It’s hard to think of a higher education leader who faces more challenges than Timothy P. White.

The new chancellor of the California State University system, who started in December, oversees 23 campuses in the nation’s most populous state, with 44,000 faculty and staff and 427,000 students. The range of student backgrounds and needs is staggering, and the cutbacks in recent years in state funding have been immense.

Yet White was upbeat this week in a visit to Washington that coincided with a gathering of college and university chiefs hosted by the American Council on Education.

In an interview, White said one of his goals is to improve what he calls “gateway bottleneck courses” — those in which high numbers of freshmen and sophomores get a grade of D, F or W (for withdrawal). Failure to get through remedial algebra, college-level algebra or introductory statistics can doom students in a variety of fields. With that in mind, San Jose State University recently announced a partnership with online education provider Udacity to offer courses in such subjects.

White plans to track that experiment closely. He’s aiming for statewide initiatives that can open equal opportunity to students at Humboldt State University, in the state’s far north, or San Diego State, near the Mexican border.

“If we can scale this thing up,” he said, “what an amazing opportunity to get students through the bottleneck and save money doing so.”

But White said he wants to ensure that students of varying needs get adequate support, especially those who might not have full access to the latest computers or high Internet bandwidth. “We’re going to be steely-eyed in our analysis,” he said. “We have to be the California State University for all of California.”

In November, state voters approved a measure Gov. Jerry Brown (D) backed to raise the sales tax, and income taxes on the wealthy. That will provide revenue for education, brightening Cal State’s fiscal picture after years of cuts that raised class size and cut services in numerous other ways.

“We’re digging out of a big hole,” White said. “The new money is very welcome, a step in the right direction.”

White, previously chancellor at University of California-Riverside, has the Golden State all over his resume. He studied at a California community college and two state universities before earning a doctorate at University of California-Berkeley. That’s exactly the path state leaders envisioned a half-century ago when they created what is known as the California “master plan.”

The question now is whether, in a new century, the state can still drive the nation’s agenda in higher education.