HAYWARD -- Maybe it was how comfortable he looked as he stood in the student union, casually eating a slice of pepperoni pizza in his pinstripe suit. Or that he showed up at all.
Either way, Timothy White, the new chancellor of the 427,000-student California State University, impressed student-leaders at CSU East Bay -- and gave them some hope of a turnaround after years of tuition hikes, crowded classrooms and wait lists.
Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal, which includes an additional $250 million for CSU, would mean no tuition increases this year or, likely, next, White said.
"It just makes you feel that people over there, on the top, really care about us," said Riddhi Sood, a 20-year-old biology major from India.
White, who grew up in Pleasant Hill and earned a master's degree at the Hayward campus, made national headlines in November when he asked for a 10 percent pay cut, making the state-funded portion of his base pay $380,000.
Now, he is touring all 23 campuses, meeting with students, staff and faculty at each stop. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the former chancellor of UC Riverside said he felt the state's public universities had undergone a bit of "mission creep," forgetting that their core purpose is educating students and producing important research. University leaders' meetings often delve into working conditions, employee health benefits and finances while ignoring the learning environment, he said.
"It's so easy in a big organization to get distracted on what the mission is," he said.
After spending parts of two days on the Hayward hills campus, where 28 percent of last spring's graduates were the first in their families to earn college degrees, he said, "What I learned here is, never lose track of what it is we're doing."
(He also said he had learned the Harlem Shake, an old hip-hop move that has become a YouTube craze. He did not offer a demonstration, as video cameras were present.)
White said he is urging campus presidents to help more students finish college, and to do so more quickly, and that he hopes to increase enrollment systemwide. He said he thinks the massive system could run much more efficiently, freeing up money for instruction and research. Introducing a common application form and doing a better job of buying in bulk were two of the cost-saving ideas he mentioned.
Laurel O'Brien, a 28-year-old environmental studies major, said she found the chancellor's message encouraging and hopes to see it in action. "It's really time to get serious about thinking about the students first," she said.
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.