Former professor and vice president for Academic Affairs Donald Gerth, who served at Chico State for 12 years before appointments as president of CSU Dominguez Hills and Sacramento State, passed away December 6. He was 93.
Born Dec. 4, 1928, in Chicago, he sold shoes as a teenager and worked in a steel mill and as an insurance rating clerk. At age 16, he dropped out of high school and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he would earn three degrees, including a PhD in political science in 1963. During his studies, he also enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War in 1952, and served in intelligence and finance capacities.
His esteemed decades-long career in teaching and educational leadership began at San Francisco State College in 1958 as a professor of government and as associate dean. In 1963, he served for a year as associate dean of institutional relations and student affairs for the CSU Chancellor’s Office before he accepted a position at Chico State. Here, he served as professor of political science, dean of students, and vice president for Academic Affairs.
“Dr. Don Gerth’s efforts and contributions over the course of his career were significant in shaping the mission and values of the CSU, and the vision for higher education in California,” said University President Gayle Hutchinson, who met him nearly 15 years ago at a scholarship reception. “I’ll always remember how easily he engaged with students and faculty. His charisma, wit, and enthusiasm were wonderfully contagious. He will be truly missed but the significance of his legacy will be revered forever.”
First meeting Gerth as a student 54 years ago, Dennis Hefner (Economics, ’67) still remembers his special affinity for students and how he predicated every decision on what would be best for them. Five years later, when Hefner was hired as a faculty member, he said he was fortunate to view him through another impressive lens.
“He was an incredibly energetic and enthusiastic leader of the Academic Affairs division, and had the ability to inspire others to do what was necessary to ensure the campus was moving forward,” he said. “We knew he was working hard for the good of the campus, and, as a result, were willing to support his many initiatives.”
As Hefner began looking toward an administrative career, Gerth was an exceptional mentor. They stayed in touch through the decades as Hefner rose through the ranks, and he recalls how Gerth was always excited about what was happening at his campus and at universities elsewhere.
“He was always willing to set aside time for a phone call to provide guidance and share his wisdom,” Hefner said. “He cared deeply about the future of public higher education and went out of his way to serve as a role model and mentor to a number of future university presidents.”
Abe Baily, former dean for Student Affairs, said Gerth had an esteemed reputation as an expansive, unconventional thinker but also a bit politically unpredictable because he would not hesitate to go against the grain for the sake of students, such as hiring one of the University’s first Black faculty members and helping start the Educational Opportunity Program. They became friends early on, and Baily remembers Gerth as an exceptional mentor, especially to those who were “a little different.”
“He was always the deciding moral middle ground, balancing the need for change and the need to keep the institution functioning,” Baily said. “And he had a philosophy of the ‘ever-expanding pie.’ Department chairs and deans always wanted a bigger share of the pie, but he said if we worked together, we could have an ever-expanding pie so everybody gets a little more and we can share resources.”
With encyclopedic knowledge and a finesse at navigating everything from finance to administration to legislation, Gerth’s legacy, Baily said, is one of transforming not only Chico State but universities statewide as a contributor to the California Master Plan for Higher Education.
“In those early years, I tried to keep up with him and I didn’t have a chance,” he said. “From the time his feet hit the floor in the morning until he went to bed at night, he was thinking about what was good for the institution and students of all backgrounds. He used to talk about how there ought to be a pathway for every individual to get to their maximum potential.”
In 1976, Gerth was appointed president of CSU Dominguez Hills, where he also taught political science during his eight years of leading in the institution’s highest role. In 1984, he was appointed to lead Sacramento State and went on to be its longest-serving president, presiding over the university for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2003.
“Few individuals are as inextricably tied to the CSU—and have so wonderfully lived out the university’s highest ideals—as Donald R. Gerth,” CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro said in an article by Sacramento State. “He deeply loved the CSU, as reflected in his definitive work, The People’s University: A History of the California State University. Don’s was a life well-lived, and his positive impact on Cal State faculty, staff and alumni has and will continue to span generations.”
During his time at Sacramento State, Gerth is also credited for growing enrollment from 22,000 to 28,000 students and doubling the number of Asian and Latinx students; overseeing more than $100 million in public and private funding that added 1.2 million square feet of structures on campus and modernized existing buildings; creating new schools and centers; and initiating new academic initiatives including the first master’s degree in software engineering at a public university in California. In 2018, Sacramento State renamed its archives the Donald and Beverly Gerth Special Collections and University Archives in recognition of the couple’s longtime service to the university and the CSU.
Gerth is survived by Beverly, his wife of more than 60 years; daughters Annette Schofield and Deborah Ann Hougham; and five grandchildren. Services are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the President Emeritus Donald R. Gerth Memorial Scholarship fund.
The University flag will be lowered Wednesday, December 15, in his memory.