June 17, 2024
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Updated: Embattled California Lutheran University president stepping down


California Lutheran University President Lori Varlotta giving a State of the University address at the Thousand Oaks-based school Feb. 6. (courtesy photo)

The article was updated on May 22 to add more detail on Varlotta’s tenure at CLU.

Four months after the faculty at Thousand Oaks-based California Lutheran University passed a no-confidence resolution in her, President Lori Varlotta announced she will be stepping down from her role effective May 31.

John Nunes, most recently pastor at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Santa Monica, will succeed her as interim president for a two-year term beginning June 1, the university’s Board of Regents said in a May 21 press release.

Varlotta, who has been Cal Lutheran’s president since September 2020, said in a statement that, “It has been my pleasure to serve as president of California Lutheran University, and I am proud of the things we have accomplished together over the last four years.

“The university is lucky to have passionate students, faculty, staff and supporters who share the goal of a bright future for Cal Lutheran and I look forward to watching the university continue to flourish,” said Varlotta, Cal Lutheran’s eighth president and its first female president. 

She succeeded Chris Kimball, who was the university’s president for 12 years.

In an email to the university’s faculty sent about 30 minutes before the press release was issued, Cal Lutheran Board of Regents Chair Ann Boynton said that earlier this semester, Varlotta approached the board’s executive committee and requested an early release from her contract. 

“After comprehensive discussion of the implications of this request, the Board of Regents agreed,” Boynton said.

She said Varlotta will return to the university in fall 2025 as distinguished professor of higher education leadership.

She said in the press release that on behalf of the entire board, “I extend sincere thanks to President Varlotta for her service, which leaves the university well-positioned as we seek new leadership.

“The future holds many challenges for higher education, and thanks to President Varlotta’s work, Cal Lutheran is already moving to address several of them,” Boynton said. 

Varlotta helped steer Cal Lutheran through the Covid-19 pandemic, leading efforts to bring students back to campus and to face-to-face learning ahead of many other California institutions, according to the press release.

Despite that, on Jan. 16, the university’s faculty overwhelmingly passed a no-confidence resolution in Varlotta, petitioning her to resign or for the regents to remove her.

The vote was 122-3.

The faculty resolution said in part that the educators had no confidence in Varlotta’s “ability to be an effective steward of the university budget and her ability to maintain the financial health of the institution.”

The next day, Jan. 17, three board officers, speaking on behalf of the full body, issued a statement saying Varlotta continued to have the regents’ “full support.”

On Jan. 20, Varlotta told the Business Times she had no intention of stepping down.

Boynton said in her May 21 email to faculty that Varlotta “undertook difficult yet necessary changes to stabilize the university’s financial position.”

Varlotta convened a Shared Governance Task Force that empowered faculty and staff to improve shared governance, accountability and equity, Boynton said. 

Varlotta also worked with her cabinet and other campus leaders to build relationships with donors and other partners to create opportunities for Cal Lutheran students, the board chair said. 

The creation of the Division of Talent, Culture and Diversity, part of the 2022-27 strategic plan created under Varlotta’s leadership, will have lasting impacts, as will the formation of the staff senate, which she authorized, Boynton said. 

The Jan. 16 faculty no-confidence resolution also said educators had no confidence in Varlotta’s ability to “refrain from alienating many longstanding donors and supporters of Cal Lutheran.”

In September 2023, 17 major donors to the Elton and Janice Gallegly Center for Public Service and Civic Engagement on the school’s campus demanded reimbursement for donations made toward its development.

Elton Gallegly, a Simi Valley Republican who served in Congress from 1987 through 2013, sued Varlotta, the university and Kimball in Nov. 2021 for breach of contract, alleging the school had failed to fully establish the center.

In early 2022, the university removed a replica of Gallegly’s Washington, D.C. office, which had been the centerpiece of the center located in the school’s Pearson Library.

In October 2022, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Institute and Foundation announced it had cut ties with a fellowship program it sponsored at the university due to the dispute.

The nonprofit foundation raises funds in support of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley.

Nunes is a senior fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy and was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1991, according to the press release.

He is also the former president of Concordia College New York and has served since 2020 on the Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“God is up to great things at California Lutheran University,” Nunes said in a statement.

“I see this opportunity as vocationally aligned with my gifts and I am honored to serve Cal Lutheran by helping to galvanize a uniquely talented team of regents, faculty and staff in educating students for a global society,” he said.

Boynton said the university is looking forward to Nunes’ arrival on campus.

“His experience as a scholar, pastor, and leader makes him a natural choice for this interim role,” she said.

She told faculty that the board has tasked Nunes “with continuing to move the university forward in alignment with the goals laid out in the 2022-27 strategic plan.”

In particular, he is charged with “guiding the university through fiscal challenges, continuing to strengthen relationships with all constituents and overseeing efforts to reshape the university with hope and vision,” Boynton said. 

Nunes will be formally welcomed to the university at a June 3 town hall.

email: mharris@pacbiztimes.com