Former CSU authority writes about the ‘people’s university’

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Don Gwerth, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Don Gerth

“I have been calling the Cal State University the ‘people’s university’ of California since the 1960s,” said Don Gerth, former president of Cal State Dominguez Hills and Cal State Sacramento.

Gerth recently published “The People’s University: A History of the California State University,” a book tracing the history of Cal State University after friends and family urged him to do so.

Retiring in 2003, Gerth ended his 45-year career but not his love for CSU.

The book covers the long history of the CSU, which dates as far back as 1857 when the CSU began teaching elementary school teachers in San Francisco.

The school then moved to San Jose, where the comprehensive CSU program was created and formally established in the 1960s – making San Jose State University is the oldest university in California.

The book consists of anecdotes from the system’s early faculty, staff and students.

The text is focused on the “Master Plan,” a plan created in 1960 that under-lied the roles of the University of California (UC), CSU and the California Community Colleges (CCC).

“The CSU system focuses on the needs of California and its citizens for an educated populace and universities, which address the civic and economic development of the state,” Gerth said.

Gerth said the CSU system set the standard for higher education nationally and around the world, and is well-respected and often copied. Gerth said that he, with the help of his wife, researched, interviewed and worked with small focus groups for the purpose of his book.

The “Master Plan” is embraced because it provides students the opportunity to choose what educational path is right for them. Gerth said that in the 1930s, California’s public policy recognized the need for a broader access to higher education. “The system as we know it now was created by the Legislature in the 1960s,” Gerth said. The Master Plan was composed of what were then 10 institutions that were united by the creation of the Board of Trustees.

According to Gerth, the CSU, UC and CCC have thrived even during the hardest of times, and that is why it is emulated around the world.

“My experience at Cal State Fullerton has been good so far,” kinesiology major Stephanie Sahlstedt said. Even when Sahlstedt changed majors, she said that the change went smoothly and had help from her advisers.

The CSU has emerged from 150 years of hard work and leadership from faculty, students, trustees, administrators and alumni, said Gerth.

“I’ve always loved the university campus feel,” said Yvonne Wu, an administrative support assistant for the Department of Mathematics. Wu graduated from University of California Riverside in 2006 with a business degree, and has been working for Cal State Fullerton for the past two years.

Gerth was born and grew up in the south side of Chicago where he obtained three degrees from the University of Chicago, his graduate degree being political science.

“My wife and I have been and are a part of what is now the California State University since 1958. We are both deeply committed to the CSU,” Gerth said.

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