Author’s Corner: Don Gerth

Don Gerth, is the author of “The People’s University: A History of the California State University.” Gerth is a political scientist and was a CSU president presiding over the Dominguez Hills and Sacramento campuses for a total of twenty-seven years. 

Tell me about your book?
The book is a history of California State University from the very beginning. It starts in 1857 when the Board of Education in the city of San Francisco established a formal school to educate teachers for the public schools of San Francisco.  

That was then taken over by the State of California in 1862 and was moved to San Jose in the late 1960’s. That makes San Jose State University the oldest public higher education institution in the state of California.  

The book is historically oriented in the first three chapters, and then proceeds to deal with the evolution of very specific things, such the time of the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960. By specific things I mean such matters as academic planning, the development of new campuses, financing, personnel issues including collective bargaining, that kind of thing.  

The final chapter is a summary and includes my own observations about the California State University and its future.

What inspired you to write this book?
Well, I’ve been a part of the California State University for a very long time.  My wife and I came to California in 1958 and I was a very young associate dean at San Francisco State. I got involved in helping with some of the back work with the Master Plan for Higher Education. I’m a political scientist and had been writing about the government of higher education in California and beyond.  

In the mid 1990’s our then Chancellor asked me if I’d be willing to do a book after retiring from the presidency, and I wasn’t about to retire at that point, but I thought it was an interesting idea. So when I did decide to leave the presidency in Sacramento at Sac State, I decided that then I would write the book.

So it was a long time in the making?
The research was a long time in the making too. This is a very comprehensive work. My wife and I set out to do a number of focus groups. We would gather together five, six people, who were very knowledgeable about a specific topic, like academic planning or collective bargaining or financing. I’d do an outline in advance, and ask every one of the individuals to add and subtract to the outline.  

Then we’d start the day at nine or ten o’clock and going until three or four in the afternoon. We would take a break and provide sandwiches and simply work though an outline and have a good discussion on whatever the topic was.  

We also did interviews. All told we had well over a hundred people, actually the number approaches a hundred and forty people. And we tape-recorded all of them and I went over all of them very carefully. So we have that, we have the conventional library research. I’ve kept a lot of documents over the years and I know where to find things.  The book is based on a combination of sources.

What was it like being a California State University President?
I don’t know that there is any one answer to that, it varies by the individual. I enjoyed it. I am substantially committed to the goals of the California State University.  
Different presidents have different interests. My interest focused heavily on the academic program and outreach and so I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was president for 27 years on two different campuses. Eight years at Dominguez Hills and nineteen here at Sacramento State. It was a challenge. There were times when things got difficult. But overall I enjoyed the role thoroughly.

Which one was your favorite campus?
Oh I’m not going to answer that one. It would get me in trouble with the other twenty-two.

I served on four campuses. We were five years at San Francisco State, one year at the Chancellors office, which was then just being established it was 1963-64, long before you were born. Then we were at Chico state for 12 years, I was dean of students there then the vice president for academic affairs. Then we were at Dominguez Hills for eight years and here at Sacramento for nineteen. All those campuses are quite different. Every campus has a kind of character to it and the campus life of the four campuses was quite different.

What is one thing you like people to take from your book?

The sense of the values of the California State University are sometimes used as three words; access, we provide broad based access for California Higher education, affordability, well that’s getting shaky with the new finical situation, and quality. I think the quality of education in the California State system is very substantial.  

The importance of the California State University has to do with the economic and social future of the state. The state is exceedingly dependent on higher education, and not just those who are students or have been students, but everyone. That includes all three segments, the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California.

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