Interview with Cal State Chancellor Mildred Garcia: Paving the way for student success

In October 2023, Mildred Garcia assumed the role of chancellor for the California State University, making history as the first Latina to lead a four-year public university system in the nation. Previously serving as the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Garcia entered the CSU system amid post-pandemic challenges.

Garcia participated in an interview with Alexcia Negrete, a reporter from the California Student Journalism Corps, in early May to delve into Garcia’s leadership objectives, especially with a focus on student issues.

The conversation covered topics ranging from enhancing access for underrepresented groups in the CSU system to addressing Title IX (sex discrimination) concerns, enrollment obstacles, and tuition dilemmas.

This interview has been abridged for clarity and brevity.

What are the primary goals for CSU, or your personal objectives, in supporting students in the upcoming academic year?

My guiding star is student success, equity, affordability, graduation rates, retention, and every facet. I am here because of the students we serve, particularly the first-generation, low-income, students of color, and adult learners who form the majority in California seeking four-year degrees and beyond. Our aim is to set the standard—or realize the standard—on graduating students from diverse backgrounds to achieve their utmost potential. Every decision I make revolves around this—how it impacts the students, their families, and their aspirations to reach their desired destinations.

At times, this might conflict with certain perceptions, but this is my truth because I am a first-generation college student. I understand how it transforms lives. Coming from a financially disadvantaged background, I witness the advancement where now the conversation amongst my nieces, nephews, and family members is not about ‘Will I attend college?’ but ‘Which college will I choose?’ For me, this is more than a job; it’s my passion, my mission, and the essence of my life’s work.

Having served as president of two Cal State universities, Dominguez Hills and Fullerton, you previously had direct interactions with students. As a chancellor, there might be a perception of detachment. What message would you like students to know about you?

First and foremost, I share a similar background with many of them. I grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. When my father passed away at the age of 12, we relocated to the housing projects in Brooklyn.

Pursuing college demanded hard work. With seven siblings and a mother sustaining us on a factory income, the struggle was real. Every individual has a unique story, but the common thread is the hunger for progress, breaking free from poverty, and aspiring for a financially secure and fulfilling life.

I applaud and admire every student striving to acquire their degree, fulfilling their ambitions, and contributing to society, notably in California. Earning a college degree is not just an endpoint; it marks a chapter in your life’s narrative, a stepping stone towards your aspirations.

The CSU has grappled with Title IX issues, prompting student apprehensions about the overall process. How do you intend to restore student confidence in the Title IX system and reshape the perception of CSU’s approach?

Primarily, we received extensive reports from Cozen O’Connor and the state auditor, and we are adhering to the recommendations outlined in those reports. Each university president now heads a committee responsible for implementing these measures and ensuring open communication within their campuses to ensure no student faces repercussions when raising Title IX-related concerns.

Every campus will designate a responsible individual, and the Chancellor’s Office will oversee for compliance. The commitment of every university president is to provide progress updates to me, highlighting Title IX as a priority and showcasing adherence to the Cozen O’Connor report recommendations, being held accountable for their actions.

My expectation is for each campus to collaborate with their vice president for student affairs, the provost, and human resources, outlining our procedures. We want students to feel empowered to come forward, assuring a documented process with procedural investigations.

Several CSU campuses are grappling with declining enrollment, leading to class and faculty cuts. How are you working to ensure students receive the necessary education despite these reductions?

Our aim is to ensure that students admitted to each campus can access classes and eventually graduate. This stands as the foremost objective of every university president.

My core focus remains on enhancing students’ campus experiences, facilitating their graduation, providing necessary classes, and nurturing them to accomplish remarkable milestones, subsequently returning to share their successes, fostering a strong alumni community.

Our dedicated team comprising university presidents and vice chancellors places a paramount emphasis on student success. Strategies will be tailored individually by each campus to establish frameworks, practices, and enforce accountability monitoring student progress toward graduation.

Prior to assuming office, CSU trustees approved a tuition hike for five consecutive years. This decision was met with student opposition and protests due to concerns about increased expenses and inadequacy of financial aid. How do you reassure students amidst these challenges?

Regarding the figures, approximately 60% of students have their tuition fully covered. Therefore, the financial burden for students often stems from the cost of living. Our mission revolves around consolidating Pell Grants, State University grants, and scholarships to mitigate living expenses for each student.

While I empathize with the students—having personally financed my college education and managed multiple jobs concurrently—our tuition remains one of the most affordable nationwide. Demystifying the common misconception, the primary hardship lies in the cost of attendance.

Our endeavors aim to address these issues. I have been advocating, even before my appointment, to enhance Pell Grants. Moreover, we aim to collaborate with state legislators advocating for increased resources for state universities like the California State University system.

The CSU system anticipates further budget reductions at a university-wide scale due to decreased state support. Some campuses have resorted to program and position cuts due to these constraints. How do you ensure students receive adequate support despite these financial challenges?

Each campus needs to identify core elements essential for student welfare and prioritize those with the available funds to cater to student needs effectively. Focusing on student graduation requirements and the resources crucial for students to succeed on a constrained budget is pivotal.

Resembling personal budgeting practices, universities must ascertain the critical expenses. For universities, enhancing student support, facilitating classes, and ensuring student well-being to promote academic excellence is the primary objective.

Is there anything else you wish to communicate?

The CSU embodies a unique place in higher education. Compared to my experience with 400 institutions during my tenure in Washington, D.C., we need to collaboratively emphasize the value of the CSU. After graduation, 80% of our students remain within a 50-mile radius, becoming entrepreneurs, journalists, business leaders, doctors, and more. This is our contribution to California, fostering community engagement and development within the state.

The CSU serves as a private good, benefiting individuals and their families across generations. Moreover, it enriches cities and communities by fostering an engaged, tax-paying, and healthy citizenry. Acknowledging that perfection is a journey, we remain committed to continuous improvement, rectifying mistakes, evolving, and propelling towards excellence.

Ashley Bolter is a fourth-year journalism major with minors in French and ethnic studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Alexcia Negrete is a fourth-year communications major at California State University, Fullerton. Both contribute to EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

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