Last year was a tough one for California State University, the nation’s largest four-year higher education system.
In February 2022, less than two years after Joseph Castro took over as the system’s leader, he resigned after reports said that he had mishandled sexual harassment claims against an administrator while he was president of the university’s Fresno campus.
After an initial investigation by USA Today, many more reports surfaced. They stated that the university had ignored or mishandled claims of sexual misconduct, and they revealed cultures of abuse that had proliferated on some of the system’s campuses.
This week, the university released a sprawling assessment of its human resources policies and its compliance with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in education.
The assessment, which the university’s board of trustees commissioned in March 2022, found widespread problems. It recommended, among other things, establishing clearer reporting processes for claims of misconduct, investigating those claims more quickly and hiring more employees dedicated to that work. A state auditor’s report also released this week found similar issues.
All this represents just one of the many challenges facing Mildred García, whom the board appointed this month to become the system’s next chancellor. García has served as the president of Cal State, Dominguez Hills, and the president of Cal State, Fullerton. Since 2018, she has led the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. She will assume her new role in October.
I talked with García about the issues facing Cal State, as well as about affirmation action, the challenges of artificial intelligence and how she plans to ensure that college is financially sustainable, including for Cal State’s thousands of diverse first-generation students.
Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Of course, there’s the big question: How will you address the handling of sexual misconduct? What will you do differently?
I read the report from the Title IX assessment, and that’s going to be implemented. It’s one of the most powerful reports that I’ve seen, and it has to be followed to the law.
I can’t give you the details, because I’m not there yet. But I know that report gave some very specific ways to make policies so strong that C.S.U. will be the model for the nation. This report didn’t pull any punches. It was clear about what has to be fixed and on what timetable.
Now, we’ll jump into it: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m a first-generation college student. I’m one of seven in my family. My parents came from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn, so I’m a Nuyorican. My parents worked in the factories in what is now the Dumbo area. At that time, it was tenements. My father died when I was 12, and my mother raised us on a factory salary, but we never felt poor.
When I was 14, my mother allowed me to get my working papers for the summer to work in a factory, because I wanted to get money — as young people do, right? And it was the best lesson she could ever give me. I saw how horrible it was. And I remember saying, “The only way out is through education.”
Last year, academic workers at the University of California went on strike in a major action that highlighted how pay hasn’t kept up with costs of living in California. At the same time, Cal State is an important economic mobility engine for students who rely on affordable tuition. How do you think about financial sustainability for both educators and students?
California is expensive. I’m a New Yorker. I get it. But there are a couple of things. Right now, in Washington, D.C., my organization and other organizations are fighting to double the Pell Grant.
No. 2, we’re talking with the Department of Education about the students we serve and about getting more resources to these students. We really need to bring up the students who need it most.
No. 3, we’ve got to work with the Legislature. We have to have the faculty and the staff and the administrators and the students advocating strongly, because higher ed is an asset. It’s a benefit. It’s not an expense.
Affirmative action has been illegal in California for many years, even before the recent Supreme Court decision. How do you approach diversity and building classes that reflect California?
C.S.U. has been a model in this. First, you have to follow the law. Then you think about language. We talk about work force, and we talk about economic sustainability, community sustainability. It is a process of educating not only ourselves but also the public on how diverse perspectives bring better solutions to problems.
What are your other priorities? What issues are on the horizon that haven’t been on the radar as much?
A.I. and ChatGPT is on top of us in teaching and learning. We can’t ignore it. We have to think about — how do we use it for efficiency? How do we use it and then be able to assess that our students are learning?
I was at a national conference and one person said, “We’ve got to be very careful.” And another person said, “No, we’ve got to look at how we utilize it to help students generate ideas and write papers.” There are two opposing views. Our institutions have to become educational laboratories, where you can learn what’s cutting edge.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Galen Gattis, who recommends Lava Beds National Monument, in the northeast corner of California:
“This is where the Modoc War was waged in 1872 and 1873, and where a band of 52 Modoc warriors and more than 150 Modoc people held off the U.S. Army for several months. General Edward Canby and others were killed by Captain Jack, the Modoc chief, during a peace conference. Captain Jack was later captured and hanged at Fort Klamath, near Crater Lake. The park offers many lava tube caves to explore, and the Park Service will loan you a lantern. Other than occasional rattlers and coyotes, it’s a fun way to spend a day before heading back to your campsite.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What are the best books about California, or the part of the state in which you live? What fiction or nonfiction would you put on a Golden State reading list, and why?
Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.com with your suggestions. Please include your name and the city where you live.
And before you go, some good news
Want to ease your anxiety and feel more upbeat? Try an “awe walk.”
It’s an outdoor ramble intended to cultivate a sense of wonder and a connection to the world around you. Research suggests that awe, which happens when we encounter something so vast that our sense of self recedes, is good for our health, calms our nervous systems and fosters a sense of community.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, recently published a book about awe. He told The New York Times that when his daughter was younger, she had anxiety and became preoccupied with dying.
On their nightly walks, they would touch the bark of a giant cedar tree in their neighborhood, which over time allowed them to connect to nature and each other. He said his daughter went from being “freaked out about dying” to getting “a sense of ‘this is just part of life.’”
“An awe walk can be a healing ritual,” he said. “Twelve years later, I still walk to touch that tree.”