June 17, 2024
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Dubroff: CLU Regents hit the reset button on leadership

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Four years ago, Lori Varlotta took the helm at California Lutheran University as an agent of change determined to shake up the status quo and focus on social issues.

Her transformational formula was an advantage for CLU as it was forced to deal with the pandemic and the changes sweeping through universities nationwide. But her approach also created an unsustainable level of internal friction on the traditionally collegial Thousand Oaks campus.

After student protests over some of his more extreme comments on immigration, CLU closed the center named after retired U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R- Simi Valley). Gallegly, a close ally of President Ronald Reagan eventually supported the last major immigration reform bill passed by Congress in the late 1980s. He sued the university over breach of contract and rallied donors who pulled their funds.

The loss of donors caused a backlash against the administration’s belt-tightening moves, which included a large layoff of administrative and other staff. The reaction was strong, especially among the left-leaning faculty, who then instituted a vote of no confidence in Varlotta that passed overwhelmingly.

Several community leaders I spoke with over the past year were hopeful that Varlotta could find a way to settle the Gallegly litigation. There was a built-in expectation that a settlement could restart relations with the nearby Reagan Library & Presidential Museum, which broke with CLU over the Gallegly controversy. 

Among the casualties of the break was a nonpartisan Gallegly fellowship program for CLU students, that was effective in training a new generation of community leaders.

Beyond that, when it was launched, the partnership between the Reagan Library and Cal Lutheran sent a message that both institutions were trying to look beyond today’s hyper-partisan politics. 

The break sent an entirely different message, precisely when the Reagan Library was inaugurating a new center whose mission is to restore civility to politics.  

In the absence of a settlement, the litigation continues to grind forward and the break with the Reagan Library has become the new status quo. 

With an interim president arriving on June 1, it looks like it will be up to the next administration to find a way to deal with the Gallegly lawsuit and attempt to mend the university’s now-broken relationship with the Reagan Library. 

Meanwhile, the post-pandemic issues affecting all of academia — sagging enrollment and rising costs — have forced CLU to confront a worsening fiscal situation.

Those of us who’ve met Varlotta were impressed with her quick mind, her broad range of knowledge and her ability to communicate one-on-one. She executed what donor Steve Dorfman called an “academic pivot” redirecting his multi-million-dollar gift toward entrepreneurship programs when the idea of building a new School of Management center became out of reach.

As HG Insights CEO Elizabeth Cholawsky pointed out during her keynote talk at the Business Times’ Top Women in Business Awards in April, women who break the glass ceiling and rise to the top at large institutions often face arbitrary and unfair barriers to success.  

Cholawsky said that one-way women can overcome these barriers is to listen carefully and find ways to put people at ease with the idea of a female boss. 

But at a time when college and university presidents are an increasingly endangered species of CEO, it seems that both the CLU Board of Regents and Varlotta decided the best way forward was to state that she had accomplished much and both were ready to move on. 

John Nunes, a Lutheran pastor and former president of Concordia College, will hold the job as interim president for the next two years. He would be wise to take note of the extraordinary influence that Cal Lutheran has on Ventura County through its economic forecasting center, its Center for Nonprofit Leadership, its Dorfman Center for Entrepreneurship, and other ventures. 

It appears that a season that might have favored putting an agent of change in charge at CLU has come and gone. 

The interim administration and whatever follows next is likely to favor consensus builders who can calm the academic waters, rebuild relationships with the greater Ventura County community, and focus on the bottom line.

Henry Dubroff is the founder, owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.