Donald R. Gerth, the longest-serving president in Sacramento state history, has passed away, leaving a rich legacy of achievement and an indelible mark on the campus he loved.
Among his many contributions, he expanded this 1.7 million square foot campus, established an arts school, raised millions for college programs, spoke out against racism on campus, and championed affirmative action programs.
Gerth, who was 93, died Monday evening. No specific cause of death has been given.
He took over the campus of California State University at Sacramento in the summer of 1984, inheriting an institution that had a reputation as a poorly performing suburban school, thwarted by internal politics. Just before his arrival, an independent investigation found that the university was lagging behind other CSU campuses in education, innovation and, in particular, management.
Gerth responded by announcing a substantial reorganization of the university.
He hired new vice presidents and told the Sacramento Bee he wanted a more âholisticâ campus, devoid of silos and fiefdoms. Just months after taking office, Gerth met with NAACP leaders to fight campus racism. In his freshman year, Gerth traveled to China on behalf of the university. The result was an exchange program for Chinese students learning at the Sacramento State campus while teachers from Sac State taught in China.
Sac State Campus transformed
A world traveler trained at the University of Chicago and Georgetown University, Gerth began the work that remains at the heart of Sacramento State’s mission today. In 1987, Gerth formed a commission to make the State of Sacramento more vital to the Sacramento area. In 1989, Gerth expressed his hope that the State of Sacramento would be an institution dedicated to the eradication of racism, foreshadowing the efforts of current President Robert Nelsen to make the State of Sacramento an anti-racist institution.
âWhy shouldn’t this show up now,â Gerth said of the difficult conversations he and his administrators had with the community about race on campus. âDealing with race issues is an issue in our culture that applies at all times. We have made a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go.
Gerth also oversaw the painful process of Sacramento State athletics, joining the Big Sky conference in 1995. Sports programs in Gerth’s day suffered many setbacks as the university sought to improve its facilities. and its opportunities for athletes. This hard work has attracted much internal and external criticism from Gerth. It just came to fruition. This season, Sacramento State football won its second Big Sky Championship.
âHe loved Sacramento State and CSU,â Nelsen said. âIts impact on our campus and the system as a whole is unquestionable. I had the honor to call him a friend, and his wise advice will be missed. We have lost a hero and a giant of a man.
Tough and committed to students
Friends and supporters of Gerth have said that his longevity at Sacramento State, from 1984 to 2003, and his 45 years in the CSU system, was a testament to his commitment to students and his tenacity.
Despite his reputation as an academic, Gerth was also an Air Force Captain trained in psychological warfare and intelligence. He was born in 1928 and raised in Chicago during the Great Depression. He started making money at age 13 working in a steel mill and as an insurance pricing clerk. He dropped out of high school at age 16 and enrolled at the University of Chicago. He will obtain three diplomas there.
Prior to coming to Sacramento State, Gerth began his 45 years of service in the CSU system as Associate Dean of the State of San Francisco in 1958. He also served for a decade as CSU President Dominguez Hills to Carson from 1974.
His life of success and personal hardship was expressed in many ways during his tenure.
In 1994, Gerth faced a difficult challenge: Military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies towards gay troops were at odds with the CSU’s “access for all” policy. Air Force veteran Gerth wondered what to do and the answer was: Army and Air Force Reserve Officer (ROTC) training programs could be phased out on the campus.
In 1996, the backlash for Gerth’s difficult choice was brutal. Congress and President Bill Clinton approved federal budget language that would have denied federal funds, including scholarships and student loans, to institutions that banned military recruiters on campus.
In 1997, professors from the state of Gerth and Sacramento reluctantly reversed the course. A Sacramento Bee story said the federal government would otherwise have withheld $ 50 million in student aid.
“I believe our decision to provide all students with equal protection was the correct one,” said Gerth. âBut it is also my primary responsibility to ensure that students can study thanks to the financial assistance offered to them. It would have been unreasonable to endanger student aid. “
Also in 1996, Gerth opposed Proposition 209, which prohibits state institutions from considering race, gender and ethnicity in public employment, education and contracts. Former Regent Ward Connerly of the University of California and others attacked Gerth’s opposition to the end of so-called affirmative action programs in the state.
Michael J. Fitzgerald, then president of the Sacramento State Faculty Senate, wrote in Gerth’s defense: being often too conservative, too cautious, and just too much of a kind of administrator “to the letter “. To accuse him of abusing his office and of having anything other than the best of intentions is ridiculous.
In an interview with Bee shortly before the Prop’s beat. 209, Gerth revealed his sense of perseverance: âNo one makes me president,â he said. âIt’s voluntary, and I just have to do what I have to do.
âI’ve been here for a long time,â he says. âIt was a great adventure.
Gerth said the words in the mid-90s, even as some faculty members asked him to leave. “The faculty has lost confidence in the man,” said Professor Vernon Hornback, chair of the English department. âHis administration has become distant and inaccessible. He’s hardly ever there. When he is, it’s to tell us how tall he is and to smooth himself out.
Gerth’s response? “Mother never said it would be easy.”
In 1999, Gerth responded to critics who said he was unsportsmanlike by writing in a letter to The Bee:â¦ There is no doubt that the discipline, teamwork and rigor of team sports and Individuals can be invaluable throughout life. “
Improved relationships, increased registrations
By the time he retired in 2003, Gerth could claim credit for raising over $ 100 million for campus modernization. The Center for California Studies and the Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution were founded under his leadership. So was a master’s degree in public policy and administration and the first master’s degree in software engineering at a public university, a joint doctoral program with UC Santa Barbara.
The number of registrations increased in the state of Sacramento from 22,000 to 28,000 during Gerth’s years as president. The number of Asian and Latino students has doubled.
“Few have lived the higher ideals of the university so wonderfully as Donald Gerth,” said CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro.
In 2018, Gerth and his wife Beverly donated $ 300,000 to the university, a gift that enabled the State of Sacramento to upgrade its campus archives to be accessible to the public.
âHe loved being on campus, lounging at author lectures, and attending as many college presentations and celebrations as his and Bev’s schedule allowed,â said Amy Kautzman, Dean of the University Library. “His good humor, incredible memory and storytelling will be missed by all.”
Gerth is survived by Beverly, his wife of over 60 years; daughters, Annette Schofield and Deborah Ann Hougham; Hougham’s husband, Harold; and five grandchildren.
Services are on hold.
This story was originally published 7 December 2021 9:10 a.m.