head, chuckling]

CW: Until my last day, I’m going to be a very assertive chancellor for UCR. Nothing will change, with one exception, and that is to try to figure out the transition of stuff. I mean anytime there’s a transition, there’s some things you can say [will happen] and other things that you say still won’t. We’ve got all that stuff sort of in the head in various stages of done. I think it’s only fair to the campus that the next person gets some sort of a coherent package when they come in, and say, “These are the five things that are open and these are the reasons why you need to execute them,” and then let that person put their fingerprint on them of course, but I think the only added thing is to make sure it’s orderly and to help the new person learn. But you know I’m not going to stop being a chancellor, standing up for students and the faculty, going to student events, fundraising events and so forth. So, no I’m not going to lay down.

HL: Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with us at this very hectic time.

CW: Well, you know last night they called me [about the interview] and I said absolutely. I owe it, not in the sense of a sort of a begrudging owe it, but I owe it because that’s my center, is you guys, the 21,000 others of you, for good or for bad. To me it’s a sort of grounding principle, and one that’s served well.

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