By Catherine Saillant
President Lori E. Varlotta swings into action tackling budget, public health and social issues while looking ahead at strategic goals.
Cal Lutheran’s new president, Lori E. Varlotta, understands the vision, and sometimes pain, necessary to bring about change.
The university’s eighth president arrived on Sept. 1 to three major challenges: a global pandemic that limits in-person instruction; national social unrest that intensified calls for greater equity for students, faculty and staff of color; and a budget shortfall that required immediate, tough decisions.
Varlotta scratched the honeymoon period and swung into action. She asked her cabinet to work six days a week to identify $23.6 million in cuts that would have the least impact on students and faculty. They instituted a temporary partial reduction in hours for 52 staff members whose workload had been lessened by the pandemic and laid off 17 others. Additional savings will come from a pause in retirement contributions and reductions in supply and travel budgets.
It was a painful start, Varlotta admits, but with a 10% drop in traditional undergraduate enrollment and a 74% reduction in the number of students living on campus because of COVID-19-related restrictions she had no choice but to act to stave off even greater cuts down the road.
If there is a saving grace, it’s that Cal Lutheran entered this pandemic from a position of financial strength. Unlike many other tuition-driven institutions, Cal Lutheran has recorded decades of balanced budgets, meaning there was no structural deficit weighing down the university. The institution’s strong financial base meant that Varlotta was able to shield the university from even deeper cuts.
“Thankfully, decades of financial success allowed us to weather this storm better than other campuses that went into these unprecedented times on shaky grounds,’’ she said. “We needed to act promptly and compassionately, but we did so from a position of financial strength.”
Budget cuts required her immediate attention, but Varlotta also is focused on her strategic goals for the Thousand Oaks campus; satellite locations in Woodland Hills, Westlake Village, Oxnard and Santa Maria; and the seminary in Berkeley. Topping that list is a push for campus diversity that builds on the progress the institution already has made in this area. Varlotta is on record reaffirming Cal Lutheran’s push to hire even more faculty and staff of color and to live out the university’s designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, not just a Hispanic-enrolling institution. Equity issues are also high on her radar.
In June, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the university pledged to support an anti-racist agenda that calls for specific changes on campus, including a review of curriculum, establishment of Community Scholars for Black Lives fellowships and the development of a bias incident reporting system. Varlotta forcefully backs these efforts and has begun meeting with faculty and staff members interested in working together to improve diversity and inclusion practices at Cal Lutheran.
Of immediate concern is making sure low-income students have access to laptops, cameras, earphones and mobile hotspots needed for remote learning. She and members of the leadership team have been working closely with the university’s Information Technology Services department to ensure students are aware of these resources and know how to find them, Varlotta said. And, as soon as it was allowed, they opened outdoor instructional and study spaces in Thousand Oaks and Oxnard for students who were finding it difficult to find technology-enhanced, study-conducive spaces at or close to home.
A longer-term goal is to work with faculty to identify new academic programs and revise existing ones that leverage the technologies, modalities, and learning goals associated with mid-21st-century academe. In the area of investment, Varlotta said she will work with the regents and others to complete the main campus’s physical master plan that emphasizes space for the sciences, business programs and the performing arts, while paying attention to the connections between the main campus and its regional centers. She also aims to grow the university’s fundraising efforts, including but not limited to its endowment, to pay for more scholarships, faculty chairs and green initiatives.
Just as important as these measurable goals is Varlotta’s intention to foster an environment that hews closely to the Lutheran values of generosity, grace and inclusivity. It’s hard to have an open and engaged educational community if people tune out others or fail to listen earnestly to those who have different ideas or opinions, she said. She envisions an environment where people from myriad backgrounds, perspectives and experiences “listen and understand before we judge and presume” — an inclusive Lutheran university that “welcomes people of all faiths and no religious faith per se.”
The Pittsburgh native, 57, was raised a Catholic in a working-class home. She said some of her most important lessons about how to treat people and how to persevere in the face of adversity were learned in childhood from her large, loud, pragmatic Italian-American family.
“From the time I was a young girl, my parents encouraged me to set and follow goals and to set them high,’’ she said. “They taught me that achieving these goals meant that I would travel a path that went up and down. My father, a long-serving Greyhound bus driver, told me that ‘sometimes you got to go a little West to go East. Good drivers set a route but take the detours that are necessary to bring everyone home safely.’
“My family also taught me that good leadership is not about the leader. As a young person, I experienced what it meant to live in a close relationship with an extended family. Mine was a large one, and my sense of accountability extended to cousins, aunts and uncles. Our common good encompassed lots of people. All of that has helped me see some pretty basic things: When leading a campus, I am clear it is not about me. It’s about the common good and how I mobilize students, faculty and staff to get to a place that serves all of us, our mission and our future well.”
Her career path is littered with admirable firsts: first to graduate college in her family; first woman president at Hiram College in Ohio; and now the first female to head Cal Lutheran in its six-decade history. Over 35 years in higher education, she’s worked on campuses from Sacramento, California, to Syracuse, New York, and many places in between. She has developed a track record for assisting campuses in using state-of-the-art technology for learning and for leading high-stakes, inclusive processes that bring systemic change to higher education.
After chilly winters in Ohio, the runner admits she is happy to return to California, a state she calls a “world of its own.” Cal Lutheran’s identity as a liberal arts and sciences college founded in the Lutheran faith also was appealing.
“In recent years, I stepped away from my personal faith journey as professional responsibilities took center stage in my life,” she said. “As I enter middle age, I find myself becoming more curious about the divine and things that I can’t understand with my logical, analytical mind. How do I make sense of the world through feelings, faith, traditions and the symbolic world?”
For now, though, she is occupied with the logistics of getting through the crazy hybrid fall semester, eventually reopening the campus in a safe way, recruiting a more diverse staff and rebuilding the budget. Varlotta said she is ready.
“We will get through this pandemic and we will come out even stronger than we came in.”
Catherine “Kay” Saillant is a veteran Southern California journalist. She reported for the Los Angeles Times for more than 16 years, including the high-profile beat of Los Angeles City Hall reporter. During her years at the Times, she covered higher education in Ventura County. Before that she was the county beat reporter for the Ventura County Star. Kay is a Newbury Park resident and freelance journalist, contributing regularly to Central Coast Farm & Ranch, the publication of the Farm Bureaus of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.