Timothy White, the new chancellor of the California State University system, introduced his folksy brand of leadership Tuesday to the Dominguez Hills campus in Carson, where he wandered about and chatted up students, professors and janitors alike.
At one point, the 63-year-old former president of the American Academy of Kinesiology and Physical Education even kicked off his shoes to gamely take a stab at performing the most rigorous of break-dancing moves: the backspin.
White, the seventh president of the nation’s largest university system – and the first who is the product of it – seemed genuinely at ease while shooting the breeze with students, even as a swarm of media cameras captured his every move.
“How are you going to make the world better?” he asked Evelyn Murillo, a junior in an anthropology class that was abruptly interrupted by the entourage.
“I want to become an FBI agent,” she answered shyly.
“You know, there are some amazing opportunities in the FBI,” White responded. “You use your brain, so it’s rewarding. And it’s steady. The work will never run out in today’s world. ”
When he took the reins in December, White assumed the top job on the heels of the retirement of his polarizing predecessor, Charles Reed, who endured heavy criticism during an era that saw simultaneous tuition hikes for students and salary increases for incoming university presidents. The strife led to union strikes on the part of faculty and hunger strikes on the part of students. Rightly or wrongly, Reed was characterized as out of touch.
Perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from the acrimony, White set a certain tone in November when he requested a pay cut. The move shaved his salary from $421,500 to $380,000.
In keeping with that tone, White on Tuesday stressed the importance of staying in touch with the students and faculty he serves.
“I started college in 1966, and since that day – until I started this position – I’ve always been on a college campus, either as a student or a post-doc or a faculty member or administrator,” said White, who earned his bachelor’s at Fresno State, master’s at Cal State Hayward and doctorate at UC Berkeley. “So I’ve always had the intellectual life around me, the student life around me. Now I’m in an office that doesn’t have students. ”
White, of course, enjoys a luxury that his predecessor didn’t have: the November passage of Proposition 30, a statewide tax hike that essentially stopped the financial bleeding that sent tuition rates soaring.
It’s a blessing that he doesn’t forget to count.
“I think there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “(Prop. 30) allowed us to start investing in things that matter. … Voters in California have said enough is enough. I’m willing to pay more taxes. It may not help me personally, but it does help society.”
Still, he stopped short of making any guarantees that tuition won’t rise again after 2013-14.
“We can certainly commit to it this year and for next year,” he said. “What I want to be careful of is to not lock ourselves into financial economic boxes that we can’t get out of. ”
White seemed to make a good impression on students. On Tuesday, he was sought out by a female student who’d heard about his break-dancing stunt in which White, following a flash mob organized by the university’s dance department, allowed himself to be coached on how to perform a backspin.
After effusively shaking White’s hand and having a brief chat, 46-year-old Yvette Lee explained her enthusiasm to reporters as White – his salt-and-pepper hair still mussed up from the backspin stunt – walked into a classroom.
“Having a real person who is so important taking the time to walk through – he’s interested,” she said. “He’s really interested. ”
Also impressed with White so far is Dave Bradfield, head of the faculty union at Dominguez Hills.
“It’s a positive change in style, and I hope there’s a change in substance as well,” he said.