Former CSUDH president Donald R. Gerth passed away on December 6, 2021, at the age of 93. He was one of the most important figures in the success and growth of the CSU system, serving within it from 1958 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,” said CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro. “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.”
Current CSUDH President Thomas A. Parham added, “Dr. Gerth’s influence on CSUDH cannot be overstated. He was instrumental in helping the institution attain university status, and his impact at CSUDH continues to be felt and appreciated by everyone who steps onto the campus. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and loved ones at this difficult time.”
Born in Chicago in 1928, Gerth attended the University of Chicago, earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 1947 and a master’s degree in political science in 1951. While earning his MA, he spent one year serving as a field representative in Southeast Asia for the World University Service.
In 1952, Gerth was commissioned as a Southeast Asian specialist in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for various comptroller and intelligence assignments throughout Southeast Asia. He also served as lecturer in history at the University of the Philippines. He was discharged from the Air Force as a Captain in 1956.
He completed his PhD studies at the University of Chicago in 1958. While there, Gerth served as an admissions counselor and assistant to the director of admissions at the school–his first taste of university administration.
In 1958, Gerth joined the California State Colleges (CSC) system when he was appointed associate dean of students for admissions and records and government instructor at San Francisco State College. He became an active proponent of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, and provided support on admissions issues for the group that shaped the Master Plan in 1959-1960. His doctoral dissertation, “The Government of Public Higher Education in California,” was completed in 1963.
The same year, Gerth was named deputy dean for institutional relations and student affairs for the CSC system. In 1964, he joined Chico State College as a faculty member and administrator. He would stay at the school for twelve years, serving in a variety of roles including dean of students and vice president of academic affairs.
In 1976, he became the second president of the then-California State College, Dominguez Hills. He led the institution’s transition to university status, just one year into his tenure. During his eight years at CSUDH, Gerth oversaw everything from curriculum expansion to the completion of the campus’ physical core.
Under his leadership, CSUDH built its first student housing complex, as well as the Toro Gymnasium and swimming pool; the campus also completed construction of LaCorte Hall, the University Theater, and the Student Health Center. Gerth was instrumental in bringing the 1984 Olympic biking competition to the campus, signing an agreement to house the Velodrome Stadium. He also brought the CSU Archives to the university, where they are still housed.
In 1984, Gerth was appointed president of California State University Sacramento (CSUS), a position he held until 2003. There, he established the Center for California Studies and worked to get CSUS more visibility as the university in the state capitol. By the time of his retirement, he was highly respected internationally and nationally as the “Dean of CSU Presidents.”
“With the loving support of his wife, Bev, who actively served alongside him, President Emeritus Gerth transformed Sacramento State,” said CSUS President Robert S. Nelsen. “He loved Sacramento State and the CSU. His impact on our campus and the system as a whole is unquantifiable. It was my honor to call him a friend, and I will miss his wise council. We have lost a hero and a giant of a man.”
Gerth wrote numerous influential articles and papers on public policy affecting higher education, and became the most prominent historian of the CSU system. He was co-author and editor of An Invisible Giant, a 1971 book about the formative years of the system. In 2010, Gerth published The People’s University: A History of the California State University, the definitive account of the genesis, growth, and success of the CSU.
His interest in preserving history caused him to be a champion of university archives, both at CSUDH and CSUS. In addition to helping establish and grow the CSUDH Archives, he helped establish the CSU System-wide Archives, a collection of system records that is housed at CSUDH. In recognition of his support, the special collections and archives at both CSUDH and CSUS are named for Gerth and his wife, Beverly.
Greg Williams, director of the Gerth Archives and Special Collections at CSUDH, said, “Dr. Gerth was an active member of the CSU community for over 50 years. He was a great advocate for the archives and supported our efforts to document the history of both CSUDH and the CSU. To me, he was the epitome of an academic, in the best sense.”
“Every time I saw him, Donald expressed his happiness at the growth and success of CSUDH,” Williams continued. “Everyone at the university owes him a debt of gratitude for the legacy he created here for students, faculty, and staff.”
Gerth is survived by his wife of 66 years, Beverly; their daughters, Annette Schofield and Deborah Ann Hougham; Hougham’s husband, Harold; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.