The newfound sight at Saddleback College

One-on-one with new president, Dr. Elliot Stern. Will his immediate vision clean up the past?

President Dr. Elliot Stern on the campus quad. Credit: Nik Lamas-Richie     

As editor-in-chief of the Lariat, I was critical of the campus direction and the messaging from Saddleback College president Dr. Elliot Stern. On Oct. 11, Stern sent out his President’s Update email to colleagues and faculty. He painted a grand vision of the future. However, it lacked the inclusion of fixes for current student surroundings.

The following week, my opinion piece which was published for six hours and later pulled from found its way to Stern’s desk – leading to an ensuing President’s Update, on Oct. 18, giving merit and resolution to the article.

I decided to publish his emailed response on the back page of the Oct. 25 print edition of the Lariat. This opened a dialogue as Stern accepted my request for a sit-down Q&A.

On Thursday, Oct. 31, a scheduled thirty-minute interview with Stern ended up lasting over an hour. He left no stone unturned, addressing students and faculty questions without any hesitation. There was a passion of care in his voice as he tackled a majority of issues – from lack of parking, faculty terminations, enrollment shortcomings, stadium decisions, and more.

You stated in a President’s Update on Sept. 20, “We are the Ritz-Carlton of community colleges.” Was that a joke or do you believe that?

I mean the Ritz-Carlton of community colleges from the depth of my heart and with all full earnestness and sincerity. That is what I strive to be, to be high service, high touch service, to make every student feel like they are going to Harvard in terms of the service they experience and the support they experience. Not just what happens, but how you feel in the experience.

One of the main issues I had concerns with is immediate vision. What does next semester look like? [What is] The comfort level of the current student at large, especially when it comes to parking and outdated facilities.

The gravel lots will be gone. This is the last year you will ever see gravel lots. We spray them to keep dust control down with petroleum-based material, it’s the only thing you can do, and it tore at my heart to allow us to do that, so I said this is the last time we are ever going to do it. FMO, facilities maintenance operations, has to make decisions this year, before the end of the academic year which lots to be paved and become permanent, which lots will be landscaped and returned to some sense of proper esthetics and we won’t have gravel lots anymore, the gravel lots will be gone.

Stern was very adamant that there wasn’t an actual parking issue. He claimed that the issue at hand was a logistical dilemma for students and not a capacity issue.

Now to address the larger parking issues, I’m very aware of the parking issues and what we did very carefully and methodically during the first few days of the semester is do we have a capacity issue or a logistics issue. A capacity issue would be, do the parking lots fill up, and people can’t find parking on our campus. The good news there is, no. We had additional capacity beyond what our student demand was, and with changing enrollment, we do 30% of our enrollment online now, so there are fewer students taking classes, we really shouldn’t have an issue with that at all. But we have a logistical problem, students want to park close to their class, and they can’t.

A parking structure costs as much as a building, and right now, we need new educational buildings more than we need a parking structure, no, it’s not an option.

Stern did offer three solutions to alleviate to parking problem on campus:

  • One of the things we are trying to identify is whether we could do some sort of incentive for students who are willing to park further away. So would one of the furthers lots that’s the least convenient, carry a lower parking fee per semester, for instance. Something to create an incentive that allows you to save money.
  • The second thing we need to do is create a more pedestrian and bike-friendly campus. Like much of Orange County, if you try to walk between any two places, that walkway will likely disappear on you. You may end up walking on grass. That’s crazy, so we must have the walkways and wayfinding.
  • And third, with that, we must have bicycle racks and ways to encourage bicycles. If you look at other universities you will see people walking long distances or riding their bikes, we don’t have it, it’s not our culture of Orange County, and I get that, I am from Detroit, it’s the same culture I came from. You drive from one strip mall to the next strip mall. But the reality is we can’t live that way, it’s not environmentally sustainable, and we don’t have any more room to build more parking lots, but I think new buildings will move people around in terms of where they are going to be on our campus so it won’t be quite as centralized as it is right now and that will help diffuse some of that logistical problem in parking.

Why not build a parking structure?

A parking structure costs as much as a building, and right now, we need new educational buildings more than we need a parking structure, no, it’s not an option.

The old Science / Mathematics / Engineering building at Saddleback College. Credit: Nik Lamas-Richie

What is your short-term modern vision for Saddleback? 

So my vision for the semester if you will, is that we are making baby steps towards some of that long-term vision. In terms of construction projects, in terms of beautification of the campus, in terms of enrollment goals, budget goals. So my vision of the next semester, of the hundred or so projects and initiatives on this campus, some will come to completion, some will get started, some will move from step three to step four on the work plan of what we are doing.

It’s not very sexy, but it’s really what a short-term vision is for someone who is concerned about making things happen. Like I said, it’s not flowery. If you ask for a short term vision, it’s usually what are the steps that will get us to the bigger vision down the road.

Some might be further along that will wrap up next semester and some of the things that will start next semester. In terms of construction projects – six major construction projects in the next six years.

  • The next semester certainly by summer, we should open our stadium, our stadium should be completed.
  • The second project, which is our new advanced technology and applied science building, which is going to be where the tennis courts are right now, we will probably break ground and have a contractor in place.
  • Our third project, which is our new student onboarding center called the Gateway building. That project will move into the state for DSA (state architects) approval.

Somethings that I hope will start next semester.

  • We are starting some of the equity work we are doing. That is focusing where we have achievement gaps for students from underrepresented populations and creating a committee structure at a hierarchy, and a shared govern structure that will start doing some of the work. My vision is that we will narrow or close those achievement gaps for students from underrepresented populations. The vision for next semester is we will take the first step toward doing that, which is creating a committee structure and assured governance for doing it.
  • My access control system. If you turn around at the door, it was just installed last night [Oct. 30], by March, we will have installed the full access control system. An 11-million-dollar system, so in the event of an active shooter scenario, with one button at our police station or the Mission Viejo police station, we can lock down the entire campus. No one must lock their doors individually. So that’s huge, and that’s a benefit to students in terms of safety.
  • By Thanksgiving, we will be planting trees out on the quad. By next semester we should see the next phase of the campus beautification project, which includes mostly quad work; we are focusing on that as the core, but you will also see improvements in landscaping.
  • You will see a couple of the buildings that are in the worst shape get painted; we are going to go out for contracts on that because we can’t even manage all the painting we have internally. We have two painters on our campus; one is out on medical leave. So we have one painter on our campus.

So students should start to see some re-beautification of this campus back to its historical roots, even in the time they are here, even if that ends this year.

October 2, 2019 — The current status of Gaucho Stadium. Nik Richie/Lariat

The elephant in the room, or in this case, the elephant on campus, is the 62 million dollar stadium, which is already over budget from the 55 million dollars allotted for construction. Breaking ground on this monumental sports ground was made in 2018, with the football team not having played at Saddleback College Stadium since 2016. Stern, who retained his post in 2019, had mixed feelings regarding the stadium.

I want to be frank and honest; the decision to make and create the stadium when it was made may not have been the decision I would make today.

Where does the 62 million dollars come from?

We have operational dollars, that’s our overall budget what we spend on salaries, that is 93% of our operational budget is salaries and benefits. That comes from a combination of student fees but mostly from taxpayer dollars from our local district.

Then there is capital money, almost all the capital money comes from taxpayer dollars, the stadium comes from capital money, nothing from the stadium takes away from our general operating budget because that is allocated under a formula and we don’t get a dollar more or a dollar less than the formula says and not a dollar of that goes toward the stadium in this case.

Although there was a concern for a while that if there were any more overruns it would actually have to come from our general operating budget and we put the kibosh on any overruns that would have allowed that.

What’s the recoupment period for the stadium?

Infinity, it will not happen. But I want to point out it’s not about financial recoupment when we do things like a stadium. For me, what a stadium does, it builds more community. If we have a stadium, students are more likely to get involved and be part of something bigger than themselves.

I want to be frank and honest; the decision to make and create the stadium when it was made may not have been the decision I would make today.

And it may not have been the decision those leaders would have made today when we have so many other educational buildings in disrepair. To be fair, that decision to invest in a stadium many years ago was made before the old applied science building, the one next to health sciences was condemned for seismic concerns.

Stern circles back:

One more thing I want to say about the stadium in terms of recoupment. We will recoup some of the cost, but this is not a return on investment, so we do have a naming committee who are trying to identify naming partners that might be willing to name the stadium for a fee. It’s a possibility for us; I have to say it’s never going to come close to the cost of the project because we are a community college at the end of the day.

We are not the University of Michigan; we are not going to get a major company to name our stadium. The other thing is, we will have facilities rented, for instance, there are small private high school in our area that don’t have their own football stadium, they will be able to rent our stadium, and we charge them rent that will help offset the cost of that stadium, but by no means and I going to sit across from you and tell you we are going to recoup those costs.

That’s not going to happen. This is an investment in our community; that’s the biggest part of the investment. Not about a financial investment.

What would you have done instead?

It would have been another building. When we are talking about 50, 60 million, it would have been a building. Not with the circumstances, I have today with an abandoned building on campus, with another building that’s two-thirds abandoned, that’s the old math and science with pieces of the facade falling off.

Not when we are trying to expand and build a new campus in Tustin to expand our reach where most of our industry partners are, up in the north part of South Orange County. So under those circumstances, 5, 6, 10 years ago. No, I wouldn’t have done a stadium first, but those folks had different circumstances, so they made different decisions.

President Dr. Elliot Stern on the campus quad. Credit: Nik Lamas-Richie

You’ve taken on a huge responsibility considering the debt placed on your shoulders. Did you think the college over-hired or overspent before you got here? The college has released some senior employees and managers. Was this because of the debt issue, and are there more faculty layoffs to come?

I knew that the college had debt when I came to it, I knew there was a budget crunch and a budget deficit that I would be charged with fixing. There was a target of enrollment that was never realized, so it was ambitious, it was- we will build it from the ground up, we will hire more people, we will offer more classes, and we will, therefore, attract more people. And that’s not necessarily the best philosophy to have in managing a college, but to be fair, there were three short term presidents before I came on board.

So I think people did the best they could with the situation and knew there would be a long term permanent President coming and then I arrived, and they said hey now you have this deficit and it’s yours to deal with and I took it on readily.

Yes, we separated some folks from the college, but I think that understates the number of people we have separated from this college. Allow me to explain, we separated five permanent administrators from the college but long before that big announcement and that discrete event, we have been cutting sections of classes to become more efficient.

So if we were running thirty sections of English 1A and we had 90% fill rates on all of them, we figured out, guess what we could eliminate three of those sections and fill the class and be more productive, give every student the class they needed, but guess what, there were three faculty members who lost their gigs.

The unspoken victims in budget crunches in higher ed are adjunct faculty cause full-time faculty will always get their load, they are guaranteed their load, but it’s the adjuncts who lose their classes. And if an adjunct is teaching a 50% load for us, it might be two classes, and they lose one, guess what, your salary or income just went down by half at Saddleback College. It’s a huge impact that no one ever talks about, but that’s the first folks who are sacrificed when colleges begin to trim their sales a bit.

So there are no layoffs planned at this college.

So yes, there were five managers that were separated from the college. Yes, there were adjunct facility separated from the college, the five folks who were separated were managers. We have not eliminated classified positions or full-time faculty positions, but what we are doing is taking longer and being more deliberative when we have an open position before we replace it. So we are freezing positions where we are not sure of what’s happening, or we are going to try to save some money for a while until we figure out what we want to do and this means hits are being taken all across campus in terms of other people being asked to pick up that workload while we are reorganizing.

So there are no layoffs planned at this college. There are no more of those discrete separations where we let five managers go. We have come up with a budget fix where we think gets us where we need to go.

When I started ten months ago, we were projecting a three and half-million-dollar deficit last year. With significant and minor budget changes, we ended up putting two and a half million dollars into reserves. We actually ran a surplus, we overshot it a little bit, but we needed that because the tougher years are ahead.

This year, maybe even a few months ago we were projecting a deficit of about three million dollars that was before we separated the five folks and made some other changes, we are now projecting that we will hopefully be close to zero deficit, maybe around a million dollars or so in deficit. Next year and the year after we still must tackle those, we are still projecting deficits.

When inquired again if more jobs will be sacrificed at Saddleback College, Stern asserted:

We need to keep making cuts and finding ways to be more efficient to save money along the way, but I think we have a way of doing that. So far, we are on target in meeting that goal without any layoffs, without any additional full-time folks losing their jobs.

Another concern facing Stern’s intended legacy at Saddleback is the issue of enrollment. In California and nationally, community college enrollment has been on the decline; this includes Saddleback. I asked Stern – “Why do you think fewer students are attending Saddleback?” Stern provided a very long-winded response.

Enrollment is an economic problem.

So we actually have an enrollment increase this year so far, we are actually up 1%. Which is a goal we set shortly after I started and we are on target to achieve it by some little tweaks to things that are starting to make a difference, more things will kick in the next year or two, and the goals, therefore, are increasing. We are expecting a 2% increase next year and a 3% increase the year after that.

Up until now, it’s that enrollment wasn’t declining per se, overall enrollment has actually been flat. The change in our enrollment that is impacting us negatively in a financial sense is that more of that enrollment has shifted to things like the Emeritus program; where under the state funding formula we don’t get the same allocation of resources per student that we do for a student who is taking credit-bearing classes. It feels like an enrollment problem, but it’s really the nature of our enrollment that has changed, not overall enrollment.

And I have to say, being flat in the last five or six years and growing this year that’s pretty exceptional across the country for community colleges and in the state of California. When the economy is strongest fewer people are applying to colleges and going to college. The good jobs pull them away; it’s essentially a pull force away from college. They come back in a recession, if we ever get a recession in the next few years, one of the things we need to think about so we are not short term, and myopic is how are we going to handle all that additional enrollment that is going to come our way?

Stern closed with a heartfelt message for students and wanted everyone on campus to understand the “buck stops with me,” if you have a problem, Stern will solve it.

I think my job is to create a sense of culture and the culture that I hope we accomplish each semester in baby steps and overall in the years is a community of belonging, which means not only every student who attends here feels like they belong here, and it’s their right and we are here to support them. We want them to be successful and to feel that.