Path to Prominence
She remembers the tiny details of that February day.
It was a warm, sunny afternoon, a respite after weeks of rain. She and her wife had just come home from running errands. As they turned on the news, a reporter alerted viewers an evacuation was imminent due to a potential failure of the Oroville Dam auxiliary spillway.
Within an hour, Gayle Hutchinson, just eight months into her role as president of Chico State, had convened the University’s Emergency Operations Center. And she began to wrap her mind around what the evacuation—and potential failure—could mean for the University, students, faculty, and staff.
“You have to walk the line of demonstrating compassion but also strength to be able to carry everyone forward because people are looking to you to lead,” she said.
Though the spillway held strong, the evacuation and anxiety for all affected would become the first of many unprecedented and unimaginable crises that would come to define her presidency.
From the Camp Fire to COVID-19, cases of measles and monkeypox, and a number of student deaths, each would bring their own set of challenges to the campus community and test her leadership. But every time, Hutchinson stepped up to lead.
“Throughout my life, I’ve been confronted with events outside my control,” she said. “And you either lean in and navigate a path forward, or you don’t. I’ve always chosen to lean in and push forward.”
Today as Hutchinson prepares to retire at the end of the spring semester, she finds herself reflecting on her tenure while continuing to advance objectives she set for the campus as president. Feeling proud of her work, Hutchinson admits the decision to leave was not an easy one.
“It’s difficult to let go. When I think back on these seven years, we had major challenges and yet still we excelled. But I can’t help but think, ‘What could we have accomplished if we didn’t have to manage those unprecedented disasters?’” she said.
As she concludes 33 years of service to higher education, Hutchinson remains guided by three principles that have shaped her life: her health, family, and passion for work. A diabetic for 40 years, she realized in summer 2022 that the toll on her overall wellness meant it was time to step back and enjoy life in a new way, despite her still-fierce passion for the University and higher education.
“I physically don’t have the energy to see it through for another three to five years,” Hutchinson said. “Which is kind of a rude awakening—especially for somebody who always has energy. It’s like in your brain you want to, but you know you can’t sacrifice your physical well-being.”
It’s challenging, she said, to leave when the University still holds so much promise on “its path to prominence”—a term she coined that reflects her vision for Chico State’s rich potential. Difficult too is departing when enrollment challenges are steep and the consequences affecting budgets, programs, and personnel continue to evolve.
Hutchinson’s first campus headshot in 1990 shows the enthusiastic face of a new faculty member in kinesiology—a role she held for 17 years. By 2002, she had become department chair, and five years later she left that role to become dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. But in 2013, she faced a difficult decision: The next career step would be an opportunity as provost at another institution. After spending three years at CSU Channel Islands, she was grateful for the chance to return in 2016 to the University and community that had long been her home.
When Hutchinson was inaugurated as the University’s 12th president, she became the first female president in Chico State’s 136-year history and the first openly gay president in the California State University system.
Hutchinson’s lifelong curiosity regularly drew her into labs, classrooms, and projects. Whether holding a saw-whet owl the size of a tennis ball at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve or studying current patterns by following mannequins in the Sacramento River, or perhaps driving a pavement spreader at a concrete expo or wearing haptic gloves to experience robotic technology, some of her most treasured times as president have been engaging in real-world learning alongside students.
“I’m always looking for creative and innovative ways to help students learn, be successful, and mark their success,” she said. “They are so smart. They just need an opportunity to explore, discover, dream, try and fail and try some more.”
Hutchinson’s colleagues often tease her for her FOMO (fear of missing out). She admits she has a hard time saying no to anything, and in her free time—a bit of a misnomer—she tries to connect with students firsthand, popping into the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, sitting down with Associated Students members, wandering the library, or attending an event in Trinity Commons. By the end of Commencement week, she’s usually hoarse from speaking and cheering at all seven major ceremonies and a dozen-plus special celebrations, including Lavender Grad and the Latinx Grad celebrations.
Squeezing in moments to simply be present, whether rooting on the women’s soccer team or admiring engineering students’ capstone projects, can be difficult with her busy schedule and amid her health concerns. The President’s Office team keeps a close eye on Hutchinson, knowing that in her excitement or enthusiastic interactions, she can forget to check her blood sugar levels and risk a drop. With bottles of apple juice at the ready, they support her as she strides across campus with purpose and high-fives for whomever she encounters.
Now, with retirement looming, Hutchinson embraces the many bittersweet “lasts” she faces as president. Whether the groundbreaking for the new Behavioral and Social Sciences Building, surprising professors with Outstanding Faculty awards, or celebrating a seven-figure donation, she tries to make a mental imprint of each moment.
As someone who has always felt a sense of responsibility to care for those in her community, Hutchinson’s thoughts often focus on what actions are necessary to support the campus and greater community, today and in perpetuity. It’s not something she was trained to do—it is driven by instinct and her own identity.
Such was the case when a tree fell on the Kendall Hall lawn in a February windstorm. Rather than wait for first responders, she plunged into the branches in her pantsuit, pushing apart the foliage and calling out for anyone who might have been trapped underneath.
Thankfully, no one was hurt. But the fear of what could have been drove ice straight into her gut.
“It’s an intense, enormous sense of responsibility,” she said. “I felt it through the Camp Fire, and I felt it equally if not more through COVID. It doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t make me nervous—it drives me to keep going. Even when you are exhausted, you just have to keep going because people and people’s lives are depending on it.”
Her presidency was often impacted by tumultuous national issues, from the contentious 2016 US presidential election and the murder of George Floyd to calls for police reform and campaigns to address anti-Asian hate. She’s stood alongside students during candlelight vigils, watched attentively as they held protests outside her office, and issued heartfelt message after heartfelt message following instances of gun violence or wildfire devastation.
“I have distinct memories of each, and each is very different,” she said. “I’m not sure how to put words to it, but there is something about people’s safety and providing care and support. I feel I know what the right thing to do is and I lean in, but I’m always waiting for what political backlash is going to come from it.”
Equity, diversity, and inclusion remain one of her biggest commitments. Progress on that priority has been one of her greatest successes and biggest disappointments, as Hutchinson grew to realize how slow change can be and the many obstacles that lay in its path.
“It’s frustrating because I can’t figure out how to enact the kind of change we need, yet it’s not for lack of trying. We do so much. I’ve done so much. And yet, we’re not there,” she said. “But when we look at social unrest and social injustice, our country is in a wave of struggle that needs to happen. I remain highly concerned about our ability to affirm our students, faculty, and staff of color, and make sure that they are safe and that they continue to feel as if they belong in this community.”
Reducing bias and prejudice has been a passion for Hutchinson, not just because of her personal values but her lived experience. As a lesbian and as a woman, she faced her own share of discrimination throughout her career, and inclusion was one of her personal north stars—to make sure everyone has access and opportunity.
“I truly believe that without diversity, we don’t have excellence,” she said. “We need diversity to be strong and we need it to be innovative. I’ve always lived by that.”
Particularly dear to her heart is growing the University’s relationship with the Mechoopda Indian Tribe and furthering a commitment to Native American students. She signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mechoopda, hired the first director of Tribal Relations in the CSU, and served as the presidential advisor for the CSU Native American Initiative. Securing the transfer of the 93-acre Butte Creek Ecological Preserve from Chico State Enterprises back to the Mechoopda in fall 2022 took years to complete but she refused to give up, and ultimately Chico State became the first university in California to return Native lands.
In her most challenging moments, she leans on her wife and partner of 23 years, Linda, who pushes her to rest when she needs it, listens when Hutchinson wants to vent, and deploys her sense of humor as the best medicine—laughter. That and “a reasonable amount of chocolate and dance” have gotten Hutchinson through the last several years, along with the support of a few confidants and the 22 other CSU presidents and chancellor.
“It’s an incredible support network,” she said. “We have a rule in the CSU that if a president reaches out to you, you call them back within 24 hours. It’s an incredible wealth of knowledge, experience, and support, and I take advantage of that.”
For the last several years, her days have started with a half-hour or so of exercise, a session of Duolingo in French, the day’s Wordle, and a protein shake and decaf coffee. After going over her and Linda’s daily schedules, she’s racing the clock to get to campus for nonstop meetings, emails, reading, prepping, analyzing, and talking all through the day. If she’s lucky, she can head home by 6:30 p.m. but often it’s off to dinner with consultants, donors, or campus events. When not traveling to the CSU headquarters in Long Beach or to Indianapolis for NCAA meetings, she winds down with Netflix if she can and then it’s off to bed before starting all over the next day.
The pace would be whirlwind for anyone, but it’s been especially taxing in recent years between her health, the pandemic, and other crises.
In retirement, Hutchinson is looking forward to sleeping in more than anything. Then, time to indulgently read the entirety of The New York Times, practice piano, and pick up a match of pickleball, golf, or a bike ride. She’s also thrilled to travel and devote more of herself to Rotary and Soroptimist, as civic engagement has been as much a personal priority for her as an institutional one.
Regardless, her identity as an academic—and a proud Wildcat—will not fade. When she took on the role of president, Hutchinson was energized to think of where the institution would be in 10 years time, and she eagerly awaits its next level of prominence.
“We are close to the tipping point. The beautiful thing about necessity is it creates innovation, not invention,” she said. “How far we take that will depend on the will of this community to believe in itself—because the sky is the limit.”
Transforming the Trajectory of Chico State
Among her many accomoplishments, since 2016 President Hutchinson has:
- Led the successful eight-year re-accreditation of the University.
- Worked collaboratively with campus to create an updated Strategic Plan with a new mission, vision, and priorities.
- Finalized a new Master Plan that established a vision for the physical campus through 2030 and puts emphasis on climate neutrality and resilient and sustainable systems.
- Witnessed continued national recognition for our high-quality and affordable education, success in advancing students’ social mobility, and leadership within the CSU.
- Created state-of-the-art teaching, learning, and research spaces with a focus on opportunities for collaboration through the completion of two new academic buildings and breaking ground on the campus’s first net-zero building.
- Helped lead the growing culture of philanthropy—witnessing new annual milestones in fundraising, numerous seven-figure gifts, and completion of the University’s first capital campaign.
- Formalized a statement on shared governance through partnership with Academic Senate, Staff Council, and the Associated Students.
- Hired Chico State’s first chief diversity officer to sit on the President’s Cabinet and established its first Vice President for Information Technology.
- Earned annual national honors as an Hispanic-Serving Institution and recognition of international education engagement for both students and faculty.
- Advanced graduation rates of historically underserved students through success centers and new programs for Latinx and low-income students.
- Set a standard within the CSU for prioritizing student food and housing insecurity.
- Oversaw a comprehensive identity refresh that transformed and unified Chico State’s narrative and visuals for the first time in the University’s history.
Empower the Innovators of Tomorrow
To honor her legacy, the University Foundation has created the President Gayle E. Hutchinson Award for Excellence. This award will recognize innovative instruction, visionary thought in a field, groundbreaking techniques or methodology, or other inventive ideas that elevate the prestige of the University and enhance Chico State’s global profile. If you would like to contribute, go to www.csuchico.edu/give.