President Talks Response to, Recovery from Pandemic at Report to Community
By Brian Hiro
Not long after arriving at Cal State San Marcos in the summer of 2019 as the university’s fourth president, Ellen Neufeldt kicked off her Listening and Learning Tour.
It was Neufeldt’s way of combing a then-unfamiliar campus and discovering the many people and programs that make CSUSM the special place that it is. It was supposed to last for the entire academic year.
By March, of course, the world had devised a different plan. That was when the coronavirus began to affect the United States in earnest, and life as we know it began to change overnight. The physical campus shut down around the middle of that month.
Out the door went the remainder of the in-person Listening and Learning Tour. On a dime, CSUSM pivoted to remote instruction.
Almost a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic still governs much of the daily reality in higher education, though Neufeldt can find some levity in the situation.
“Of course, every new university president expects there will be challenges when accepting the job. But navigating a global pandemic? And nobody warned me about an impending economic crisis!” Neufeldt said Thursday morning. “I can tell you with confidence neither were on my list. I’ve now spent over half of my tenure at CSUSM as president to a primarily virtual campus.
“I, like you, have never spent so much time in my own home in my entire life.”
Neufeldt was speaking at her second, and CSUSM’s 17th, Report to the Community, an annual tradition in which the president spotlights the university’s achievements to a broad cross section of regional business, nonprofit, education and government leaders. Typically, the event is held before a crowd of several hundred attendees who congregate under a giant, enclosed tent on campus.
This year, because of the pandemic, CSUSM held its first virtual Report to the Community, though Neufeldt addressed the audience not from her home but from SEAS Productions, a Carlsbad event production company whose president, Zach Grant, is a CSUSM alumnus.
The overarching theme of her address was the pandemic – the many ways that CSUSM has responded to the crisis to keep serving its students and the community, and how the university will recover and confront a post-pandemic world.
“Despite the difficulties of this time, we continue to get up every morning with the same sense of purpose and mission,” Neufeldt said, “to be the engine of this region, partnering with you to solve our most pressing issues and preparing our students to be the leaders of our changing future.”
While Neufeldt spoke, dozens of community residents were lined up outside The Sports Center on CSUSM’s campus, waiting to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. On Sunday, CSUSM became one of only four San Diego County-operated “super stations” in the region, with the capacity to vaccinate as many as 5,000 people per day as the county’s supply increases. The super station host status is the outcome of a partnership with not only the county, but also Tri-City Medical Center, Palomar Health and UC San Diego Health.
Meanwhile, on the other side of campus Thursday, people continued to stream into the Viasat Engineering Pavilion, the location since August of a county-run COVID-19 testing site. Neufeldt said the testing center has served up to 2,500 individuals per day in its six months of existence, playing a critical role in the county’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“As an anchor institution of North County, contributing to the health and well-being of our region is a vital and foundational part of our mission,” she said. “We are grateful for the opportunity to serve our community.”
Neufeldt spotlighted other examples of the leadership and resolve that CSUSM displayed after the pandemic struck last spring. Faculty brought their courses online, with almost no advance notice, in a matter of days. Staff worked rapidly to ensure that students would have access to the services and resources they would need in a virtual setting, while also facing immediate challenges related to health and safety.
To celebrate its 2020 graduating class in the absence of a traditional commencement ceremony, CSUSM dreamed up a safe, creative event billed as Graduates on Parade, which attracted national media attention as one of the first graduation parades of its kind. And, last summer CSUSM became the first campus in the California State University system to win approval of its fall 2020 operation proposal.
“People at every level of this university went beyond the call of duty, raised their hands to volunteer, and stepped up when the moment called for it,” Neufeldt said.
Looking ahead to the next academic year, Neufeldt reiterated the university’s intention to return to campus on a modified basis this fall. CSUSM is working through various repopulation scenarios, with several different committees established to deal with the many issues involved in going back to an in-person university.
In other highlights from Neufeldt’s speech:
More project-based learning practices are planned for the fall based on the success of the electrical engineering program, which switched to a laboratory-at-home mode soon after the campus shutdown that allowed students to conduct experiments and complete extra projects in their own residences.
Patricia Prado-Olmos, CSUSM’s chief community engagement officer, and Jim Hamerly, dean of the College of Business Administration, will chair a new economic development committee that will examine how the university furthers its commitment to the region’s inclusive growth and economic recovery. Prado-Olmos also will organize a summit on the topic in partnership with the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, MiraCosta College and the San Diego Community College District.
This spring, CSUSM’s new Innovation Hub will launch a pilot program in which a team of students will develop concepts and technologies for the U.S. Department of Defense.
The University Library is conceptualizing a makerspace that would provide tools allowing community members to enter with an idea and leave with a prototype or project.
CSUSM will hold forums this spring to gather campus input on the university’s strategic planning process that started last fall as it reached 30 years of serving students and the region.
The Innovation Hub last fall hosted a San Diego Regional EDC virtual conference focused on innovating for a diverse and inclusive workforce. Data was revealed during the conference showing that, by 2030, North County will need 20,000 additional skilled workers for top occupations and 42% of all new jobs will require a degree or credential, but that countywide only 39% of people ages 25 and older have graduated with at least a bachelor’s degree.
“Of those, people of color are disproportionately underrepresented. But not here at Cal State San Marcos,” said Neufeldt, pointing to CSUSM’s percentage of students who are first-generation (55) and Latinx (about 42). “We play a critical role in offering the people of our region access to social mobility via an affordable, quality education.”
Report to the Community was emceed by Scotty Lombardi, senior manager of global talent management for Hunter Industries and a member of CSUSM’s University Council. Two accolades were handed out before Neufeldt’s remarks: the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency received the CSUSM Community Partner of the Year Award, and Javier Guerrero received the Fran Aleshire Leadership Award, given to an outstanding regional leader who reflects the spirit and character of the late Fran Aleshire, who designed the program that’s now called Leadership North County. Guerrero is the president and CEO of Coastal Roots Farm in Encinitas.
Lombardi praised Neufeldt’s stewardship of CSUSM.
“Each day, President Neufeldt works toward making CSUSM a national model for guiding students throughout the student life cycle so that they become engaged and active alumni in the community while fueling the needs of our region,” he said.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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