CSUMB Incoming Interim President Dr. Eduardo M. Ochoa Speaks
May 29, 2012
It was announced today that Dr. Eduardo M. Ochoa, U.S. assistant secretary for post-secondary education in President Obama’s Department of Education, will step in as interim president of California State University Monterey Bay in place of vacating president Dianne Harrison, who has accepted the top post at CSU Northridge.
Born in Argentina and educated in the U.S. at Reed College in Oregon (master’s degree in physics), Columbia University in New York (master’s in nuclear science and engineering) and the New School for Social Research (Ph.D. in economics), Ochoa went on to a varied career in academia in California as, among other posts, a lecturer at Fresno State, professor at CSU Los Angeles, where he was chair of the economics and statistics department, and dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Business Administration.
In February of 2010, he was named assistant secretary for post-secondary education by President Barack Obama, where he was in charge of nearly $3 billion dollars of federal money that funded more than 60 programs in higher education, including financial aid, teacher development and student retention. He attributes his return to the California State University system to timing and desire.
"I stayed in touch with [CSU] Chancellor Charles Reed and other folks in the CSU and they were aware I was interested in coming back," he says. "When President Harrison was selected for [CSU] Northridge, Dr. Reed called me."
He says that the lure of California was compelling for several reasons, some personal:
"I liked California from a long time ago. When my parents immigrated to the U.S., the place we went to was Portland [Oregon]. When I was still in high school, my family took long road trip to Los Angeles and back so we got to ride down Highway 1, through San Francisco, down the coast. I fell in love with the state."
And some practical and informed:
"I think people agree that California is really a bellwether for the country, both in good ways and bad ways. I think we have some challenges that, if we can solve, we can show the way forward to the rest of the country."
His brief stint in Washington, DC, was instructive, offering him a valuable outside perspective of his adopted state.
"I need to mention," he interjected, "having spent the last two years in DC, it gives you another perspective. [The CSU system] is very highly regarded across the country, seen as a leader. The way CSU has addressed the problem of students that come to college under-prepared, through assessing how well schools of education are preparing teachers, diagnostics about what parts worked well and what parts are weak, the graduation initiative that the Chancellor spearheaded—all are seen as exemplary and best practice for other states to follow."
He's had brief brushes with CSU Monterey Bay in the past: When CSUMB was developing a "cornerstone system-wide plan" and hosted officials from the other CSUs; most recently was a meeting of system-wide provosts during his last year as provost at Sonomoa State; and a number of times in between.
"You don't spend 29 years in CSU without becoming acquainted with each of the campuses."
Some of the things he says he admires about CSU Monterey Bay include its marine biology department program, its innovation and interdisciplinary approach, fidelity to sustainability, community outreach, and global and international "synergies," which touched on another topic central to California and to Ochoa: diversity.
"Let me make this point," he said in a barely perceptible Argentine accent. "As an immigrant, I was brought up in another culture. I found that being bi-cultural gives you anther perspective on your own culture. It puts your culture in perspective—what's universal, what's unique. It broadens your outlook. It can increase your empathy, enriches your life. As a society, having the diversity we have in this country is a great strength in dealing with the rest of world.
"As a country, we're not defined by a single ethnicity. We're defined as an idea. A free, democratic society. That's what connects us all across all these different cultures. Having that diversity, we have all these bridges that connect us to populations across the world to deal with the global society of the future."
He defers mentioning specifics—to a degree—about what his goals and plans at CSUMB might look like until after he's met and spoken with campus leaders like the school's provost Dr. Kathryn Cruz-Uribe, the Academic Senate and student leaders, in addition to Chancellor Reed, who recently announced his retirement after 14 years. But he knows the issues he's stepping up to and says that he would be "interested" in keeping the post in a more permanent capacity.
"The financial picture in California is going to be the big issue, how to cope with those challenges," he says. "There are a number of things. All of them have to be tackled. Statewide, the entire CSU community needs to communicate to the legislature and to the public how valuable the CSU contribution is to the public and how short-sighted it would be to divest the state's investment in its future capital."
He addressed a strategy presentation found on the Chancellor's website that spelled out contingency plans in the event that Governor Brown's tax proposal doesn't pass, calling some of the measures "Draconian," though he seemed resigned that some of the contingencies may have to come to pass.
"The campus may need to look for alternatives to state support, including private donations from the community, and ways to accomplish our mission more efficiently," he says.
Asked if increased efficiency translates to school closures or mergers, he says, "The list included campus closures. I don't see that happening with CSU Monterey Bay. It's a very well run campus. My guess is that for campus closures, theoretically, [CSUMB] would certainly not be the first one the system would turn to."
Ochoa is due to begin his new job at CSUMB on July 16. Asked if he had conferred with Monterey-born Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who was instrumental in locating CSU Monterey Bay on the former Fort Ord and who also worked with Chancellor Reed, Ochoa said that he has thus far only had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Maryland with him while they both worked under President Obama.
"I'm going to see if I can meet with him before I leave."