Joe Castro, the studious, affable president of Fresno State, put a scare into his secretary the other day.

That’s because she heard him yelling in his office around the corner from her desk.

She and others rushed to see what in the world was going on.

No worries, Castro said, “Our students just approved the new student union!”

Castro says he’s “absolutely thrilled” about students giving a thumbs-up to the estimated $60 million, three-story, 80,000 square-foot facility.  Last year, students turned down a similar proposal. Once the project is completed, in four or five years, students will pay $149 a semester for construction costs and to support services there.

But the new student union is just one of many things on Castro’s plate. I sat down with him to discuss a few of them.

What are the Timelines for Hiring a Men’s Basketball Coach and Athletic Director?

Castro: We’re working hard on the basketball coach, and we have a very strong pool of candidates. I am feeling really good about where we’re at. I anticipate that we’ll have somebody in place the very early part of April.

On the athletic director, we’re working right now to get the search committee together. I was thinking we would post it in May, but we’re going to try to post it in April now and give us more time to see who’s out there. I expect we’ll have a very strong field here, as well. We’ve already been getting a lot of phone calls. I hope to have somebody on board in July.

Interim Athletic Director “Steve Robertello … (is) a trusted, competent and passionate leader and he’s been helping me stabilize the situation.” 

I’m being deliberative on the athletic director, and there is a good reason for that. We have Steve Robertello as our interim director. He’s a trusted, competent and passionate leader and he’s been helping me stabilize the situation. Obviously, the things that happened last year (AD Jim Bartko’s resignation for personal reasons in November) were not expected and planned for. And so what we’re doing now is preparing for the search. It’s taking a few months, but as I’ve said to everybody, it’s kind of like getting your house cleaned up before the guests arrive. Meanwhile, Steve is providing great leadership, our coaches are doing what they need to do and our student-athletes are succeeding in lots of different ways.

You Hired Tommy Esqueda With a Goal of Becoming ‘the Water University.’ That’s Bold.

Castro: Everybody I talk to who understands water and water technology believes we have a high ceiling. If you look at the landscape of how many water-related companies have a presence in Fresno, it provides a constellation of partners that I think no other university has.

I want Tommy waking up every morning thinking about how we can be the very best in this area. And how we could use the assets that we have internally with our tremendous faculty. We have a lot of great people and great aspirations and opportunities to further our partnerships in the community. I think Tommy will be the glue that pulls everyone together so that we realize our potential. We’ve got the pieces in place, including the students that we’ve attracted here, and there’s clearly a need to prepare a new generation of water leaders. We’re the perfect place to fill that role.

Note: Esqueda is the former director of the city of Fresno Public Utilities Department and the lead executive on the city’s $429 billion “Recharge Fresno” water facilities upgrade and expansion project.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s CSU Funding Proposal Appears to Fall Short of Meeting the System’s Needs.

Castro: If the budget is passed as it is now, we will have to close enrollment for spring 2019 completely. That would mean somewhere around 1,000 new community college transfer students would not be able to come to Fresno State. We actually denied admission to 5,000 qualified students for fall 2017, and it’s likely to be higher for fall ’18.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s CSU system budget proposal is $171 million less than what the 23 campuses are seeking for 2018-19. Unless the governor and Legislature increase CSU funding, Fresno State will have to close admissions for spring 2019.

And this would come at a time when the high school graduation rate for the San Joaquin Valley is higher than the state average. That was not the case five and 10 years ago. In addition, the percentage of Valley students going to community colleges is higher than the state average. Also great news.

But where we fail in the Valley in terms of the education system is the number of students getting their bachelor’s degrees. We should be producing twice as many bachelor’s degrees as we are today Valley-wide. And so this budget exacerbates that problem even more. I mean, we’ve been saying to kids that if you work hard to get good grades, we’re going to be there for you. This lack of investment in the proposed budget is going to make it really hard to fulfill the commitments that we’ve all made together as a state. I’m concerned for our region and for the Inland Empire, which has a similar challenge.

I know the governor is very concerned about graduation rates. We’ve responded to that by increasing the four-year and six-year rates. So there’s kind of a disconnect there with his proposed budget, as well.

Why is the New Student Union So Important to Fresno State?

Castro: I believe this is going to change the entire educational experience here because it’s going to be a 24/7 space that serves the needs of today’s generation of students. It’s ironic that when they announced the vote results, the student union roof was leaking. We know the current building, which was built in 1968, is not suitable for today’s students and our enrollment. We’re going to keep it and use it for other purposes, but it was built for 10,000 students — not the 25,000 students we have now — and at a time when we had a different kind of population than we do now.

It’s also going to take some pressure off of our library, which had 1.4 million people use it last year. If you walk through the library most days of the week you will see that virtually every chair is filled with a student. It’s like that day and night because we don’t have another building to accommodate them. The fact that the new student union is going to be strategically located near the library will help it work in combination with the library.

Fresno State’s Madden Library served 1.4 million visitors last year. When a new student union is constructed, it should open space in the library, which is filled with students day and night.  / GV Wire – Jahziel Tello

What Other Projects Are in the Pipeline?

Castro: We’re looking at rebuilding our student housing in the next couple of years because we know that the students who live on campus do better academically. We’re also going to have a family housing section. This is so that the students could live here with their kids. There probably would be some mixed retail with the student housing. It will be a public-private partnership.

We’re also addressing our central plant that provides heating and cooling. The state is giving us $30 million and the total cost is $130 million. So we’re reaching out to private partners to finance the remaining $100 million over, say, 40 years, and trying to lower our utility costs. It should be a much more efficient system.

How Do You Assess Fresno State’s Impact on the Region?

We’re making a lot of these major investments because we know the Valley needs higher education and our students really want to be here. Today 90% of our students are from the Valley (Stockton to Bakersfield). We used to have more students from outside the Valley, which I do love, but the demand in the Valley has gotten really high.

Over half of our students come from Fresno County alone. Add Madera, Tulare and Kings counties and it’s 80%. Both of those numbers have been increasing. And then we’re seeing that 80-plus percent of our students are staying home after they graduate. They’re starting businesses and doing all sorts of other great things. We prepare more teachers than any other public university in California. And a lot of professionals up and down the region are graduating from Fresno State. Our economy is growing, but it would grow much faster if we were to invest more in our young people to get a higher education.

UPDATE, 7:02 a.m., March 29: This interview was edited to reflect that four Valley counties provide Fresno State with 80% of its enrollment and that the school prepares more teachers than any other public university in California. 

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2 Responses

  1. Dan Waterhouse

    The former athletic director’s first name is Jim, not Steve or Steven.

    Reply

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