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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

School Shock: Why the Reagan Foundation Ended Its Association with Cal Lutheran Program

The decision last month by The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute to terminate a fellowship program it sponsored at California Lutheran University dismayed several who had supported the program.

But it didn’t really surprise them.

After all, since Lori Varlotta became president of the private university in Thousand Oaks two years ago, there have been major alterations to other parts of CLU’s Elton and Janice Gallegly Center for Public Service and Civic Engagement, which the Reagan Library supported with its scholarship program. 

Notably, the closely recreated Washington, D.C., office of former congressmember Elton Gallegly was dismantled, Gallegly’s archived documents have not been digitized by the school, and a related advisory board was disbanded.

“None of this makes sense” said Glen Becerra, who served on CLU’s board of regents from 2009 to 2019. “As a regent watching this happen, I was disgusted.” Becerra said.

Gallegly filed suit a year ago against CLU alleging breach of contract because, he claimed, the school did not fully carry out the agreed-upon terms to establish the Gallegly Center.

As for the Gallegly Center, “It was all working like we had envisioned it,” said Stephen Wheatly, who served as CLU’s vice president for university advancement from 2002 to 2018. “Then somebody new came in and changed it. Now we’re in a lawsuit.”

Varlotta did not respond to requests for comment, but CLU issued this  statement: “While the University cannot comment on matters related to active litigation, and although we are disappointed that the three-year formal agreement between the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute and California Lutheran University supporting the Reagan-Gallegly Fellowship Program will expire in March 2023, we are proud of the fellowship program begun in 2013, which has been entirely funded by the university. The Gallegly Fellowship program will remain ongoing as will its positive impact on the participating students.”

The beginning

Gallegly, the longest serving member of Congress in the history of Ventura County, served 26 years before retiring in 2013. 

In his retirement, the Galleglys became involved in helping the university create the Gallegly Center and its attendant components. 

“None of this was my idea,” Elton Gallegly said. “I was approached by the university.”

He and his wife were originally assured they wouldn’t have to raise money for the center. Two years in, the university asked the Galleglys if they could help with fundraising. The couple raised well over $1 million toward the building campaign goal of $1.8 million. One donor contributed $150,000 to the replica of Gallegly’s congressional office.

“I was the first elected mayor of the city of Simi Valley, where the Library is, so I have a long history there,” Gallegly said. “The Reagan Library came to me and said, ‘We’re going to do something we’ve never done in history and offer a scholarship.’” Since the Reagan foundation became involved several years ago, it has given 11 fellowships, according to CLU.

Gallegly said that after the Reagan Library put its name on the fellowship, “I felt a real obligation to make sure that this didn’t get fouled up.”

Gallegly also said he was proud of the replica of his longtime office created at the school.

“It was exactly the way it was at my Washington, D.C. office within an eighth of an inch,” Gallegly said.

The Gallegly Center building, which saw its ribbon-cutting ceremony in May 2018, was built to house Gallegly’s archives and congressional papers that were submitted to the university in 2017; the replica of Gallegly’s office; the Reagan-Gallegly Fellowships sponsored by the Reagan Library; and a speaker series, which launched with the May 2018 appearance of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. 

All went reasonably well for a time, but relationships deteriorated after Varlotta became president more than two years ago. Gallegly said he was shocked to learn in January that his office replica had been dismantled.

“They removed all of my furniture, all of my plaques and signed pictures with presidents and notes,” Gallegly said. 

His archives were to be shipped to a company in the Midwest to do all of the digitizing. Gallegly said that never happened.

“I’m almost 79. My wife is 80,” Gallegly said. “Never once in my life have I been on either side of a lawsuit.”

Treated ‘like dirt’

Academic: The Gallegly Center on the California Lutheran University Campus. (Photo by Thomas Wasper)

Wheatly, CLU’s former vice president for university advancement, said Varlotta is “someone who comes in with no institutional history” of the university or Ventura County.

“They’ve done everything possible to try to tear down the Gallegly Center for reasons we still can’t grasp,” Wheatly said. Although Gallegly is a Republican, Gallegly “did not want to have a school of public policy because it was too partisan. His focus was public service.” That’s why the center is named for public service and civic engagement.

“The new president unilaterally took out his office space,” Wheatley said. “They changed the speaker series to bringing in local individuals…

“The congressman and his wife tried to work with the university for months and months and months,” Wheatly said. “They were forced to go into litigation because the university changed everything they had agreed to and what the Gallegly Center was supposed to be.”

“The university just treated the congressman and his wife like dirt,” Wheatly said. “After they had worked hard to raise the money.” 

Chuck Jelloian, whose Criscon Co., a public relations and business development firm, worked with CLU to raise money for the Gallegly Center, also laments the change of direction the university has taken with the Gallegly Center, which “was never political. It was a nonpartisan facility. We’re very proud of it.”

He also believes the situation deteriorated with the new president.

“With the new administration, everything’s been turned upside down,” Jelloian said. “It’s extremely disappointing.”

Becerra, the former regent, said the building was designed to be a meeting space for scholars; the speaker series was meant to be a fundraiser to build an endowment so the scholarships were perpetually funded.

And there was a significance to losing the Reagan name.

“Nobody gets to use the Reagan name,” Becerra said. “That’s a hard thing to do.”

Actually, he said, concerns regarding the Gallegly Center began to bubble on campus back when construction on the building was going forward. Republican names aren’t always well tolerated in a university setting.

“There were some amazing things going on there,” Becerra said. “And then all of the sudden, a group of folks started to push back. They were talking about (Gallegly) not being in line with the university. There was a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric to try to demonize the congressman.”

Over time, Becerra said, it became obvious that “there was a group of the academic family at CLU that just decided that they didn’t want to have Gallegly and the Gallegly Center on campus.”

All simmered down eventually. Until Varlotta became president.

“It’s sad that an academic university would close their minds to history,” Becerra said. “You lose that access, and you look small when you let politics get in the way of a program like this.”

Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk is a managing editor at the Los Angeles Business Journal and the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. She previously covered real estate for the Los Angeles Business Journal. She has done work with publications including The Orange County Register, The Real Deal and doityourself.com.

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