Chico State’s next president, Gayle Hutchinson, intends to unite the fractured university

Gayle Hutchinson, Chico State’s next president, is technically an outside hire, but she served in various roles at the university for 23 years.

Gayle Hutchinson, Chico State’s next president, is technically an outside hire, but she served in various roles at the university for 23 years.

Photo courtesy of CSU Channel Islands

Celebratory cries were heard throughout Chico State’s Student Services Center on the morning of March 9 as word spread quickly: The university’s next president would be Gayle Hutchinson. Some people even danced a little.

So related Mimi Bommersbach, a longtime Chico State counselor, who temporarily came out of retirement this semester to help with the Counseling Center’s high volume of student patients. “People who have felt jaded forever are suddenly feeling hopeful,” she said, “even giddy with a sense of relief.”

The reaction is due partially to familiarity. Most of Hutchinson’s 25-year career in higher education has been at Chico State. And after a relatively brief stint as a senior administrator elsewhere in the CSU system, she’ll be back in a big way. Her first day as Chico State’s chief, July 1, will be a homecoming of sorts.

Many hope it will also turn the page on Chico State’s rocky recent history. Some faculty and staff members, like Bommersbach, are sour on Chico State’s current administration, led by President Paul Zingg since 2004. (In light of a series of serious health complications, Zingg is retiring at the end of June.) They point to things like the Campus Climate Survey, conducted in 2015, which revealed widespread workplace dissatisfaction and generally low morale rooted in longstanding issues such as salary inequity, bullying and intimidation on the part of university officials, and a lack of transparency from upper management.

Over the past two years, members of the Academic Senate have further spotlighted a lack of shared decision-making when it comes to hiring high-ranking executives who have been turning over at an alarming rate. It all came to a head on Dec. 10, when the senate took the unprecedented step of delivering a vote of no confidence in not only Zingg, but also two of his top executives: Interim Provost Susan Elrod and Lorraine Hoffman, vice president for business and finance.

Then there’s the matter of pay. Chico State faculty members, along with their colleagues throughout the CSU system, are set to strike in mid-April if their demand for a 5 percent raise isn’t met by the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

In other words, it’s a tumultuous time to be assuming responsibility of the university. But Hutchinson knows the campus and the community well; she worked at Chico State for 23 years in various roles: faculty member, chair of the Department of Kinesiology, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, and member of the Academic Senate. In 2013, she left to become provost and vice president of academic affairs at CSU Channel Islands in Ventura County.

With the appointment, Hutchinson, 58, will become the first female president of Chico State, a major public figure in the North State and the leader of arguably the city’s most vital institution. She says she’s ready for the pressure.

From her office at CSU Channel Islands, Hutchinson spoke with the CN&R by phone—she’s yet to visit campus since the hiring—and discussed her traits as a person and a leader, her priorities once she takes the reins, challenges the university must confront and how she plans to set Chico State’s course for the future.

What do you do for fun?

Fun? Well, I love working. That’s one thing I do for fun. I’m very passionate about my work. I also love to cycle, and I’ve picked up surfing down here. I love to golf. I’ve become a bird enthusiast, although I’m just starting to learn about birds. I love music; let’s say I’m a perpetual beginner at both piano and guitar. I also love to read, especially about economic development.

How would you describe your personality?

I’d describe myself as energetic. I love life, I love people and I love to laugh. I love helping people strive toward their potential. I love to examine issues and work collaboratively with other people. I love diversity and finding ways to be inclusive. I think I’m very steady and calm under pressure.

What about your leadership style?

My leadership style is one of openness. I operate out of fairness and principle; I’m ethical. I believe in being really honest with people. I am able to help develop vision with a community as well as pay attention to the details as we move forward. One of the things that’s a strength is that I understand and appreciate the landscape of change. I know that change in today’s world is a constant, and I embrace that not for change’s sake alone, but to understand the world we live in and make sure the work we do is dynamic. I really, truly pay attention to that, not only as a leader or a president, but as a member of a community and in working together with different people.

What was the selection process like?

I’d like to share my appreciation for everybody who served on the search committee: the folks from Chico State’s campus, the community members, the CSU board of trustees, as well as the chancellor. They did an outstanding job. Having gone through the interviews, it was rigorous, but it allowed all of the candidates—whoever they were—a chance to step up and display our strengths and really lay out what’s important to us in terms of working at Chico State and with the community. I thought it was a really rigorous process, and my compliments to all those who were engaged in it.

What got you the job?

You know, I really don’t know. Like I said, I have a lot of energy, I’m very authentic, very genuine, sincere and knowledgeable. I love my work, and I’m passionate about student success. I’m passionate about academics and co-curricular activities. I have acquired a lot of knowledge over the years and have a lot of practice with leading and working with folks. I love all aspects of the university, anything that helps students out—whether it’s in the classroom, support services, or in the laboratory. I feel fortunate to have been selected, but I think it’s a combination of my personality, my leadership skills, my knowledge and my experience over time.

How have people on campus reacted to your appointment?

I’ve heard from quite a few people from the campus community, Chico and the surrounding areas. All the responses have been very, very positive. I feel a warm embrace from campus as well as the North State. It’s pretty humbling. It’s really remarkable. I feel the same way about coming back to Chico State.

What aspects of living here do you appreciate most?

First of all, the people. I spent 23 years in Chico, and the people there are just top-notch—very giving and concerned about students, the community and the environment. I also love my colleagues at the university and the work that’s being done. When you look around campus—whether it’s someone in an academic program, in student services, student government, or someone working on the grounds—everybody is enthusiastic about helping students prepare for a future as engaged citizens as well as being productive in the workforce. I also like the way the community comes together with Chico State; there are a lot of wonderful partnerships going on with local government, industry and agriculture. I look forward to finding ways to strengthen all of those relationships, and for the university to continue to be a vibrant hub—just continue to be phenomenal.

We’ve heard that media scrutiny here is more intense than for presidents of other CSU campuses.

I think any time that you step up in a leadership position, as a leader of a university, a politician or legislator, any time you have significant responsibility, you have opportunity to be scrutinized by the public and the media. It comes with the territory; I’m aware of that and prepared for it. President Zingg has made wonderful contributions to Chico State and the CSU system. To do that, all while being scrutinized, that’s remarkable, and I hope to do the same.

What’s your relationship like with President Zingg?

Well, he was my president for a long time. I had as much of a relationship with him as a dean or department chair does with a president. I haven’t had much contact with him since I left Chico State because I’ve been very busy here with my work at Channel Islands. In my roles at Chico State, Paul was very supportive.

Chico State’s Kendall Hall, home to the university’s administration, where incoming President Gayle Hutchinson will soon be spending a lot of time.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Something’s broken at Chico State. How will you fix it?

I see my colleagues from all areas of the campus wanting to serve students to the best of their abilities. I see a campus that is waiting to have somebody unite the campus in a way that improves morale and sets the direction for the future of the campus, to move us into the future so we can continue doing an extraordinary job. We’ve been giving students awesome experiences at Chico State for 125 years. As for what’s going on specifically, I don’t know fully. I’d like to meet the campus where it is right now and, through collaboration and inclusion, unite the students, staff, faculty and administration and build a shared vision.

Staff and faculty have decried the current administration’s lack of shared decision-making. What does “shared governance” mean to you?

Shared governance is extremely important to me. As a faculty member, department chair and member of the Academic Senate, I really appreciated the opportunity to be a part of shared governance. I worked really closely with my faculty colleagues, the staff, student government and the administration. For me, shared governance is a chance to come together, seize input and consult with all of campus as we’re trying to examine issues and overcome challenges. So, I will continue to embrace shared governance, as I’ve always done, and processes that are inclusive and collaborative.

What will your top priorities be when you take over in July?

My first priority is to unite the campus around a shared vision, but I need to get to know everyone first. I’d like to spend 100 days or so on a listening campaign and hear about the challenges of folks on campus. Also, I’d like to start asking questions about where we see ourselves in the next five, 10, 15 years as a university in the North State, and then begin processes where we can start building that shared vision together. We can develop a strategic plan and then really get to work on moving the university forward in a way that keeps students at the center of everything that we do. We’re here to serve our students by creating access and opportunity, and also help them toward earning their degrees in four years, five years, six years. Also, I’d like to emphasize working with students where they are. We have first-year students, transfer students, students taking a timeout from school to pursue other opportunities in life. We need to address their needs no matter where they are in life, give them a fantastic experience and prepare them for what lies ahead.

Given your long history at Chico State and the connections you’ve already made, do you feel like you’ll hit the ground running on achieving those objectives?

I think I can hit the ground sprinting.

Will you partner with other schools in the area?

I think working with preschool through community college is essential. It’s not an isolated university. It really is about the entire education process, so I really welcome partnerships, maybe even earlier than preschool, such as early childhood development programs, and also with our sister community college campuses in the North State. I wish to expand those relationships to prepare our young people for the future.

What would those relationships actually entail?

Every single discipline on campus could be, or has been, involved with working with young children and getting them excited about the sciences, kiniesiology, the performing arts, music, the humanities. There’s so much we can do with children and getting them ready for college. I would welcome an exploration of those areas, beginning with the superintendent of [Chico Unified School District], the administrators and presidents of community colleges. I’d like to build more effective pipelines to help children to make their way to university and earn a degree.

Will you commit to increasing diversity on campus?

I truly embrace diversity as a leader. I think diversity and inclusiveness, when you have people from all different backgrounds, with different ideas and perspectives, brings excellence. When I was at Chico State, I was always involved in diversity efforts. Chico State continues to have—as many universities do around the country—a lot of work to do in terms of diversity. I will step in and immediately get to work on diversifying the student population and the faculty and staff. A lot of good work has been done at Chico State looking into how issues of diversity can be worked into the curriculum. We really have a full complement of curricula and programs that are celebratory of how wonderful diversity is, but also tackle some of the challenges in that area. It’s more than increasing numbers of students—it’s about addressing the challenges of the day and doing so in a way that is sincere. Diversity is representative of a healthy community.

Is the significant and growing Hispanic population on campus a sign of progress?

Yes, I was pleased to learn that Chico State has earned Hispanic-serving institution status, meaning that the Hispanic population has increased, but I think we have to look at all the underrepresented student groups. A lot of them still need to be increased. I don’t have an answer today, but I do know it remains a challenge and it’s one of the first ones I’ll start working on with my colleagues at Chico State.

Does Chico State still deserve the party-school reputation?

This is my opinion: We changed that reputation a long time ago. The academic programs and academic rigor at Chico State are second to none. We have a reputation of being one of the best universities in the West, if not the country. Chico State students compete against students from universities that are considered more reputable and Chico State students win in these competitions and solve problems. In my mind, Chico State is a rigorously academic institution. Yes, we do always have to deal with that party reputation, but we will continue to do so in a way that is positive and really focus on the strengths of the university—academics, co-curricular activities, athletics, student services—and promote the quality of work from our students. I think many universities today have to address issues about partying, but will we continue to focus on our strengths and do so alongside the city of Chico.

Is there a gender-equity problem among Chico State’s employees?

That’s a really good question, but I don’t have the answer. That’s something we have to examine.

When you left Chico State for the provost position at CSU Channel Islands, what was your motivation?

When I chose to leave Chico, I had served as dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences from 2007 to 2013. I had started to consider my next career move, and I decided that the college was in very good shape at that time. We had some people who were up-and-coming in leadership who could continue on. So, it felt like a good time to look at other opportunities available, and I applied for provost positions around the CSU. I accepted the one at Channel Islands and it was a wonderful move for me. I’ve had three excellent years here with extraordinary individuals. [CSU Channel Islands] President Richard Rush has been a wonderful president and person to learn from.

What have you learned at CSU Channel Islands that you’ll be able to apply to being president of Chico State?

The provost position brings with it the responsibility for the entire university, the cabinet and the president. Serving in this role has expanded my knowledge of university operations. It also allows me to work on my leadership skills, as I’ve been doing for a very, very long time. And it’s given me an opportunity to enhance my skills in the area of advancement; in cultivating relationships with potential philanthropic interests in the area. I’ve also worked with local legislators, figuring out what the needs are for the community, industry and economic development. All of that has prepared me quite well for this position as president.

Are you concerned with the system-wide faculty strike set for mid-April?

I think it’s important to respect faculty and staff’s right to organize, and I do. This is something that the Chancellor’s Office is working on, and I don’t know much more than that.

How long do you anticipate being president?

Well, I intend to live to be 100-and-something, with no intention of slowing down. I’m anticipating it’ll be for a long, healthy time.

What will your legacy be when you leave?

I hope to have a united campus that embraces everyone and has appreciation for everyone. When people are able to work together in a way that is positive, it allows people to demonstrate and apply their strengths, and also learn and grow. I want it to continue to be this stellar university offering amazing opportunities for students. At this point, I haven’t really thought much about a legacy. I just want us to do what we do best—serve students.