The academic, spiritual and ceremonial events celebrating the inauguration of President Lori E. Varlotta, PhD — delayed by the pandemic — were opportunities to restate her vision for the campus.
Cal Lutheran is transitioning to a future-focused, faith-based institution that celebrates diversity and academic excellence in ways that prioritize the Lutheran values of grace, generosity, inclusivity and service to neighbor, Varlotta said in an inaugural address. Here, students, faculty and staff alike are encouraged to explore and navigate the “messy middle” that lives between the two extremes on any spectrum.
By spotlighting and examining the “messy middle,” the 61-year-old university will help students hone the critical and creative thinking skills that are increasingly important in a world marked by extremist rhetoric and polarization.
“If we can block the construction of echo chambers, Cal Lutheran will stand apart from most of the universities — even the elite ones — that surround us,” said Varlotta, who began serving as president in September 2020.
Most of the inaugural events took place the week of Feb. 22-27 inside a large tent constructed on campus to keep the activities as safe as possible during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
The festivities kicked off to a fun start on Feb. 12 during a 5K Run/Walk with Varlotta that meandered through the Cal Lutheran campus. Over 150 runners and walkers participated, from folks running full force to families with strollers, said Varlotta, a dedicated runner.
Dozens of student volunteers along the route cheered on participants, played music and provided water. The football team created a tunnel for people to run through.
A Faculty/Staff Social with the president on Feb. 17 brought faculty and staff together for fun and camaraderie. Attendees were treated to food, drinks and entertainment, including giant Jenga and cornhole games.
Next up, from Feb. 22-24, was a nightly Celebration of Academic Excellence at Cal Lutheran. Fifteen faculty and two dozen graduate and undergraduate students presented academic research and scholarship on a range of topics. All of Cal Lutheran’s schools and programs were represented in fields as varied as chemistry, exercise science, psychology, and film and television.
Among the faculty making presentations were Lorena Muñoz, PhD, associate professor and program director for ethnic and race studies. She spoke on Cal Lutheran’s commitment to diversity, ethnicity and inclusion, and why ethnic and race studies programs matter. Michael Panesis, MBA, executive director of the Steven Dorfman Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, presented scholarship on “Liberal Starts: The Beneficial Relationship Between the Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship.”
Each night began with a display of posters demonstrating graduate and undergraduate research in students’ respective majors. The presentations demonstrated that research is taking place not only on campus, but also in labs and field work around the world, including Switzerland and Central America.
“You could choose your research project or your academic adventure, from very scientific and technical, to artistic and musical presentations,” said Regina Biddings-Muro, EdD, vice president of University Advancement, chair of the 14 subcommittees of faculty and staff who worked to bring the inaugural events, including the Academic Excellence Showcase, to fruition.
“Faculty and staff really showed up,” she said. “It’s really out of love for the institution and support for the mission. Yes, it’s about ushering in new leadership, but it’s also an opportunity for the university to showcase what an impressive place this is.”
Inaugural events wrapped up with a worship service — filled with personalized prayers and poems on Feb. 26 — and the installation ceremony the following day. Varlotta said she is grateful to those who planned and participated in the many activities, describing them as “the fruits of highly collective efforts.” Now she’s ready to use the collegial spirit and energy of inauguration to continue the forward momentum.
Since her arrival, she’s put in place a strategic- and master-planning process that will map out the university’s goals in the coming years, from expanding the physical campus to enhancing student and work experiences. She has created a robust DEI structure that works hand-in-hand with the university’s identity as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. And she worked on the committee to set up shared governance between the Regents and staff, with the first staff senate election just months away.
Carol Chung, MA, director of Graduate Admissions, praised Varlotta’s “charge to lead” during the inaugural events. “I saw Varlotta put in the work to make it happen,” Chung said of the addition of staff to shared governance. “I can personally say that her words are backed by her actions.”
Bringing Cal Lutheran to an even higher level of excellence will require all hands on deck, the president said in her inaugural address. And she’s not unaware of the task ahead as the world recovers from a global health crisis, social unrest and major disruptions to everyday life.
“At a moment in time when so many are reeling from the impact of a fractured world,” she said, “wouldn’t our current and prospective students and employees relish being part of a community that pulls together rather than polarizes?”
Catherine Saillant covered politics and government for the Los Angeles Times for 20 years. Prior to that she was a staff writer and covered higher education for the Ventura County Star. She’s now a freelance writer based in Newbury Park, California.