Chief Diversity Officer Joseph Morales Writes a New Chapter at Chico State
Joseph Morales had no plans to go to University of California, Berkeley, get a PhD, or even attend college.
Yet he accomplished this all (and more) on his own terms. And he did it by responding with conviction to a series of interconnected choices that revealed a new pathway—one he would follow from a job washing cars to community college and on to some of the nation’s most prestigious campuses. That journey has now led him to Chico State, where Morales serves as the University’s top official providing leadership and oversight to the University’s equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.
His story has many beginnings. An important one stems from his grandmother, a Mexican American born in Southern California.
“My dad’s mother—who I used to call Nana—lost her US citizenship when she married my grandfather, who at the time was an undocumented Mexican migrant,” Morales explained. “She became a disposable citizen under a turn-of-the-century expatriation act, which required that women take on the nationality of their husband. For most of her life, my Nana was undocumented—a woman without a country—all while living in the same state where she was born, California.”
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, during the worst of the Great Depression, the Hoover Administration used a series of xenophobic laws to qualify mass deportation events that expelled countless Mexican American families. Keeping a low profile, Morales’ grandparents moved from Los Angeles to rural San Luis Obispo County, where his father would work as a child in pre-unionized farm labor jobs. Morales’ grandparents never attended school, and his father would eventually drop out of high school.
While the Civil Rights Movement and reforms championed by César Chávez shifted the political landscape in the following decades, the trauma caused by deportation raids and similar discriminatory initiatives lingered.
Morales graduated from high school, but his future seemed predetermined. Bouncing between work and the local library, he began to feel both physically and psychologically isolated.
“It became clear to me that going to college was a way to open up the world,” he said.
Change can be daunting at the best of times. Once enrolled at community college and within the parameters of a new learning environment, Morales initially struggled and was put on academic probation.
“One day I realized that I needed to break things down for myself. I thought: ‘What skills do I have?’ The answer was: I know how to read, and I know how to write. I decided that I was going to maximize those skills as much as I could, and then I started getting very good grades.”
Encouraged by positive momentum, Morales soon transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara. On a larger and more established campus, he had access to educational opportunity programs, which helped his confidence and his educational resume.
He began to see himself in relation to other students and the institution in a new light.
“When I went to this university, it was amazing—because there were people there from all over the world,” Morales said. “There’s a saying in Spanish that essentially translates to ‘Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.’ (Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres.) I was a part of this global context, and it made me think if I’m like them, then I can go anywhere.”
And he continued to thrive. After completing his bachelor’s degree in Spanish and religious studies, he went on to complete a master’s in divinity studies at the University of Chicago, before returning to California.
Years later, Morales spent time at Stanford University as a visiting scholar. There, he would be reminded again of the power dynamics that had prevented generations of people like his grandmother from standing on that very campus, receiving the same education.
Morales’ father came to visit and asked about the large tower on campus—one of Stanford’s most visible, iconic landmarks.
“When I explained that it was named after Stanford alumnus [President Herbert] Hoover, he became very upset. This was because of what happened to my grandmother and what Hoover represented to him,” Morales explained.
“I thought, ‘Wow: I’m at Stanford. Most parents would feel proud. But in my case, it’s a traumatic experience,’” he said. “It left me asking, ‘Do I belong here?’ And beyond that, ‘Do I even want to be here?’”
Asking these difficult questions helped Morales find purpose. And that purpose would drive his educational journey all the way to Harvard University as a visiting scholar and the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed a second master’s degree and PhD in ethnic studies—and started a powerful new chapter in his story.
“For me, ethnic studies is about the democratization of knowledge,” Morales explained. “Who gets to produce it? Who gets to benefit from it? It asks what the relationship of knowledge is to the community. This was something I felt really drawn to.”
This realization would again be reframed shortly before Morales received his doctorate, when Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that effectively banned ethnic studies from being taught in schools. The legislation was enacted under the auspice that programs such as Mexican American studies promoted resentment toward white people and advocated for ethnic solidarity.
“I remember thinking, ‘I have a degree in something that’s banned in the same state where my mother was born,’” Morales said. “They were arguing that this type of scholarship and research creates hate. And I thought that’s so inaccurate. . . . From my point of view, it creates empathy. At the same time, it made me think of my grandparents—my mom’s parents—who had both attended segregated Mexican schools off and on as children in Arizona. It made me think about the history of education in the United States and how it can be improved.”
His perspective and desire to empower people through the transfer of knowledge remains a throughline to his career. It tethers him to his own family’s history and has guided him in doing difficult but important work.
Following a post doctorate, he spent six years serving University of California, Irvine as a member of the leadership team in the Office of Inclusive Excellence. He played a vital role in creating programming and curricula focused on advancing equity-mindedness on campus and helping to expand UCI’s relationships with other Minority-Serving Institutions.
And then yet another chapter unveiled itself—a chance to serve as chief diversity officer and a member of the President’s Cabinet at Chico State, where equity, diversity, and inclusion is the first strategic priority in the University’s Strategic Plan.
A large part of Morales’ role will be maintaining existing efforts while finding new ways to inspire on- and off-campus engagement.
There’s a lot to do in the months ahead. His vision includes working toward becoming an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution and creating partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and Tribal colleges and universities. It also includes connecting with the larger Chico State community.
“Chico State has a very long-standing and well-established alumni network. It would be highly beneficial to have, as a broad community, conversations about what it means for this University to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution,” he said. “This will come by establishing common ground for us to hold those conversations.”
In charting a new path forward, Morales says that examining the past is foundational. “Today decides tomorrow,” he asserts, quoting the campus’ motto. For Chico State, this means unpacking elements of systemic bias, and allowing knowledge and empathy to guide us together.
His approach to leadership and the development of curricula and public engagement platforms will be grounded in his ethnic studies expertise. It also takes into consideration the recent implementation of an ethnic studies requirement for CSU undergraduate students.
“Ethnic studies offers us the opportunity to build capacity for a better sense of community, to examine the University’s history and present, to identify areas to improve in the future, and to work toward fulfilling the CSU’s mission to truly be ‘the people’s University.’”
He knows this is not a one-person job or something that can be accomplished in a month, a year, or more. “It’s a campuswide agreement that we all have to make—to work together and move in a positive direction,” Morales said.