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Inspiring a Conversation about Leadership

By Erik Fallis, MPA, APR
Director of Executive Writing and Speechwriter
The California State University

Timothy P. White was told that college wasn’t for him. He proved the doubters wrong, attending Diablo Valley Community College, Fresno State, Cal State East Bay and UC Berkeley. A successful career in science and academia followed. Now, as chancellor of the California State University system, he helps create opportunity for today’s students and their families.

Chancellor White’s experience as a young immigrant born in Argentina – the first in his family to attend college – is immediately understood by our half-a-million students, faculty and staff. A third of all CSU graduates are also the first in their family to attend and complete college. Many have their own story of overcoming discrimination or other obstacles to realize the California dream.

Diversity at the leadership level fosters an open and honest conversation with CSU students, faculty and staff about their experiences. Each journey is unique, but there is a shared quality of determination and perseverance. A range of backgrounds among senior leaders can lend perspective and broaden that sense of understanding.

Unfortunately, higher education leadership continues to demographically lag the communities we serve. Yet, the CSU is working to close the gap. Twenty-two percent of CSU presidents are Hispanic, with the national average trailing at less than nine percent. Nearly half – 11 of the CSU system’s 23 presidents – are women, which is twice the national average.

Chico State recently inaugurated Gayle Hutchinson as the campus’ first female president and the system’s first openly gay president. She and her brothers were also the first in their family to attend college.

Hutchinson has served as president since July 2016, using her experience to connect with the university community she now leads.

“Together, we will model an egalitarian campus community built upon a collaborative culture where we value trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, respect, benevolence, open-mindedness, fairness, communication, self-discipline and civility,” said President Hutchinson during her investiture address. “Together, we will embrace diversity in all its forms.”

Thomas P. White and Mildred García

Timothy P. White and Mildred García

Here in Orange County, Cal State Fullerton President Mildred García – a first-generation college student and the first Latina president in CSU history – advances these same principles. She is a vocal champion for broad access to educational opportunity at the system, state and national level. She is also a key leader in advancing the systemwide Graduation Initiative 2025, which aims to raise graduation rates and eliminate socio-economic achievement gaps.

“We, at Cal State Fullerton and the CSU, have never lost our way – it is the reason we all work here. We know full well higher education is not only a private good, it is an essential public good for our country,” said President García during her investiture address in 2013. “For when we educate our populace, we are lifting the country to uphold our national security, ensure economic stability, provide the needed leadership and workforce and deliver to our communities an educated citizenry ready to participate in a just, democratic society.”

As public relations professionals, we play a critical part in telling our institutions’ and our leaders’ stories. This includes encouraging senior leadership to be open and honest about the challenges they faced along the way – whether discrimination, disease and disability or economic and educational barriers. These experiences help make our senior leaders who they are. Their stories can inspire conversations, while motivating the leaders of tomorrow.

Erik Fallis founded and directs the Department of Executive Writing at the California State University Chancellor’s Office. This team supports the trustees, chancellor, executive vice chancellors and vice chancellors in achieving university goals – including Graduation Initiative 2025.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog is part of the Diversity Committee’s “Real Talk” Initiative, where OCPRSA will host events and feature monthly blogs where leading communications professionals speak candidly about issues that affect diversity and inclusion in the public relations profession.

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