California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White, in his first state of the system address last week, proudly declared the CSU is the "people's university," but for the past few years, it has been anything but that.
Tuition rates have soared. Only about half of incoming freshman graduate after six years. And buildings, computer systems and other key pieces of infrastructure are outdated across the 23-campus system.
This has made for frustrated students and fewer graduates with the skills demanded by the state's labor market.
White, himself a CSU graduate, offered an antidote, one that is focused, measurable and doable. Over the next decade, he aims to raise undergraduate graduation rates by 10 percent among CSU students and by 5 percent for those who have transferred. Just as important, he announced a way to make it happen.
White said $50 million will be committed to student achievement and degree completion, though when pressed for the details he was less clear about where that money would come from -- he said it could involve private donors and possible cuts in other areas.
White also should include on his to-do list working diligently with the state's community college system to better ensure that students from that system are given the opportunity to seamlessly transfer credits to the CSU.
In the meantime, he said that he doesn't see tuition rising for the coming years.
Welcome news and a good start.
For too long, Cal State campuses have been struggling because of budget cuts. Key classes needed for graduation are overbooked or not offered. Students are paying more while, for many, graduating in a timely fashion is a fantasy.
To reverse that trend, White will need to be focused and not let powerful unions or other interests tug him away from this goal. He also needs to come up with creative funding solutions and be willing to shake up the status quo.
If anyone can do that, it is White. We were very impressed with what he was able to accomplish as the leader of the University of California at Riverside.
It appears that White is taking on the challenge with the enthusiasm of a freshman.
"I don't mind challenges. I don't mind headwinds," he said.
That's important, because it will take might to push this massive and strained system forward. If White can work with allies across the state, it is a win. As he pointed out in his speech, about a third of CSU's students come from the bottom 20 percent of the state's income rung.
Providing these students with a solid, meaningful education will help California become a little wealthier, a little smarter and a lot better place to live.