Chancellor Timothy White, at a UC Riverside commencement, is a popular… (Stan Lim, The Press Enterprise )
An immigrant and first-generation college student who rose through the ranks of California's public higher education system was named Thursday to lead the sprawling California State University as it wrestles with critical academic and budget issues.
The Board of Trustees announced that Timothy P. White, 63, currently chancellor of UC Riverside, will succeed Charles B. Reed, who is retiring after 14 years at the helm. White will become the seventh chancellor of the nation's largest four-year university system with 23 campuses and 427,000 students.
Originally from Buenos Aires, White took advantage of every level of the state's education system, attending Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill and earning a bachelor's degree from Cal State Fresno, a master's from Cal State Hayward (now East Bay) and a doctorate in exercise physiology from UC Berkeley.
During an interview, he spoke of his humble origins, immigrating to Northern California with his family as a child, and the opportunities afforded by the state's education system.
"If you had known me in high school or college you would have never thought I would amount to a leader," White said. "But I found my bearings because of my experience at Diablo Valley, at Fresno, Hayward and Berkeley. For me, this is an opportunity to give back to a state where I've had a chance to live an American Dream."
White takes over at a time of turbulence and transition in higher education and will immediately face tough decisions about declining state funding, spiraling tuition, cutbacks in staff and course offerings and enrollment demands.
Earlier this month, Cal State trustees approved a 5% tuition increase for next year — to be imposed if voters reject a tax hike measure on the November ballot backed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Failure of Proposition 30 would trigger a $250-million funding cut on top of $750 million in reductions made during the 2011-12 fiscal year.
The system is also freezing spring 2013 enrollment at most of its campuses and could put fall 2013 applicants on a waiting list pending the outcome of the ballot measure, which would raise the state sales tax by a quarter-cent for four years and increase income taxes on high earners for seven years.
"We are going to be very focused in our efforts to talk about the consequences if that is unsuccessful but also the importance to California if it is successful," said White, who has been at UC Riverside since 2008.
Part of leadership, White said, is managing during tough times and he vowed to bring together campus communities, civic and business leaders to seek solutions.
White refers to his style as "simple," and at Riverside he gained a reputation as straightforward and approachable.
And he is not above some theatrics. He changed his hair color and style, and wore a mustache, false teeth and eyeglasses as a disguise to become the star of an episode of the CBS television show "Undercover Boss."
During the filming, he worked a variety of campus jobs such as a library aide and maintenance worker, interacting smoothly with UC Riverside employees who allegedly had no idea he was the chancellor.
In January, student demonstrators disrupted a UC regents' meeting being held on the UC Riverside campus. White was keenly aware of the furor surrounding the pepper-spraying of student protesters at UC Davis a few months earlier and did not want anything similar on his campus.
To show sympathy with the demonstrators, he went up and down their protest line, handing out bottles of water. He told campus police not to take any measures that would turn into a confrontation.
"The thing that's awesome about him is that he's really accessible to students when they have issues," said Liam Dow, 22, student body president at Riverside. "He makes you feel like you are not talking to a chancellor but to someone you can confide in."
UC President Mark G. Yudof praised White's service and said that, working with other leaders, he would appoint an interim chancellor for the Riverside campus and also begin a search for a permanent successor.
White said he was approached about the Cal State job by a search firm.
One of White's major accomplishment's in Riverside was the establishment of the medical school, which was funded with an initial $100 million in gifts and financing and this week received preliminary accreditation.
The 21,000-student campus proportionally has more minority students than any other of UC's 10 campuses. White's experience in reaching out to minority and low-income students was a big factor in his hiring, Cal State leaders said.
"We were very impressed by Tim's knowledge not only of higher education in California but the challenges we're facing nationally and internationally," board Chairman A. Robert Linscheid said. "We were impressed by his approach and believe he will be great chancellor."
Faculty leaders said they looked forward to working with White, who has stated his commitment to transparency and inclusiveness.
"He understands shared governance and the role that each of the constituencies plays ... and coming from UC, he understands our context very well," said Cal State Academic Senate Chairwoman Diana Guerin, who helped to advise the selection committee.
Prior to Riverside, White was president of the University of Idaho, interim president at Oregon State University and held academic positions in the department of human biodynamics at UC Berkeley and the department of movement science at the University of Michigan.
White is expected to assume his new post at the end of December and will receive the same annual salary as Reed — $421,500, plus a $30,000 supplement from the California State University Foundation.
Times staff writer Larry Gordon contributed to this article.