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Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed leaves a mixed legacy

“I may have done some of the best work in my 40 years as an educator these last five years figuring out how to … keep the doors open,” said Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed, who is retiring at year’s end.
(Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

As chancellor of California State University, Charles B. Reed became a symbol of the problems and the promise of the massive public higher education system.

He has received national recognition for his efforts to increase the number of underserved students — low income, minorities, veterans — and for steering the country’s largest four-year university system through a period of crippling budget cuts at a time of large enrollment growth.

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He has been mocked in effigy by students critical of rapidly increasing tuition and slammed by lawmakers for granting executive pay hikes as others in the system were forced to tighten belts.

Reed, 71, who retires at the end of the year, offers no apologies for a leadership style that is seen as often blunt and bullheaded. He is an admitted workaholic, his only extensive time off a week in Italy for his daughter’s wedding 11 years ago.

He’s not much for sentimentality. Weeks before his departure, he cleaned out his office, inviting staff members to take his honorary degrees and awards. There will be no trophy room in the Florida home where he’s retiring.

He arrived at Cal State in 1998 at a time of burgeoning state budgets, almost immediately butting heads with academic leaders while vowing to increase enrollment by more than 100,000 students.

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But it is likely that the Reed legacy will hinge on the latter part of his tenure and on his management of nearly $1 billion in state funding cuts since 2008. Enrollment in the 23-campus system peaked at about 440,000 students in 2008, falling to its current 425,000 as many campuses turn away eligible students and reduce services.

“I may have done some of the best work in my 40 years as an educator these last five years figuring out how to continue to provide access and fund the system, keep the doors open,” Reed said. “It’s been a real struggle, and what I’ve seen is a lack of political will and a lack of political leadership in California.”

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And despite the passage of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s November tax measure that prevents even steeper cuts to higher education, Reed is not bullish on future financial support.

His supporters said that despite the challenges, he has maintained a perhaps underappreciated commitment to students.

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Some of those efforts include increased recruitment of African American, Latino, Asian and Native American students and the development of an early assessment program for high school students to test their readiness for college-level English and math. (The percentages of African American and Asian students have declined in recent years mainly because of population shifts, officials said.)

His tenure saw the opening of Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo and the first Cal State doctoral degree programs in educational leadership, nursing practice and physical therapy.

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“You always know where he stands, and I find it interesting that a lot of people talk about wanting leaders to be honest with everybody and I think he’s one of those leaders,” said Cal State Fresno President John D. Welty. “He’s consistently clear and honest even though not everyone likes what he says.”

Reed developed a tough skin as a high school quarterback growing up in the coal-mining town of Waynesburg, Pa., the eldest of eight children. That won’t-back-down attitude has placed him in frequent conflict with faculty and student activists.

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In the last 10 years, student fees have increased 167%. Protests exploded on campuses and at meetings of the board of trustees. Demonstrators were pepper sprayed outside one meeting in November 2011, and people picketed outside Reed’s Long Beach home.

An impasse over salary and class sizes led hundreds of members of the faculty union to stage a first-ever strike at two campuses last year. And the system’s leaders received widespread condemnation after trustees approved a $400,000 compensation package for the new San Diego State president — $100,000 more than his predecessor — at the same meeting at which tuition was increased by 12%.

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(Reed’s successor, UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy White, requested a 10% cut from Reed’s $421,500 salary and will receive $380,000 plus a $30,000 supplement from the Cal State foundation.)

“We felt like he [Reed] came in leading with his chin, ready for some kind of slug fest,” said Lillian Taiz, a history professor at Cal State L.A. who is president of the California Faculty Assn. “The fundamental problem is, we don’t share the same vision for the system and that has moved from a model that more resembled a privatized [corporate] university.”

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Reed has few kind words about union leaders.

“They don’t represent the rank and file of our really good faculty out there every day working hard, doing really good things with our students,” he said. “With the union, we have a group that want to fight, that want to demonize me for whatever reasons.”

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Reed made unpopular decisions by necessity, said incoming state Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), former chairman of the Assembly’s higher education committee. Block said he largely agreed with the decision to offer high pay to get well-qualified campus leadership.

However, he said, “the timing was terrible. Making public the decision with salaries at the same meeting with student fees being raised was not the best public relations, and if Charlie has a fault, it is that he was more concerned with doing the right thing than getting the public relations right.”

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Despite a gruff exterior, Reed was fiercely loyal to his staff, board Chairman A. Robert Linscheid said.

“When we lost a staff member who died suddenly, Charlie did a lot of comforting for the family and a lot of comforting for the staff,” he said. “Some consider him to be pretty headstrong, but I just look at him to be matter of fact.”

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Reed won a football scholarship to George Washington University and eventually earned a doctorate in education. He worked as the chief of staff for Florida Gov. Bob Graham and was chancellor of the Florida State University system for 13 years before heading west.

In retirement, Reed is likely to remain a national authority on higher education: He has committed to several speaking engagements each month through April.

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“I feel I’ve had a good 15-year run at Cal State and it’s hard work every day,” he said, “but I don’t know anything else I’d rather be doing.”

carla.rivera@latimes.com


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