Conversations with Cal State East Bay President Cathy Sandeen
Over the course of three months, Cal State East Bay President Cathy Sandeen teamed up with the university’s Alumni Association to hold biweekly Fireside Chats. During the virtual events, President Sandeen gave attendees insight into herself and her background, and took questions directly from Cal State East Bay alumni. Through the events, alumni and others got a firsthand look at Sandeen’s goals, plans, initiatives and ideas for how the campus and community will improve during her presidency. Here are highlights from topics covered. This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Importance of Higher Education
President Sandeen: I was a first-generation college student. Neither of my parents went to college, and my dad dropped out of high school to join the military in World War II. They gave us a good life, but as the oldest of five, I really didn’t have any role models who went to college.
But at the time, the public schools in California were top-rated, we had more funding, and we had counselors. All of that introduced me to the idea of going to college. I remember being a child and going to our dentist’s office and seeing for the first time a woman dentist walking through the office. My brothers and sisters and I, our mouths dropped open, like, “Can a woman be a dentist?” At an early age, there were just some influences around that were pointing in the direction of there being more opportunities out there.
Fortunately, the Cal State University system existed, because it’s not like my parents had a ton of money they could devote to higher education. The fact that college was affordable, much more affordable than it is today, and so accessible, made it possible for me. My parents couldn’t guide me, but they didn’t discourage me from going; in fact, they were proud of me. However, I didn’t have that support to lean on, only my friends and fellow classmates, and some of my professors were helpful.
At the end of the day, out of five of us, only two completed higher education degrees. My sister is a law professor at a law school in Minnesota, so we look at each other and say, “Well, with our degrees, we made up for the rest of the family, right?” But it’s also kind of a miracle that it worked out the way it did. We’re really grateful, and I’m happy to give back to the type of institution that got me started.
GPA and Grade Standards
President Sandeen: I don’t think the GPA is that important, really. Of course you want to learn, and you want to do well, but the actual number isn’t so important. What is more important is your experience and how you can make it relevant, how you can connect the dots between what you learned and what they’re looking for on the job.
Your GPA is important for getting into graduate school if you go on, but ultimately, it’s more about the learning than the number.
Student Success, Inequity and Improvement
President Sandeen: All we need to do is look at our student achievement data. Our graduation rates are improving, especially when you factor in our mission as a high-access university where a lot of our students are first generation, Pell eligible, and so forth.
In that sense we are doing very well, but if you dig into that data and disaggregate it according to our different student subpopulations, we have severe and persistent achievement and equity gaps, meaning that our Black students , Latinx students, and some Asian Pacific Islander students do not graduate at the same rates as the overall student population. That was something I could see before I even applied for the job, and it was a theme I detected in some of the interview questions such as, “What are you going to do about these equity gaps?” That’s one of the reasons I was happy to establish our Black Student Success Center, Latinx Student Success Center, and an Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Student Success Center. We will also have an Undocumented Student Resource Center and, in addition to that, in the DISC space, we are going to do renovations to carve out dedicated space for other student affinity groups.
I’m to learn that since I got to Cal State East Bay, there have been some best practices put in place. They haven’t been in place long enough for us to really see a difference yet. I also applaud our faculty for their work to be more culturally inclusive in terms of pedagogy and how they assess students, because so many of the practices we have reward the family income the student comes from. I can’t dictate to the faculty what they teach, and what happens in the classroom is the purview of the faculty, but fortunately, here at Cal State East Bay, there are new things are being put in place.
Finally, recruiting faculty of color to Cal State East Bay is really important. The other big challenge we have is the cost of housing and cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m trying to be really creative and think about how we might help someone who is coming to the Bay Area with transitional housing. We have to be very aggressive and creative in how we attract and recruit diverse faculty to our university. It is critical to our future, but that one is a challenge, and one that we have to tackle head on.
President Sandeen: Unfortunately, some of the older buildings were built before we were conscious about making spaces open for people who have accessibility challenges, but I know there are plans for deferred maintenance. The governor and the legislature have agreed they are going to restore the cuts the Cal State system took for this fiscal year. It is about a 5% cut to the system, and we are going to get that back starting July 1, 2021.
That’s great news, but in addition to that commitment, the Cal State system is asking for one-time funding for deferred maintenance for older buildings like Meiklejohn Hall. There’s a backlog of projects we want to accomplish, including more ADA improvements, that we need money for. In your role as private citizens and alumni of the university, I ask you to reach out to your state elected officials and advocate on behalf of this one-time infusion of money to the Cal State system for deferred maintenance. It will go a long way. We have a long list of projects, but unfortunately it is a matter of funding and we need help to get that funding from the state.
Retention Rates Among Diverse Student Populations
President Sandeen: This year has been difficult on everyone, as you know, and I’m sure it’s been challenging in your jobs. Those of you who work at Cal State East Bay know we were really worried about the retention rates of our students. We were worried about enrollment and so forth.
The good news is that we’re pretty much holding steady. We’re a bit down on our enrollment target for spring 2021, but nothing scary. Our retention rates are up this year, and our applications for graduation are up this year. I have to give a full shout-out and credit to our faculty and staff, because they really stepped up. They realized our students were going to need a little extra in terms of reaching out, checking in, and making sure they’re okay.
We also had infusions of federal money for emergency grants for technology and support for students who needed it. That made a difference, and the pandemic should be a big lesson to us in terms of what we need to continue to do to help our students.
We haven’t mentioned basic needs, such as housing and food insecurity. That’s a big push for the Cal State system, and we do have great support in place. We need to keep these issues top of mind and communicate to students so they know what’s available to them. It is a total wrap-around system: It’s academic support, it’s a sense of belonging and having a community and connecting with people, and it’s basic needs. We need to address all of them.
It’s also a question of constant shift and change, and solutions may be different for one population of students compared to another, so we need to get ever more sophisticated about how we address retention and graduation rates. I promise you, it’s something I talk about all the time, and I think if it’s something the president talks about, people start to be influenced to do what they can.
Financial Struggles (Such as Campus Parking)
President Sandeen: In terms of financial structure, parking is not part of the general university budget that’s run by tuition or that’s run by state money. It’s kind of a separate business at the university, and that’s true at other universities throughout the United States and definitely at universities within the Cal State system.
We’re constantly looking at how we can make services more affordable for students. One reason I was able to pursue higher education back in the day was because the Cal State system was accessible and affordable. The cost of higher education has increased and is much more now than when I started, and we’re constantly looking at that, at all different aspects of student aid and how we can make education more affordable.
We haven’t talked about this yet, but a big theme and value at Cal State East Bay is sustainability and reducing climate change impacts. One solution we can think about is reducing the number of individual car trips to our campus. Can we support more carpooling and more use of public transportation? These are more sustainable solutions that may also address affordability; people aren’t bringing a car and paying the parking fee. It kind of blends together.
LGBTQIA+ Student Support
President Sandeen: When we say we want equity for all, we mean for all. This goes back to the deferred maintenance projects. Part of that includes creating more all-user bathrooms and multi-stall bathrooms on campus, and having appropriate signage, because these actions signal we are supportive of our transgender and gender-fluid community members.
In all our new buildings, we will be including all-gender multi-stall restrooms. When we do a major renovation like we did to our Student Union, we will also build in all-user multi-stall restrooms, and we are mapping and labeling our single-user restrooms so people know where they are. We’re ramping that up, and whenever we build another building, it will have appropriate restrooms.
These bathroom changes are one way we are doing something tangible, and I hope it signals support to our community. In addition, our DISC will include programming meant to increase awareness of the transgender and gender-fluid community. In our student information systems, students can indicate a preferred name for university correspondence and for their diploma.
Do we have everything figured out yet? No, I’ll admit that, but there is the will to take steps to support our LGBTQIA+ community.
Discrimination (Specifically Anti-Black and Anti-Asian Racism)
President Sandeen: The rise in hate crimes that has emerged recently has only intensified since the start of the COVID pandemic. This is happening in our community. The Bay Area is a place where we’re seeing a lot of these horrific hate crimes, and obviously we have systems in place in our own CSUEB community to try to address hate crimes, discrimination and micro-aggressions. I hope people feel comfortable using those pathways to bring forward their concerns so that we can know about them and address them.
But this has been a horrible time for our country. What I can do as president of Cal State East Bay is make sure we talk about these problems, that we don’t sweep them under the rug, and that people who have concerns or complaints have a way to bring them forward so that we can address them.
I will also say we do have faculty in ethnic studies and other departments who are doing important work in the community, both in terms of their research, but also in their advocacy in the community. That community service and engagement component of our university is an important part of our values, and I support their work in these areas.
Black, Latinx, and Undocumented Student Centers’ Funding and Ethnic Studies
President Sandeen: I made the decision that Cal State East Bay student centers would be funded from regular university funds. They are not going to be funded from student fees, and that financial structure will continue. Hopefully, as we discover new needs and new ways to help our students, that funding will grow.
That’s the intention, but we have to start somewhere and work from there. If there’s one thing I can address, it is that we are very fortunate at Cal State East Bay in that we have an ethnic studies department, and we did fill a number of faculty positions in that department, with several faculty who just started this year. There are other Cal State campuses that don’t have ethnic studies departments, and their ethnic studies curriculum is sprinkled and scattered throughout other departments. They’re the ones who have real work to bring together those programs and resource them.
At Cal State East Bay, we have the course sections available where we anticipate demand for the new requirement that starting in fall 2021, students at all Cal State universities complete a 3-unit course in ethnic studies as part of their baccalaureate degree. We will be tracking how many students come in who need to take those courses. I’m happy to report that our campus has been a leader in this area all along, and this leadership has put us in a good position to meet this new requirement.