Newswise — For possibly the first time in CSU history, all three of these top leadership positions are held by women: Chancellor, Chair of the Board of Trustees and Executive Vice Chancellor (EVC) for Academic and Student Affairs.

In addition to women holding ​top CSU leadership roles, more than half of its university presidents​ are women. And, across the state, more women are rising to higher leadership positions than ever before. A record number of women were elected to the California legislature in 2022, making history​ with 50 women now serving the Golden State.

We asked our women leaders to reflect on the significance of this moment in the CSU's history and share lessons from ​their own personal leadership journeys. Read reflections from​ Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester, Ph.D., Chair of the Board of Trustees Wenda Fong and EVC for Academic and Student Affairs Sylvia A. Alva, Ph.D.


CSU Interim Chancellor

What is the significance of women holding all three of these top leadership positions? How might it benefit CSU students and employees to have women leading the university? What do you think got us here?

This moment—when so many of the key leaders across the CSU's constituencies are women—shows students and employees it is possible for women to assume top leadership positions. The fact that we would notice it and that we would recognize it as something unique and something really significant in the history of the CSU is a reminder that change, in terms of equitable access to leadership for women and people of color, still needs to occur. But it is a thrill at a personal level.

It empowers those who identify as women, or who have felt marginalized for other reasons, to imagine themselves in roles that they wouldn't have thought possible previously.

It makes a difference to our students as well as those who work for the CSU system.

I started at Sacramento State as a faculty member in 1983 and became a department chair in three years. At that point, there were other women in leadership positions on the faculty side as department chairs. Then gradually, over time, there have been more and more female leaders in many of the kinds of administrative positions I have served in. It has been gradual, steady change that has brought us to this particular moment.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration on your personal leadership journey?

I was supported along the way very enthusiastically when I was in high school by teachers who taught me that I had skills and that I was smart. They gave me lots of opportunities. And I've had many individuals over time who also did that, most of whom were men. My mother was not well educated—she didn't even go to high school—but she was tenacious in her reminders. I grew up at a time when women didn't necessarily go to college, but my mother was really clear: She wanted me and my sisters—and my brother—to go to college. I learned a lot from her and had a lot of gumption because of who she was and how she urged her children to seek higher education.

In what ways do you want to set an example for the next generation of women leaders in higher education and beyond?

I would like to set the example of someone who can attain this kind of leadership role, but also recognize that all people deserve to be treated with respect. Leadership doesn't mean you have to be crude or cruel. I would like to be seen as somebody who leads with values.


Chair of the CSU Board of Trustees​

What is the significance of women holding all three of these top leadership positions? How might it benefit CSU students and employees to have women leading the university? What do you think got us here?

This moment in time is so significant because it illustrates the deep pool of experienced women leaders qualified to serve in each of these unique roles. It shows that there is a pipeline of women leaders​ who have decades of experience climbing that ladder rung by rung, some breaking through glass ceilings, unlocking doors and holding them open for others to follow.

Something I've learned in my work with diversity, equity and inclusion is that representation and visibility are critical. It's critical for our students and for the CSU community to see women leaders, particularly those of us who are of color, to prove that if we made it, they can too. If you can see it, you can be it.

How did we get here as leaders? Allies. It was our previous and current leaders who gave each of us opportunities to gain experience and to persevere, ​achieve and accomplish. It's not only allies who were supportive, but, frankly, those people who were not. I actually learned a lot from those people who put up barriers—who made things very difficult for me—and I learned how to overcome those challenges.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration on your personal leadership journey?

It's really simple: My mother. Sadly, my father died when I was just seven years old​. My mother raised me and my four siblings. She raised each of us to be independent, to know where we came from, to be proud of our ancestry, to understand the sacrifices our ​grandparents made and the barriers they and my parents faced, and to love our country and be good citizens. 

We were encouraged to value education, and to leave a positive legacy in the world. My mother was an incredible parent, but also an incredible businesswoman and community leader. She taught us by example to be responsible, reliable, professional, hardworking, generous and grateful—and to give back, to persevere, to have integrity, to problem-solve and not to give up. I stand on the shoulders of my grandparents and parents, and we understood that it is our responsibility that we, in turn, lift others onto our shoulders.

In what ways do you want to set an example for the next generation of women leaders in higher education and beyond?

Something I've learned over my four decades of working, particularly in the entertainment industry is that you can succeed by being yourself—your best self. I believe it's important for each of us to strive to be the best person we can be using the unique gifts God has given to each of us. That we don't have to be like someone else, but that we should be true to ourselves. Back in the '70s, women were told we had to dress and act a certain way to succeed, particularly in the business world. I hope I am an example of someone who was able to reach this level of achievement by being her best true self.


CSU Executive Vice Chancellor, Academic and Student Affairs

What is the significance of women holding all three ​of these top leadership positions? How might it benefit CSU students and employees to have women leading the university? What do you think got us here?

I think it's remarkable. It is a very unique moment in time to see so many women in such significant and impactful l​leadership​ positions. I feel very honored and privileged to be in such distinguished company. The impact for employees and students is an affirmation that it is possible and within their reach to continue to grow professionally and to aspire and achieve positions of leadership.

It's also important to acknowledge that women have always been impactful leaders in our society, and for any number of reasons have not always been recognized for their contributions. Much of my success is owed to women who have been mentors to me and helped me lead in these important roles day in and day out, either as part of my leadership team or as part of my support staff. I really see it as an opportunity to thank them and to extend a deep appreciation for the role of women in both higher education and in the success of women leaders.

Even in higher education, there has been a shift in which more women are aspiring to pursue and complete college degrees. And so, with time, you're going to see an increase in representation of women in a variety of key roles in society. I also think there's now an acknowledgement that there have been barriers and obstacles that women have had to face that are disproportionate when compared to those their male counterparts had to face. As a society, we've become more aware of these equity considerations and are trying to be fairer—even in our recruitment and selection processes. Trying to be more intentional and more equity-minded makes a difference.

Who or what has been your biggest inspiration on your personal leadership journey?

I had a moment in my own leadership journey when I literally rode a bus with Rosa Parks, and that moment provided me with what I consider to be an epiphany in my own leadership style. I was at a professional conference where she was the keynote speaker, and there was a bus that shuttled the attendees back to the hotel. Ms. Parks was also on this bus—this very demure, elegant, elderly woman. At the time, I was committed to doing my best work as a faculty member. Reflecting on her impact on society, I realized there was much more that I could do as a leader, as a member of the higher education community. That moment in my leadership journey inspired me to commit to being much more engaged and involved in equity-minded initiatives That was a ​pivotal moment in my leadership journey, and one that really awakened in me a deeper passion and responsibility for leading.

In what ways do you want to set an example for the next generation of women leaders in higher education and beyond?

A phrase by Cesar Chavez resonates with me in terms of a message I'd like to leave women and other leaders: “Sí se puede." "Yes, it is possible." It takes a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment, but it is possible. I think serving as an example of what is possible is a tremendous privilege and an opportunity​ I feel very proud of. It's also important to remind women and others that we need a network of support. We need people in our personal and professional lives to whom we can turn. Whether they're confidants or colleagues, it takes a community, a group of dedicated people to get this important work done.

There have been many times throughout my career when I was the only woman, the only Latina, in a leadership community, and it can get lonely without your community's support. Your voice needs to be part of the conversation, but you have to create that synergy. You create that harmony. I bring it back to the importance of small impacts. Small gestures like Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus can really change the course of history. I believe there's a role for all of us to play as transformative leaders.


The leaders who oversee the CSU system are dedicated to maintaining the institution's promise of access and quality to the students of California. Learn m​ore about them and the work they do.