Going for a spin of Cal State

  • April 24, 2013

By Carla Rivera
Times Staff Writer

Almost before he had taken his last spin, there was a video posted on YouTube of Cal State University Chancellor Timothy P. White break dancing in front of hundreds of appreciative students at the Dominguez Hills campus.

It follows the video of him doing the Harlem Shake with students at Cal State East Bay in February and considering — but deciding against — climbing a rock wall at Cal State Sacramento in March.

White came to Dominguez Hills on Tuesday as part of his promise to visit all 23 Cal State campuses during his first year on the job. So far he's been a big hit, approaching students in food courts and classrooms to hear their stories and ask whether they are supported and challenged and familiarizing himself with the larger campus community.

But the tour also is about understanding what's working well and not so well in the nation's largest public four-year university system. After weathering more than $1 billion in state funding cuts since 2008, the campuses have reduced classes and enrollment, and tuition has spiraled.

"What I've been hearing is the pride, the resilience and the self-reliance of students who've gone through some tough times with all of the tuition changes," said White, 63, who had put back on his coat and shoes after successfully executing his first hip-hop spin. "They're not happy about the difficulties, but they're not giving up."

White assumed his post in December, after serving as chancellor of UC Riverside. He was a popular figure at that campus and won plaudits from many Cal State students and faculty when he recently asked the Board of Trustees to reduce his salary by 10% because of the fiscal crisis.

Yvette Lee, a child development major who's graduating this spring, chased White down three staircases to introduce herself and shake his hand. She said she had been active in student protests against fee hikes and class cuts approved under previous Chancellor Charles B. Reed and appreciated White's efforts to engage students.

"It's good our voices are finally being heard, and it's good to hear that he's involved with students," said Lee, 46. "Hopefully, we'll have a positive turnaround. Students want somebody real, that we can see and touch."

White, in fact, described his campus tour approach as tactile, getting a feel for what makes the urban Dominguez Hills campus in Carson different from Humboldt State in Arcata, for example, as well as the elements that connect 420,000 students statewide.

In rural Humboldt, he led a campus band, and in Chico, he rode a bike.

Marie Bahner, who helped organize the flash-mob dance — to the theme of the 1990s sketch comedy TV show "In Living Color" — had heard about the chancellor's previous dance exploits. The group of mostly dance students practiced for about three weeks before surprising White after lunch in the student union building.

"I had just heard that he was a pretty cool guy and might be into it," said Bahner, 33, a liberal studies major. "He got on his back and was spinning, and it was awesome."

Later White visited an anthropology class, where he related some of his own academic background to Luis Gomez, an anthropology major who wants to earn a doctorate.

Originally from Buenos Aires, White is an immigrant and first-generation college student who attended Diablo Valley Community College in Pleasant Hill, earned a bachelor's degree from Cal State Fresno, a master's from Cal State Hayward (now East Bay) and a doctorate in exercise physiology from UC Berkeley.

"If I can go to a Cal State and then UC and get a PhD, then you can do it too," he told the junior.

"He was easy to talk to and very approachable," said Gomez, 20. "He seems to be really genuinely interested in students. He did make it seem like my goals are more realistic."

White is set to continue his tour this week at San Diego State. He'll take a break during the summer and resume his busy schedule in August when classes return for the fall term.

"I've been on campuses all of my adult life as a student, a faculty member and administrator, and now I'm not on a campus anymore," White said, referring to the chancellor's office in Long Beach.

Still, he said: "I want to remain very student and faculty focused."

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