President Lays Out Her Vision in First Report to the Community
By Brian Hiro
One of the first calls Ellen Neufeldt made last summer when she learned that she had been appointed the new president of Cal State San Marcos was to the university’s first president, Bill Stacy.
Neufeldt happened to know Stacy already, as their paths crossed when both were leaders at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. They talked about how special CSUSM is, and Stacy shared his memory of visiting the site of the future campus back in 1989.
Recently, more than six months into Neufeldt’s tenure and 30 years after the university’s founding, Stacy called his longtime friend this time. Neufeldt told him that she knows she’s standing on the shoulders of giants – not only Stacy himself but fellow former presidents Alexander Gonzalez and Karen Haynes.
“Over the last three decades, our university has discovered and honed its voice, its place, its mission,” Neufeldt said Thursday morning. “Now it’s time to ask: What do we want the next 30 years to look like?”
Neufeldt was speaking at her first, and CSUSM’s 16th, 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 leadership. The sold-out event this year featured nearly 600 attendees.
Because it was her inaugural Report to the Community, Neufeldt not only reflected on the many things she has discovered as part of her ongoing Listening and Learning Tour, she also laid out her vision for CSUSM as it moves forward into the next stage of its evolution.
“This semester, we will begin a university-wide strategic planning process, and I want you – our community – to be a part of helping us envision and lay the groundwork for our next 30 years,” she said.
Touching on her background as the daughter of parents who worked in higher education and a father who was a first-generation college student, Neufeldt emphasized her lifelong focus on student success, “from first point of contact to graduation day and beyond.”
She reinforced the importance of diversity, inclusion and social mobility, pointing proudly to a 2019 ranking in which CSUSM placed 36th out of almost 1,500 schools nationally in the Social Mobility Index by CollegeNET.
“This means we are one of the top universities in the country when it comes to educating more low-income students at a lower tuition and graduating them into good-paying jobs, prepared to lead in the world of tomorrow,” Neufeldt said.
Fitting in a speech to vital community partners, Neufeldt highlighted the necessity of community-engaged learning centered on mutually beneficial collaboration between students and partners. Last academic year, she noted, CSUSM facilitated more than 2,600 community-engaged learning opportunities at over 500 community businesses and organizations.
“Based on what I’ve observed and heard,” she said, “I think this campus is second to none in this kind of out-of-classroom learning experiences we are providing our students.”
Innovation has been one of Neufeldt’s main pillars since she arrived last summer, and she discussed Thursday the progress that already has been made in that area. A faculty committee led by professors Chuck De Leone and Sharon Hamill has submitted a report highlighting existing examples of innovation and entrepreneurship on campus and proposing ways to use an innovation hub that will be located in the new Extended Learning Building.
“While we aren’t the first to establish an innovation hub or to think about how we can teach our students to be innovative and socially aware, we are among the first in the nation to consider how we might launch something of this nature at the intersection of inclusion, diversity and student success,” Neufeldt said.
One place where innovation will occur is in the Viasat Engineering Pavilion, which will officially open next month following a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Looking forward to a day when CSUSM will have outgrown that space, Neufeldt said the university is envisioning an Integrated Science and Engineering building to expand current programs and ultimately add other engineering disciplines.
“To make this dream a reality,” she said, “we are going to need additional philanthropic support.”
Neufeldt did not shy away from tough topics in her report. Addressing a series of articles in the San Diego Union-Tribune alleging improper travel spending by several CSUSM employees, she said she requested an independent investigation from the CSU Chancellor’s Office and began a comprehensive review of travel expenditures at the university. She said CSUSM is adding both personnel and technology resources, and has updated its travel policies and guidelines with new training to ensure that employees have the best tools and information available.
While saying that the vast majority of CSUSM employees have made the right choices, Neufeldt said she saw rare cases that are “simply wrong and inexcusable” and she vowed full transparency when the CSU’s investigation and the internal review are complete.
“We will be transparent,” Neufeldt said. “We will grow and improve. We will do right by our students and our community. And please understand, I’m not holding myself separate from this matter.
“But, as president of this university, I’m not going to let this moment define how we partner with you nor define how we support our students.”
Before Neufeldt’s remarks, some of CSUSM’s longtime community partners shared their impressions and reflections on welcoming the new president. Malin Burnham, one of San Diego’s most notable business and community leaders, harkened back to his days as a founding supporter when the university was established in 1989.
“Three decades later, I continue to be impressed by the caliber of CSUSM students and their commitment to community,” Burnham said. “I couldn’t be more pleased to see how President Neufeldt is working each day to ensure that those values and that culture continue to grow and thrive under her leadership.”
Raye Clendening, president of the North County African American Women’s Association, said she was struck by Neufeldt’s commitment to student success and social mobility from the moment she met her last fall.
“She has a deep understanding of the unique challenges that so many young people face,” Clendening said, “and it is inspiring to see her persistent determination to ensure that any student who dreams of earning a college degree has that opportunity.”
Adam Day, chair of the California State University Board of Trustees, talked about the “extremely competitive” search process that led to Neufeldt’s appointment, adding that the board was “awed and inspired” by her reputation, personality, focus and determination.
“She hit the ground running, with not a moment to breathe before she was faced with a challenge or two,” Day said. “As her boss, I could not be more proud and pleased with how she has grabbed the bull by the horns, addressing matters that had the potential to shake confidence in a reputable institution in a transparent and honest manner.”
Also at Report to the Community, CSUSM honored three community partners. Michelle Mullen, executive vice president of AVID Center, a global education nonprofit, 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.
The inaugural CSUSM President’s Award for Community Partners of the Year went to North City and the City of San Marcos.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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