Dr. Timothy White – “Reflections on Leadership”
Chancellor, The California State University
Dr. Timothy White didn’t set out to be an academic leader. His master plan wasn’t focused on academics, but California’s Master Plan, written in the 1960s when he arrived in the United States as an eight-year-old would ultimately lead him down a path to becoming Chancellor in 2013 of the California State University.
The opportunity to pursue a higher education, the first in his family, coupled with what Chancellor White frames as some combination of serendipity and good fortune, along with a relentless focus on helping others, is how today he finds himself leading one of the largest and most diverse higher education systems in the United States.
Pursuing the role though was something Chancellor White was initially reluctant to do. However, when he was asked to consider the position, he realized it was a chance to give back to an amazing institution that had helped propel his career and in the process impact hundreds of thousands of students.
“Big dreams are what will carry our society forward after all”
– Chancellor Dr. Timothy White
Over the course of his career, Chancellor White has learned some important lessons he now uses to lead the CSU. He is quick to note that a strong sense of humility is an important piece to who he is and in conversation with him his humble, thoughtful nature is clearly evident. Chancellor White believes a leader is someone who can listen. “We should use our two ears and one mouth proportionally… and not just listen waiting to talk,” he says. Leaders are also people who cultivate and nurture the best ideas in others, while also striving to exceed expectations to open the next door. Even more critical, Chancellor White believes leaders must be able to publicly admit mistakes and correct them.
Throughout his career, Chancellor White has made a point to observe people from all sides to learn these lessons. He can appreciate the ones who challenge dogma and orthodoxy to create opportunities for others. He realizes though, that while you can learn from those that inspire, you can equally learn from those who have more troubling attributes, so looking to a galaxy of attributes and people has served him well.
These key lessons and attributes are the foundation for Chancellor White’s leadership and what he strives to achieve in his role. Chancellor White approached the new role in a similar way to those who run big cities since universities come with similar challenges and opportunities. He feels equally as strong that you should jump on opportunities as you should lean into tough challenges. In that vein, when he became Chancellor, he decided he must take the position of asking how the CSU continues being an inclusive, compassionate, high-end institution when weighing any challenges and opportunities faced.
One of the first challenges Chancellor White wanted to address was the fact that the female makeup of the leadership and employees of the system didn’t reflect the makeup of the student body, at the time only three of 23 campus presidents were female in a university where women make up more than 50% of the student body. He saw the need to shift thinking and find excellence by looking through the “windshield, rather than the rear-view mirror.”
Chancellor White saw the need for more compassion. That didn’t mean just going out and hiring women, but creating a recruitment process that truly reflects the CSU with its diversity and removing the historical bias. When this was done, it naturally attracted a more diverse pool of candidates – shifting the energy behind the process, shifting the outcomes.
Now, 12 of the 23 presidents are women, and several are minorities as well. And Chancellor White sees the impact of the change. Feedback from students is that university leaders look more like them. Also women leaders are bringing a richness in experience that was lacking before. This in turn is better helping inform policies and enrich overall leadership for the CSU.
In taking on this role, Chancellor White also saw the opportunity to play a part in helping educate Californians, but especially those who come from the edges like he did and are willing to do the hard work to achieve more. He sees the CSU as being in the “business of creating hope and opportunity for those who dream of building something different.” According to Chancellor White, “Big dreams are what will carry our society forward after all.”
And, he should know. His dreams and the chance to pursue them are why he is Chancellor today. Which, while not his master plan, is the right place for him now as he is certainly leading the way in creating a path for so many others to pursue opportunities.
Leadership Lessons from Chancellor Timothy White
- Be Bold – Develop boldness in others. Bold is not the same as brash.
- Be Brave – Courage in the face of unkindness.
- Be Confident – We all get butterflies. Confidence matters, not being cocky or arrogant.
- Be Accepting of Feedback – As long as it is well intentioned.