Neufeldt Brings Passion for Students as CSUSM's Fourth President
By Eric Breier
Ellen Neufeldt arrived at Cal State San Marcos’ University Village Apartments on Aug. 23 with a smile and a friendly greeting for volunteers at move-in day. She posed for selfies with proud parents. Shook hands and introduced herself to staff. Warmly welcomed incoming students preparing to live on their own for the first time.
Every person Neufeldt passed didn’t just receive a cordial salutation. Neufeldt took time to learn a little bit about each of them. It didn’t matter if it was a staff member she might see the following week or a parent she likely wouldn’t see again for four years until they return to watch their child graduate. Neufeldt was equally adept at allaying nervous parents and making staff feel like they had known her for years rather than the six weeks she had been on campus as CSUSM’s president.
“Ellen is genuine in all aspects of her life,” said John Broderick, the president of Old Dominion University, where Neufeldt worked for nearly a decade. “She is truly one of the most caring and committed people in higher education I have been around in my 30-plus years doing this. She has a remarkable way of connecting with people.”
Neufeldt’s uncanny ability to make everyone she comes in contact with feel at ease makes it that much more surprising to learn just how shy she was as a child in Cookeville, Tenn. It wasn’t until she was a first-year college student herself that she met people who helped her break out of that shell.
“The fact that people took time to make me feel comfortable and find my place in the world is something I want to do for everybody,” Neufeldt said.
Neufeldt is clearly doing just that at CSUSM. Her appointment as the university’s fourth president began July 1, just two months before the university marked the 30th anniversary of its founding. Less than six months into her tenure, she is already enlisting students, faculty, staff, alumni and community friends in developing a vision for the next three decades. That vision includes building on CSUSM’s mission of social mobility and student success; fostering a collaborative approach that positions the university as a national model for helping individuals throughout the student life cycle; continuing to build innovative academic programs that benefit all members of the campus community; promote innovation and see issues through a diverse lens; and a firm commitment to community-engaged learning by providing students with high-impact educational opportunities that prepare them with the knowledge, skills and values they need to thrive.
The energy and enthusiasm Neufeldt brings to her new job – and her drive to make that vision a reality – should come as no surprise. Higher education and a dedication to helping students fulfill their dreams is part of her DNA.
Growing up in higher ed
Neufeldt’s parents moved to the United States from Canada before she was born so her father could pursue a Ph.D. in history at Michigan State University. Neufeldt was born in Michigan, but grew up in Cookeville, about 75 miles east of Nashville. Her father was a faculty member at Tennessee Technological University, and her mother was an administrative assistant in the university’s College of Engineering.
Neufeldt’s parents had a profound influence on her passion for higher education – even if she didn’t always realize it while growing up. It wasn’t until she was an adult that Neufeldt fully appreciated the obstacles her parents overcame, from her father navigating the challenges of being a first-generation college student to her mother supporting the family at a time when women working outside the home wasn’t widely supported.
“I think becoming president at Cal State San Marcos really was another step in helping me to look back and understand that what they gave and what they did in their lives had such a great impact on mine,” she said. “I grew up in higher education, and very few had that privilege. I’m so grateful for the choices that they’ve made.”
Neufeldt received her bachelor’s from Tennessee Tech in business administration, marketing. Her first job out of college was as a management trainee for a department store chain. She quickly worked her way up to manager, which was an education in itself. Neufeldt had to master everything from the art of unloading trucks to fixing toilets. In the process, she learned important lessons about leadership and self-reliance.
It was while working for the department store chain that Neufeldt realized how much she missed higher education. She had attended nursery school on Tennessee Tech’s campus. She was around the university throughout elementary school. She used its libraries during high school. It was part of her identity. But now, after a lifetime spent around a university, she was living in communities where there were no colleges.
“I really began to understand what I had and what I had been given,” she said. “There was always knowledge flowing, whether we’re talking about cultural events or just new ideas. There’s something about being around a college campus that I had taken for granted after growing up as a part of it.”
The decision to pursue a career in higher education was solidified while she was managing a department store in Nashville. One of her former advisers from Tennessee Tech approached her about attending graduate school and working as a graduate assistant.
It was all the encouragement Neufeldt needed. She earned a master’s in educational psychology and counselor education from Tennessee Tech, but her plans to get a job in academia were derailed by a lean job market. Instead, she took a job as a crisis counselor.
Neufeldt may not have known it at the time, but the experience she gained managing people at the department store and working as a counselor helped shape her future in higher education.
A perfect fit
A university presidency wasn’t on Neufeldt’s radar when she was hired as the assistant dean of students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the mid-1990s. It was more than a decade later, when Neufeldt was the vice president for Student Affairs at Salisbury University in Maryland, that it was first mentioned. Salisbury’s president at the time, Janet Dudley-Eshbach, encouraged Neufeldt to consider the possibility.
Those conversations continued with Broderick at Old Dominion during Neufeldt’s eight-year stint at the Norfolk, Va., university. Neufeldt said Broderick was instrumental in her growth as a leader, and his guidance and mentorship continue to have a profound influence on her career.
Neufeldt served as the vice president for Student Engagement and Enrollment Services at Old Dominion, overseeing a budget of $70 million and a staff of nearly 400. The division was a major initiative for Broderick, who entrusted Neufeldt to direct its creation, development and coordination, and it gave Neufeldt the opportunity to pursue her passion for helping students succeed.
“Ellen wants to be engaged with students – with students across all aspects of campus,” Broderick said. “I don’t think anyone could ever say that they attempted to talk with her and she didn’t spend the necessary time to hold up her end of a two-way conversation.”
While Neufeldt’s myriad responsibilities prepared her well for a presidency, there were other aspects of Old Dominion that made her the right person to lead CSUSM into the next decade.
Old Dominion is a comprehensive public university that offers innovative academic programs. It is firmly committed to diversity and inclusiveness. It supports the social mobility of its students. It prioritizes community-engaged learning and has a far-reaching impact on its local economy.
“When Ellen realized she was going to have these opportunities to be considered for a presidency, she wanted to go to a school that resembled what we’re doing here in terms of serving first-generation students, not being afraid to work and help students, and embracing all learners,” Broderick said. “And I think she found a perfect fit. Plus, she found some pretty delightful weather, too.”
Weather aside, Old Dominion’s considerable similarities to CSUSM, coupled with Neufeldt’s experience and abilities, made her an ideal fit for the university’s presidential vacancy.
Neufeldt was even familiar with CSUSM from working with its first president, Bill Stacy, while he was the chancellor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Stacy told Neufeldt about the university’s history as a chicken ranch, which made it all the more astonishing for her to see what the campus has become when she visited for the first time in March.
CSUSM’s presidential search, like all California State University presidential searches, was confidential, and the finalists flew to Los Angeles in March to meet with the search committee. Neufeldt saw firsthand the passion committee members had for CSUSM’s mission and their pride over what had been built in less than three decades. After her interview, Neufeldt rented a car and drove 100 miles south to see for herself.
Neufeldt’s incognito visit occurred on the weekend, so campus was relatively quiet. Still, she avoided interacting with anyone to ensure that the search would remain confidential. But it wasn’t long before she would have an opportunity to connect with the campus community.
‘It’s about us’
On March 20, the CSU Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Neufeldt as CSUSM’s fourth president. Not long after, Old Dominion held an event where Neufeldt announced the news that she would be departing for Southern California.
“There were a lot of cheers,” Broderick said, “but there were also a lot of tears. To me, that kind of epitomizes Ellen’s stay here. Everybody was happy for her to get an opportunity to go lead a great institution. But, at the same time, everybody was a little sad that we were losing a good friend and colleague.”
Neufeldt has wasted no time in acclimating to her new home. She wasn’t even on campus two hours on her first day when she made a beeline for Science Hall 1 to meet students participating in CSUSM’s signature Summer Scholars research program. She hasn’t slowed down in her ongoing effort to learn about the campus and the people who make it unique. It isn’t uncommon to see Neufeldt walking across campus engaging with students or for her to pop into an office spontaneously to chat with a staff member.
Retired Marine Major General Anthony Jackson, CSUSM’s interim director of Veterans Services, learned that firsthand in September when Neufeldt made an unexpected visit to talk with members of his team.
The Veterans Services staff had been relocated three times during the summer while finishing touches were put on the newly expanded and renovated Epstein Family Veterans Center. The constant disruptions proved challenging, and Neufeldt wanted to acknowledge the difficulties they endured. The next day, when Jackson asked staff how it felt to have the president of the university stop by, they shared with him how much it meant that she understood what they had experienced.
Jackson was part of the presidential search committee that reviewed candidate applications and interviewed finalists. He was impressed throughout the hiring process, and the first months of Neufeldt’s tenure confirmed his belief that she was the right choice for CSUSM.
“She has those people skills that allow a leader to get out and be comfortable with any audience and be very honest with them,” Jackson said. “She is someone who can engage you with a smile, but you know when it comes time to make hard decisions that she is extremely capable of doing it in a very calm, cool, collected way.”
Among Neufeldt’s initial priorities has been a comprehensive Listening and Learning Tour to gain a better understanding of the people, roles and priorities of CSUSM, and to hear directly from campus and community constituents about the university’s strengths and challenges.
It’s all part of fulfilling her mission to ensure that every person has a voice.
“It's not about me,” Neufeldt said. “It’s about us and how we move this campus forward together.”