Dean's Formative Experiences Made Her Right Fit for CHABSS
By Brian Hiro
Many students figure out what they want to do with their lives when they’re in college, or perhaps high school.
Liora Gubkin was 8 years old. She aspired to be a journalist, and in the ensuing years she did everything possible to put herself firmly on that career track. She attended a journalism summer camp. She worked for a newspaper serving the Jewish community in her native Detroit while still in high school. She applied to and was accepted by the University of Missouri, which boasts one of the nation’s preeminent journalism schools.
Higher education, though, has a funny way of adjusting even the most firmly laid plans. During her first semester at Missouri, Gubkin took two general education classes to accompany her journalism coursework – covering music appreciation and major world religions. Both impacted her, but the latter blew her 18-year-old mind. How could different people’s worldviews – whether it’s reincarnation or the nature of time – vary so drastically?
Gubkin added religious studies as a second major, then gradually began to prioritize that over her longtime passion. A bachelor’s degree in the discipline turned into a master’s, a master’s became a doctorate, and a doctorate turned into a fruitful livelihood as a professor and administrator at Cal State Bakersfield.
That such an accidental discovery propelled Gubkin’s career wasn’t lost on her when she started her job as the dean of Cal State San Marcos’ College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences in July 2022. CHABSS, as it’s usually abbreviated, houses the bulk of general education along with 25 degree programs, and it’s a college where wonderful educational sidetracks happen all the time.
“My formative experience as a college student was transformed by general education and then religious studies,” Gubkin said. “My interests always have been broad. My teaching was broad. To take what I've benefited from so much and bring that to this group of students, so many of whom are first-generation, to provide spaces for them to acquire the skills they need to go into the workforce as well as a broader understanding that will enrich their work and how they operate in the world, that’s tremendously fulfilling to me.”
Gubkin is now in her second year at the helm of CSUSM’s largest college, one that features 19 departments and about 6,000 students (more than 40% of the total number at CSUSM). After working for almost two decades at Cal State Bakersfield, including seven years as an associate dean, she’s bringing much-needed stability to a college that had cycled through about a half-dozen leaders in the previous 15 years.
That sense of permanence was a message that Gubkin communicated to a faculty committee early in her tenure.
“I'm not a career climber,” she told them. “I'm not interested in looking for the next job. I came here for this job, and this is where I plan to stay.”
Veronica Anover, a professor of modern language studies, can relate more than most in CHABSS to the difficulty of the professional jump that Gubkin has made. Anover had an up-close view of the operation of the college as its associate dean for student success, academic programs and curriculum from 2019-21.
“Any dean serving in our college faces the challenge of being able to carry on dean’s tasks and, at the same time, managing so many day-to-day operational and personnel issues, some of which may occur on the spot,” Anover said. “It takes someone with a lot of internal strength, calmness, vision and support to be able to manage it all without breaking. Liora is handling that jump with awareness and with a positive attitude.”
CHABSS is not only large, it’s also wide, encompassing an array of programs that ranges from dance to psychological science (and the research it entails). In her first year, Gubkin shepherded an effort to get a handle on the scope of the college by way of a new strategic plan, which has replaced the one that expired in 2018. A series of collegewide dialogues produced five objectives – academic excellence, diverse faculty and staff, supportive community, career readiness and philanthropic culture – that were unveiled in April, and CHABSS is now in the process of implementing a plan that will serve as its north star for the next five years.
That’s not all the dusting off that Gubkin is doing. Together with other college leaders, she’s working on updating the College Academic Master Plan, which hasn’t been substantively revised since 2016. And as part of an effort to make the job more public-facing, she has revived a dean’s advisory council that had lain dormant for 10 years (there are currently eight members from around the region).
“There's so much that has to happen internally for this college to run smoothly,” Gubkin said. “In one of my very first meetings when I started, the three associate deans (Elisa Grant-Vallone, Kimberly Knowles-Yánez and Carmen Nava) said to me, ‘We want to do as much as we can internally to allow you to do that external work.’ ”
Only a couple of years ago, Gubkin couldn’t have imagined leading such a big college at a new university. She had made a conscious choice to stay for the rest of her career at Bakersfield, the campus she joined as a lecturer in 2003 after earning a doctorate in religion and social ethics from USC.
After serving as interim dean in 2016-17 and venturing into the job market in 2018, Gubkin settled into her dual roles as associate dean and director of the Institute for Religion, Education and Public Policy. That was a particularly productive time for Gubkin, as she helped develop and lead several student and faculty retention initiatives – including block scheduling, new faculty mentoring and a course for incoming arts and humanities students called “Majors That Matter” – and conducted religious diversity training for students and staff.
She had made a home in Bakersfield with Richard, her husband of 18 years, and their son, Kyle, then 14. In October 2021, she declined an invitation from a firm representing CSUSM in its search for the next permanent dean of CHABSS.
Just one month later, while driving back from visiting family in Colorado over Thanksgiving, Gubkin was stunned to hear Kyle announce that he wanted to move from Bakersfield so he could begin high school near a bigger city in a location with better air quality. Three days after that, the same search firm reached out a second time (something Gubkin couldn’t recall in her years of being recruited), saying her name kept coming up and asking if she wanted to reconsider.
She did, as it turned out, thanks to Kyle’s declaration. Within a span of five months, she went from a casual discussion with the search firm to applying for the job at CSUSM to coming to campus for an interview as a finalist to buying a house in San Marcos. Kyle is now a sophomore in high school.
When the dean’s position begins to feel all-consuming, Gubkin retreats to the mentally healing space of the dance floor. She picked up swing dancing as a hobby when she was a graduate student in Los Angeles more than two decades ago (she even met her husband through a dance community), but more recently shifted her focus to the ballroom variety.
Each Sunday afternoon, she and Richard drive south to a San Diego dance studio where they practice Viennese waltz and bolero. On Monday nights, if she’s not too exhausted from the work day, they head to Vista, where the specialty is tango.
“For that hour when we dance together, all of my worries are nowhere to be found,” Gubkin said. “It’s my escape from work stress. There’s something about the music and the movement and dancing with a partner. It calms me and enables me to be a better leader when I return to the office."
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
firstname.lastname@example.org | Office: 760-750-7306