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Called to Academia

 Lori VarlottaTitle: PresidentOrganization: California Lutheran UniversityBorn: Pittsburgh, Pa.Education: University of Notre Dame; Syracuse University; Miami University in OhioMost Admired Person/People: Parents.Hobbies: Hiking, outdoors, cross-country skiing, cooking and exercise.Lori Varlotta is the first woman to serve as president of California Lutheran University in its 61-year history. She was also the first female president at Hiram College in Ohio before moving to California. She started her educational administration career right out of college at the age of 21 and hasn’t looked back; she calls the career a “calling.” Prior administrative poitions include vice president for planning, enrollment management and student affairs at California State University — Sacramento, and dean of student life at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Varlotta also publishes routinely and is asked to speak on a national level regarding topics of diversity, budget planning and leadership. “Developing budget models, communication strategies, and relationships to mitigate the pain of tough economic times” is one such published work, which appeared in a 2010 edition of New Directions for Student Services. Varlotta succeeds Chris Kimball, who stepped down from the position after 12 years as Cal Lutheran’s president.Question: What are your thoughts on being the first woman president in California Lutheran’s history? Answer: It’s really important to me to be a model to others, to all students, but women students in particular. Being able to achieve this pinnacle two times, both as the first woman, feels really good. I’m proud of it but I’m also proud of how I’ve done that, in terms of working with others and never stepping over people but really garnering the support and working to engage lots of folks all around me.How we progress in our career is as important as the progression and promotions themselves. I’ve been at nine different positions and … I’ve been told, that I left each of the positions I served better than I found them.What previous lessons and experiences will inform your choices at Cal Lutheran?The biggest thing I learned is how to get people interested, excited and willing to be part of a change process. Institutions of higher learning really need to change in order to be viable in the 21st century. Many of us have been able to rest upon our laurels for decades; in Hiram’s case, centuries. Getting people excited about the change was important. Also, being very honest about where you are in the process, not hide or cover up missteps or entanglements — be as real as possible. Change is very messy and even when we set a goal and a direction, it often doesn’t go in a unilateral way, linear way.What else about your personality will help with your new position?I think I have a lot of courage. I learned early in life that courage is not the absence of fear or the quest to be fearless, it’s the ability to say “Holy crap, I’m a little uncertain about this. Will you join me, will you help me, can we do this together?” Another important part of my leadership is I’m not afraid to say no. You have to be really confident to say no; you can’t do it all, an organization can’t do it all. Our organization cannot be everything for everybody, so it’s really about helping an institution with, what are we really good at? What are the things we want to be known for and will draw students, faculty and staff in for? We’re in the process of that type of discernment. We’re good at a lot of things but we have to stand proudly and firmly on the things that we’re excellent at, and that means saying no to other things.

What attracted you to California Lutheran University?The Lutheran values of grace and generosity are two that really speak to me. I’ve always been courageous, confident, and what I want to learn at this point in my life is being a little more graceful. I’m kind of a straight shooter, very extroverted, very comfortable giving opinions, being opinionated and sharing things, but I want to learn more about this idea of grace. I think it’s really important and what the world needs now, people exuding a little more grace and being a little bit more generous with each other.How will you incorporate these values into a campus mission for diversity?When I came to Cal Lutheran, I inherited a remarkably diverse campus. We will make it even more richly diverse. What we’re hoping to do, what we expect to do, is lean more heavily into our recently designated Hispanic Serving Institution status. We’re an HSI, which means we’re identified by the federal government as an institution that enrolls at least 25 percent of our students as Hispanic, or Latinx.There’s the next level, called Excelencia. We’re aiming to be in that group where there are certain markers you have to hit.

How do you structure a shift in diversity?There are many schools that have added chief diversity officers, and their director reports to the president. We know that we want diversity and inclusion to be a marker of the California Lutheran experience, but we’re being honest enough to say we’re not really sure what the best structure is to bring that goal to life. Is the best structure vertical, where we have a chief diversity officer through which most of our diversity programs report? Or are we going to have a more integrated and distributed model where, rather than having a single diversity officer, we weave that role into key officer positions or existing faculty and staff positions?What plans do you have for the business school?We’re modernizing our current curriculum, we’re adding to the business major — digital marketing, analytics, the kinds of things that are becoming more critical in the mid-21st century. So adding new content to existing majors is something we’ve already started to do. We’ve added new majors to the mix, we’ve added a hospitality management major and sports management.Any other changes?We are deeply tethered to our liberal arts roots; the kinds of business majors that all corporations want are those that know how to think, not just what to think. If you’re going to be a business major, having solid footing in the liberal arts is critically important. Our core curriculum will be going under a revision process soon and we’re interested in doing just that; we’re emphasizing the how.

What does the future look like for Cal Lutheran?A lot of small schools say they are the best kept secret in their region, and I feel to some extent that that’s been the case at Cal Lutheran. The Lutheran tradition, while very enriching in so many ways, has exuded a sense of modesty that has not served us well. The next era for Cal Lutheran means that we take our reputation and our brand, and we expand it well beyond Southern California, up and down the whole western United States. I expect that Cal Lutheran will be a place that more people will come to appreciate. Also important to me is we tap into our Lutheran identity. There are quite a few Lutheran institutions in the Midwest, and I think Cal Lutheran would be a really good option for some of those students who want a whole different experience.How has the university tackled COVID?We took a pretty bold step to say we’re not a virtual university. We’ve done OK in the synchronous Zoom space, but I’ve been very clear that part of our value proposition, not only to our students but interestingly to ourselves, is that we are the type of community that is effective when we work together. Personal interaction and personal engagement are so much a part of who we are.

So, more focus on in-person classes?We had about 400 resident students on campus this fall and I’m thrilled to say we’ll have about 700 this spring, an 80 percent increase. We’ve been pretty bold and pretty clear that in the spring, we want to begin the return to pre-pandemic teaching.

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