More than half of presidents in the Cal State System are women. Here’s why.

Daily Briefing

More than half of presidents in the Cal State System are women. Here’s why.

This interview with Chancellor Timothy P. White, Chancellor of the California State University System, was conducted by Sally Amoruso, Executive Principal for EAB. It has been edited for length and clarity by Kristin Tyndall, Senior Editor of the EAB Daily Briefing.

When Chancellor Timothy P. White arrived at the California State University System in 2012, he noted that only three of the system’s 23 presidents were women—despite the fact that the student body was 55% female.

He vowed to change that, and he was uniquely equipped to do so. White understood the outsider’s perspective. He had emigrated from Argentina as a young boy and was the first in his family to attend college. These experiences made him sensitive to the needs of underrepresented candidates. Under his tenure, the composition of Cal State’s presidents has drastically changed—now, 12 of the 23 presidents are women, and several are minorities as well.

“I know what it feels like and I know what those kind of barriers are. Am I welcome? Sometimes they’re overt. Sometimes they’re covert,” White told Sally Amoruso, a strategic advisor to presidents and their cabinets for EAB. White recently sat down with Amoruso to share the steps he took to lead the change at Cal State.

Step 1: Diversify the search committee

White’s strategy wasn’t about quotas, he says. Instead, he asked himself how he could make each step of the search process more inclusive.

First, he ensured the diversity of the committee of CSU Trustees leading a given search, as well as the committee comprised of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members that advises them.

White wanted the committees, which work hand in hand to identify three finalists, to reflect different perspectives based on gender, race, relationship to the institution, which jobs participants held, and the interests of each campus and its surrounding community. For example, he explains, the location of the campus might suggest the need for a Native American member of the committee.

“When you have diversity around the table, two people can look at the same letter and resume and see different strengths and different weaknesses. If you don’t start there, you’re not going to end up with a diverse pool or evaluating within that pool fairly,” White says.

Step 2: Recruit diverse applicants

Like most institutions, Cal State uses a professional search firm for presidential searches. At this stage, White personally calls potential candidates to encourage them to apply (of course, with the caveat that his call doesn’t guarantee them any preference in the application process). In these initial conversations, White shares three key points:

  1. Which aspects of their aspirations, experiences, and skills he believes make them an excellent candidate;
  2. A step-by-step walkthrough of the process and a commitment to keeping them informed along the way; and
  3. Assurance that their application will be kept strictly confidential.

If prospective candidates are wary of confidentiality, White points to the many prior searches where it was maintained.

White believes this level of respect and personal outreach attracts applicants that Cal State would not see otherwise, especially women. And word spreads through networks of elite talent. “They talk in their private little circles and say, I was well taken care of in that process, even if I was disappointed I didn’t get the job.”

Step 3: Look outside the traditional pathways

White also believes it helps to look beyond sitting presidents when seeking candidates. For one thing, “you can’t just assume a sitting president from a campus in another part of the country is going to be a perfect sitting president for a campus in California,” he says.

Instead, “we’re looking for talent,” White says. “Do they have a breadth of knowledge about the campus? Have they been on the cabinet at their current institution where they are exposed to the depth and breadth of the complexity of leading a university? You know, there may be a student affairs or a finance person or an academic person, and they’ve been in settings where they get a sense of how the entire campus functions.”

What really matters, White adds, is transferrable skills and a clear understanding of each candidate’s experience. For example, a provost might not look like she has much fundraising experience on paper, but she may have shined on the occasions when she did participate in fundraising.

Step 4: Look for people who can adapt

Crisis planning and management has become one of the most important skills for incoming presidents, White says.

To do this effectively, the candidate needs to be comfortable communicating with a wide range of people, both on and off campus. At Cal State, that means everyone from low-income residents of a nearby community to faculty members who have gained top academic honors. Just because a candidate comes with the highest academic credentials doesn’t mean the person understands risk management or human resources, or possesses leadership skills that will work effectively with the faculty, staff, students, community members and business leaders.

Step 5: Accept that no one will have it all

The reality is that no candidate will come in with perfect experience in every skill you need to lead an institution these days, White argues. “It just doesn’t exist,” he says.

Instead, he looks for presidents with a skill set that will be complemented by other senior leaders currently, or in the future, that are on the cabinet at the institution. “The president will have two or three of those requisite skills, or perhaps only one or two. But then the rest of the team will color it in, and then we have confidence in that presidency,” White says. “That helps people open up and think about the president differently. They don’t have to be able to do everything. And if you insist that that’s the only one you choose, you’d never get somebody from a non-traditional background.”

Step 6: Understand what the campus really needs

To find the right president for each campus, you need to understand the DNA of that campus, White argues. During searches, the Advisory Committee and the trustees take a campus tour. “And the best ones are led by student ambassadors,” he adds, “so the committee writ large gets a sense of what the campus looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like.”

Then, they host an open forum, where all members of the campus community can share what they hope for and worry about from the next presidency. The forum is video-recorded, then shared with applicants. It helps applicants get a feel for the campus they’re moving to, says White. He also believes that the videos help recruit non-traditional applicants. “Especially when somebody in the audience says it’s about time we had a woman president and half the audience claps! It’s very real and authentic.”

Step 7: Grow your own leaders

Cal State has a doctoral incentive program that provides loan forgiveness to individuals who earn their Ph.D. or Ed.D., then come back and work for Cal State. The program is highly competitive and has resulted in one president thus far: Lynette Zelezny, who just became the president at California State University, Bakersfield.

That momentum builds on itself, says White. Female deans and chairs see women presidents and they think—I can do that. White saw the listserve for their system provosts after Zelezny’s announcement and he was moved by what he saw. “All these one liners. Women Provosts Rock! It was amazing, the pride and exuberance.”

Advice for other institutions

White says that the key to any successful search is to take the time to build a strong and diverse search committee guided by whatever policies institutions have, and then develop a strong and diverse pool of candidates. Then pick the best one.

“You can go another two months without a leader if you’ve gone the last eight without a permanent one. A failed search is appointing somebody who’s not ready or right for the job, not extending it for a longer period of time,” he says.

Diversifying your leadership roles isn’t just about the numbers, White adds. At Cal State, a more diverse group of presidents has “enriched” the system and inspired students and staff alike, he says. “This is a point of pride that everybody is boastful about. We’ve been trailblazers by just picking the best person.”

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