Now Introducing: Steve Perez
“Who are you?”
The student looked at the man standing in front of him in a Wildcats polo and red and white Nike Dunks, not so much questioning his authority but genuinely wondering who he was.
“I’m the president.”
“The president of what?”
“President of Chico State,” says Steve Perez, a friendly smile playing on his lips.
To the student’s credit, the University’s 13th president has a fairly incognito vibe. Preferring polos to suit jackets and sneakers to dress shoes, he strives to be accessible and approachable—and it seems to be working.
Officially in his fourth month on the job, Perez has actually been on campus since January, when he arrived to serve as interim provost. As students and alumni know firsthand, it’s easy to fall in love with our campus and community, and he fell hard and fast.
The college-town feel was instantly familiar to him and his wife, Tanya, as longtime residents of Davis, and the warmth of the community made them feel like anything but newcomers. A nationwide search was underway for the next president, and he decided to apply.
“We have never been in a place where people love it as much as here,” he said. “Here, they love the region, they love the school, and that’s a good place to be. We thought if we could ever try living in another place that felt like home, it would be Chico.”
A veteran educator and administrator, Perez’s talents for problem-solving, innovation, and strategic thinking were recognized regularly throughout his long career at Sacramento State. There, he seized every opportunity that came his way—serving as interim dean of the College of Business, a member of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, and on the Intercollegiate Advisory Committee. He was inspired by Sac State’s then-president Don Gerth (who once served as vice president for Academic Affairs at Chico State) to consider the impact he could have by embracing a more substantial leadership role. Soon he was second-in-command at Sac State, serving as its provost under then-president Robert S. Nelsen, before he was asked by the California State University to serve as interim president at San José State University.
At his core, Perez is a firm believer in public education and the pillars of access and affordability in the CSU system. Among his many goals at Chico State, he wants to continue creating an exceptional learning environment for students, advance access to higher education and grow partnerships in the North State, and facilitate faculty and staff excellence.
“I super love what we do,” he said. “If we are doing our jobs right, we impact thousands of people in a region the size of Maine.”
Read on for 13 insights into Chico State’s new leader.
OUTSIDE OF EDUCATION, HIS BIGGEST PASSION IS BASEBALL.
As a self-described “happy-go-lucky” teenager, he had one dream: play professionally. Yet, despite playing Division III ball for University of California, San Diego, he quickly realized his talent didn’t quite match his enthusiasm. He turned his focus to his studies and career, but the baseball bug never really left him and he has played on recreational teams for the past 15 years. There’s something about playing sports that fuels him, he said. “You have to be a very humble person to play. You must be willing to fail in front of people, willing to try again, and always supportive of your teammates.” One of the family dogs, Sandy, is even named for Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. The other, Pauley, also has a sports-related namesake— UCLA’s basketball home, Pauley Pavilion. Oh, and he’s a Dodgers fan—a trait locals are trying to forgive him for.
EDUCATION RUNS IN THE FAMILY.
His grandmothers were teachers, and his dad held a doctorate and his mom a master’s—both in physics. Following in the family footsteps, Perez expected to major in science and decided to go pre-med. He found himself hopscotching through majors with every new subject he discovered. Biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics—he liked them all, until he worked in a hospital and decided a career in medicine was not for him. He leaned into another favorite subject, economics, and after his bachelor’s degree he went on to earn both his master’s and doctorate in the discipline from University of California, Davis. He’s married to Tanya Perez, a UCLA grad and journalist who works as a columnist for The Davis Enterprise and manages a student editorial team for higher education news outlet EdSource. They have two sons. Tate just graduated from University of Oregon, and Davis is in graduate school at Stanford University.
HE PARTICIPATED IN COTILLION IN HIS YOUTH.
The idea was really his mother’s, as she thought it would instill in him good manners. And while he can foxtrot, waltz, and tango, it also helped him understand the value of apologizing and treating others with respect and gratitude. He signs off nearly every email with “thank you,” and he means it.
HE HAS TASTED 400 VARIETIES OF POPCORN—TWICE.
His first job after his undergraduate degree was a marketing analyst for a biotechnology company, where he analyzed different varieties of tomatoes, vanilla, and popcorn, among other projects. For the popcorn project, he had to personally test each variety for flavor, size, color, and popping success. In the process, his passion for research and learning made him realize he wanted to return to academia. After completing his doctoral program, he accepted a job as an economics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and eventually Sacramento State, where he taught classes in macroeconomics at all levels as well as econometrics, labor economics, mathematics for economists, and a self-admitted favorite, sports economics.
HE LOVES COACHING.
He’s coached his children in every sport they’ve tried, from soccer to skiing and, of course, baseball. “He loves teams, to be a part of or creating teams,” Tanya said. “It started with Little League and goes on from there.” Whether youth athletes or University faculty and staff, Perez wants his teams to find joy and meaning in their work, and he feels a lot of pressure to help make that happen. “We are all trying to do the same thing here,” he said. “We may just have different ideas on how to do it.” He often reminds himself of a quote by author and engineer Robert Heinlein that advises not to attempt to teach a pig to sing, as it will be a waste of time and “it’s going to annoy the pig”—a phrase that has become family shorthand. Instead, he figures out what strengths people have and works to amplify them.
HE ONCE WENT AROUND THE WORLD IN A WEEK.
His global tour included stops in Myanmar and Rwanda, and the experience taught him how incredible people are in every country of the world. He said Tanya gets to pick their next international destination (she’s thinking Denmark or Belgium, followed by France).
HIS FIRST RUN FOR PRESIDENT WAS IN THE SIXTH GRADE, USING THE CAMPAIGN “PEREZ FOR PREZ.”
Sadly, he didn’t win, but his leadership dreams re-emerged in his 40s. While working at Sac State, Perez attended a leadership academy at University of California, Berkeley, where he admitted to himself he wanted to be a university president one day. Imposter syndrome accompanied the realization, as he questioned who he was to think he could do such a task well. But with encouragement from family and trusted colleagues, he persisted. He was on the brink of returning to Sac State after the interim role at SJSU when the call came to ask if he would fill in at Chico State as provost. The rest, they say, is history.
HE ABSOLUTELY LOVES COLLEGE LIFE.
In August, he and Tanya restored a longstanding tradition for the Chico State president to live on campus, next to Holt Hall. Designed by Julia Morgan in 1922, the Albert E. Warrens Center housed numerous presidents through the years until it was converted into an events center in 1998. With a few minor upgrades, it was ready for habitation again (ask him about the presidential pups escaping on move-in day to cavort in Big Chico Creek). Perez loves that they can walk to dinner downtown, take in an evening show at Laxson Auditorium, or cheer on any of the University’s 13 Division II teams. Of course, he doesn’t mind that he has the most carbon-friendly commute on campus. Since he didn’t need his parking spot anymore, he donated it to Staff Council as a reward for the monthly ’Cats Caught Being Awesome recipient. “Anything I can do to make sure staff and faculty are appreciated, I want to do.”
HIS EXPERIENCE AS A PARENT GUIDES HIS LEADERSHIP.
The first week of school, he staffed booths across campus to help new and confused students, fielding questions on everything from where to get a parking pass to how to navigate the maze that is Holt Hall. As a relative newcomer himself, he didn’t know all the answers but was determined to try. Associated Students President Autumn Alaniz-Wiggins describes him as having “dad vibes,” which makes him laugh but he’s OK with the sentiment. After all, he now feels responsible for the well-being and success of 14,000 students.
HE EMBRACES WILDCAT LIFE 100 PERCENT.
It was admittedly a hard switch after two decades identifying as a Hornet, but he likes the “sassy spitfire vigor” of the Chico State mascot and its authentic connection to our natural world. He installed a Wildcat 1 license plate on the presidential golf cart, is applying Wildcat decals to his Tesla, and has countless Chico State polos.
HE USES SOCIAL MEDIA AS A TOOL TO BE OUR “CHEERLEADER IN CHIEF.”
On X, formerly known as Twitter, his typical posts include shoutouts to people and programs, celebrations of Chico State’s excellence, and sharing snapshots of the beautiful campus. (Follow him @ChicoStatePerez!). He also has a devoted fanbase on the Chico State TikTok and Instagram accounts, where students gush about his taste in shoes and celebrate him as a “Swiftie president.” His synergy with Taylor Swift (her favorite number is 13, IYKYK) is more coincidental than anything, but he’s embraced it. During the first week of school, he passed out handmade friendship bracelets like those the singer shared on her Eras tour. With phrases like “Karma is a cat,” and “Fearless Wildcat,” students were overjoyed and the TikTok segment has been our most popular video of the year. His sons, meanwhile, texted that he was going viral—friends of friends saw the video and let them know how hip he is.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS DESCRIBE HIM AS AUTHENTIC AND UP FOR ANYTHING.
“What you see is what you get. And though I think people see him as fun-loving, he is more fun than people could even understand,” explains Tanya, who fell in love with him nearly 35 years ago. “Awesome,” was the first word to come to mind for Dianna Henrickson, a friend of more than 20 years and mom to a 2020 Chico State grad. She added that Perez is incredibly loyal, devoted, and enthusiastic, and said she could not be more excited for the University to have him at the helm: “He is all in on every single thing he does with every ounce of his being. And he believes every single person can be successful.”
HE’S DOESN’T BACK DOWN FROM A CHALLENGE— CHICO STATE’S INCLUDED.
Chief among them is enrollment, as numerous factors have drastically impacted the size of the student body in a trend affecting campuses statewide. While the numbers are trending positive for the first time in four years, he is impassioned to ensure students across California recognize Chico State for the destination campus it truly is. He’ll also be invested in advocating for more public and private support of the University, whether lobbying the legislature on behalf of the CSU and Chico State for individual projects or through the University’s next capital campaign. And, of course, he is prioritizing student success. The Graduation Initiative 2025 is still underway and Chico State has work to do to close equity gaps and ensure more students are persisting toward degree at a faster pace. Perez is not just hopeful for the future but deeply excited: “I like a challenge and trying to make things better. Where better to do that than at a place that is already so exceptional?”
Can’t get enough? Don’t worry—we filmed President Perez at his home on campus answering 43 fun questions, everything from advice for his college self to what he would give a TED Talk on.