News Column

Fresno State Appoints First Hispanic President

May 24, 2013
Joseph Castro (photo: University of California, San Francisco)
Joseph Castro (photo: University of California, San Francisco)

Thrilled to death. Phenomenal. Exciting.

That was the local Hispanic community's reaction Thursday to Joseph Castro being named Fresno State's next president -- the first Latino to hold the post in the university's 102-year history.

Castro, 46 and a Hanford native, is a vice chancellor at University of California at San Francisco. He will replace John Welty, 68, who will retire at the end of July after 22 years.

Hispanics interviewed Thursday view Castro as one of them -- someone who grew up in the Valley and knows its history, culture and problems.

"We are going to welcome him with open arms," said Eddie Varela, president of the nonprofit El Concilio de Fresno Inc.

In February, Varela told the Fresno State search committee at a public forum that he expected the next president to be either Latino or Latina. He received emails and telephone calls from angry people who called him stupid for making that remark.

Castro's selection as president, Varela said, proves the committee knew the value of selecting a Hispanic leader.

But Pete Mehas, a California State University trustee and chair of the Fresno State search committee, said Thursday that Castro's heritage had nothing to do with his selection.

Instead, Castro was chosen because of his academic credentials and his knowledge and ties to the Valley. "He was not picked because he's Latino," Mehas said. "He was picked because he is the best person for the job."

Mehas said Castro was one of three finalists and the unanimous choice of the six-person trustee search committee, and the near unanimous choice of the 13-member advisory committee that included Fresno State faculty and staff and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

Though much of the selection process was held in secret, with only one public forum in February, Mehas said he and committee members withstood fierce lobbying from all segments of the community.

"People would come up to me in stores, at the ballgame, and give me their input," said Mehas, the former Fresno County superintendent of schools.

"I think the committee did a good job of listening to everyone," he said.

Castro, a 1984 graduate of Hanford High School, said he was raised by his mother and grandparents. He also said he was the first in his family to go to college.

His personal profile fits that of many other students at Fresno State, where 70% of all students are first-generation college students, said Angel Sanchez, director of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, a statistical think-tank at Fresno State.

Hispanics comprise 38.8% of Fresno State's student population, followed by whites (28.8%), Asians (14.8%) and African-Americans (4.4%).

Sanchez said 1,124 Latino students earned their undergraduate degrees and 269 earned graduate degrees (masters or doctoral) -- totaling 31% of all degrees awarded in 2011-12. Though this school year's totals are not available, the number of Latino graduates is expected to be higher, he said.

"Our data depicts a steady increase of Latino graduates over the past 10 years," he said, noting that in 2001 less than 25% of all degrees awarded were to Latino students.

Yet, Castro said in a telephone interview Wednesday that one of his goals is to make sure all Fresno State students graduate.

According to the 2010 Census, 53.6% of the central San Joaquin Valley's population is Hispanic, but only 5.3% have attained a bachelor's degree. The low numbers reflect the hardship many Hispanic students face, Sanchez said.

According to CSU data, 40.2% of all CSU students graduate within five years. At Fresno State, 35.6% of students graduate in five years.

The numbers also show a wide academic gap at Fresno State -- 30.9% of Hispanic students complete their degree in five years, compared to 48.6% for white students.

It's these numbers that Varela and other Hispanic leaders want Castro to tackle.

"I know he's going to be a great president because he knows our small communities and the struggles kids face today," said Martin Mares, assistant superintendent at Parlier Unified School District and founder of the Ivy League Project, which encourages the Valley's children to attend college.

And because of Castro's humble background, he will be a great role model, Mares said. "Everyone is proud of him," he said.


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Source: Copyright Fresno Bee, The (CA) 2013

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