President Michael Ortiz is a difference-maker. As the top administrator, he successfully led the $150-million comprehensive campaign, guided the university through the depths of the recession, and oversaw an expansion and modernization of the physical campus.
Ortiz’s legacy, however, will not be found solely in finances and buildings. His true legacy at Cal Poly Pomona is represented in every conversation, greeting and handshake. The long list of achievements and accolades aside, Ortiz’s legacy lies in the people he worked with and served.
I grew up in Carrizozo, New Mexico, a town of 1,500 people and a high school graduating class of 34. Carrizozo has a railroad track running through the middle of it. On one side is where the Latinos live, and the other side of the railroad track the Anglos live. Because I went to the Catholic school on the Hispanic side of town, they put me in the general track in high school, rather than the college prep track. After two weeks of high school, a math teacher named Basil Lawson pulled me aside and said, “You’re in the wrong track. I’m going to put you in the college prep track.” He did, and that transformed the rest of my life.
A similar thing happened after I graduated from the University of New Mexico. My background is special education, and I was teaching severely emotionally disturbed and behaviorally disordered children. I got a phone call from one of the professors who had been on my master’s committee. He said, “I have a position available. How would you like to work for me?” I said, “I can’t work for you. I’ve got these kids depending on me. It’s the middle of the year. I can’t just get up and leave.” He asked a question that changed my life. He said, “Just think of how many more kids you could have an impact on if you could teach 25 people to do what you do.” That made a lot of sense. I resigned from my position at Albuquerque Public Schools on a Friday, packed everything I owned into my car and drove cross country to Boone, North Carolina. I taught in my first college class the following Wednesday at Appalachian State University.
Formally and informally, Ortiz is an agent of change as an administrator and mentor for thousands of students. As president of Cal Poly Pomona, he’s advocated for expanding access to higher education and support for students from all backgrounds, helped maintain high academic standards, and encouraged faculty research and scholarship. Ortiz is also a leader on the national level, serving on boards and committees on a variety of issues, including diversity, access to education, sustainability and economic and workforce development. On a personal level, he mentors individual students, supports faculty, and is deeply appreciative of the work of the staff and faculty.
Biology Professor Jill Adler-Moore sees Ortiz’s support whenever she advises her research students or mentors them on their career path. Without full administrative support from the top, she says, the programs that support underrepresented minorities could not get off the ground.
“Whenever I need any kind of official support, President Ortiz has been there. He never hesitates. It’s not just speaking positively about science, it’s actually putting his influence to help promote science on campus,” Adler-Moore says. “This isn’t lip service. He really uses his influence to make sure our campus is giving underrepresented students an opportunity to use their potential and expertise.”
Even his attendance at research symposiums or award presentations is a signal to students that he cares about their education and that they too can be successful.
“Because President Ortiz is from an underrepresented minority, he is a role model. When you see somebody like that as the president of a university, it’s very encouraging to the students. Role models are really important,” Adler-Moore says.
Alumna Claudia Cervantes, who worked in the president’s office when she was a student, says Ortiz was there for her at a crossroad in her life. She was considering an internship with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., but was nervous about leaving her family and being on her own for the first time.
“I had never been outside California,” she says. “Dr. Ortiz was the one who was pushing me. I didn’t want to take the internship in D.C. because I was afraid. … ‘You’re not going to regret it,’ he said. He gave me the courage to take the opportunity to travel across the country.
“He told me, ‘When you’re a Latina or Mexican or a minority, it’s not just about you. It’s about the people who come after you. Just think about the people you can help when you go beyond your bachelor’s and credential and get your master’s.’”
Cervantes’ summer internship turned into a two-year position with the Department of Education and the U.S. Census Bureau. Now teaching English to children in Japan, Cervantes has set her sights on a doctoral degree in education or political science.
“Dr. Ortiz’s advice stayed with me. Whenever I’m tired, I remember it’s not just for me, it’s not just about me. I think about my little sister and all the English learner students I’ve worked with when I was substituting. I also think about my nieces and nephews.”
We lost so many staff. But the people who stayed worked twice as hard, three times as hard to make sure that what they had worked for in the past was not going to be sucked up by this. … I have a great deal of respect for the people on this campus. They love this place and they were going to make sure we didn’t go down because resources were being cut.
There are so few things that you can do to apply positive feedback other than stepping up to them and saying, “You’ve really done a nice job. Thank you.” The fact that you’re noticing what they’ve done is a huge benefit. They deserve to know how much they’re doing and how well they’re doing it.
Since the Great Recession a few years ago, the California State University system experienced $1 billion in state budget cuts, raised tuition fees by nearly $600 million, and saw fixed costs increase by $135 million. Cal Poly Pomona was not immune to the cuts, with $47 million in state funding slashed from 2006 to 2013. The university enacted strict controls on spending, travel and hiring, and the CSU mandated furloughs for employees.
Through it all, Ortiz maintained two priorities: protect employee jobs and maintain the quality of the academic experience. It was by no means an easy message to deliver to the campus, says Ed Barnes, who served as vice president for administrative affairs and chief financial officer during that time, but Ortiz used his relationship skills to bring the campus community together.
“It’s a hard sell to tell students that their fees are going up because of the budget cuts, to tell faculty that there won’t be any raises, and to tell staff that we won’t be able to fill the jobs of those who have left or retired,” Barnes says. “He was able to do that with his personable and outgoing style, and demonstrate to everybody that we’re all in this together and we’re going to survive. And we did. Coming out of recession, we’re a lot smarter.”
The recession and budget cuts weren’t the only challenges during Ortiz’s presidency. One of the most visible and memorable student protests took place in 2007, during the inaugural summit of the university’s National Development Council (NDC), a group of influential business leaders from across the country.
Waving signs and blowing whistles, hundreds of angry students rallied about the shortage of classes in the College of Science. The college overhauled its budget and scheduling, drastically reducing the number of class being offered. Protesters followed the president from one meeting to another, culminating in a large demonstration in front of his home, the Manor House, which happened to be the site of the NDC evening event.
I was not in town [when the protests began]. I was coming back and I got a phone call that this was going on here. I resolved the financial issue quite quickly. I said, “There are classes that need to be offered, and we will offer the classes.” When I got home and saw the protesters there, I indicated that it had been resolved.
I have to tell you, though, that even this situation showed the character of the university. The gate to the Manor House was a barrier they did not cross. The protesters stayed on that side of the gate. They were in the street, in the grass, around the engineering building. They were everywhere except they did not cross the gate into the Manor House.
When I got into the NDC meeting, I found that the vast majority of the guests were so pleased that the students cared about something important and that was getting their classes and getting their education. That just fired them up. They were pumped. I thought they were going to go out and protest.
The most difficult and heartbreaking role of a president is dealing with the death of a student. In all, four students died on campus during Ortiz’s tenure, and he deeply feels the loss of each. Although his role as president calls for following protocol in these situations, Ortiz explains that he can’t help but take it personally.
They send children in your trust and you fail them. It’s the toughest thing…
Building the Future
Talking to people about supporting Cal Poly Pomona was one thing that was easy.
Generally, the people who we went to knew who we were. They had shown support for the campus but now needed to know where we were going and how they could get involved. People were confident in that whatever we did with the money we raised was also going to elevate the institution to a level of which they could continue to be proud.
In June, the university celebrated raising $160 million from its first comprehensive campaign. It was an enormous accomplishment, especially since the effort began in the midst of the financial crisis.
While the task was daunting, Ortiz was always confident about reaching the goal.
Michelle Stoddard, acting vice president for university advancement, says President and Mrs. Ortiz’s genuine love for Cal Poly Pomona made all the difference.
“Dr. and Mrs. Ortiz have always been very generous about welcoming guests to their home, whether it’s for a special donor, a special friend of the university, events like Founders’ Society, a recognition dinner, or celebrating accomplishments,” Stoddard says. “Although [the Manor House] is on campus, it’s also their private home. For them to be so welcoming and warm, I believe it speaks of their character.”
The most significant gift was a record-breaking $42 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, providing Ortiz and his successors about $2 million annually to enrich the educational experience. In addition, the campaign raised more than $11 million for student scholarships and added over $76 million to the endowment, which will allow the university to thrive even during tough times.
The campaign, as well as the university’s 75th anniversary celebrations this past academic year, reaffirmed Ortiz’s long-held belief about the campus community: Pride.
Our students and alumni have a tremendous amount of pride in the institution and how it’s maintained its outstanding academic status. People are very proud when they say, “I went to Cal Poly Pomona.” That’s something you can’t buy. That’s something that just exudes.
The People’s President
My father said, “Always treat people the way you would like to be treated.” Being someone who respects faculty, who respects staff and in turn draws a lot of respect is important to me. I spend a lot of time with people. It’s important. I need to know more about people than who they are and where they work.
When you have the opportunity and the ability to communicate with people, there is very seldom a win-lose situation. There are always a bunch of little wins and a bunch of little losses. If you can point out the wins on both sides of the discussion, then the discussion changes. Let’s focus on how we can magnify those wins.
From his early meetings on campus in 2003, it was clear that Ortiz would focus on developing relationships with people, says Doug Freer, former vice president for student affairs. Freer remembers his first phone conversation with Ortiz — to deliver bad news about vandalism to the residential suites — and how it revealed the president’s foremost concern for people over the damage to the building.
“He’s very strong at building social connections. He also listened to the feedback about what Cal Poly Pomona needed. I think he heard loud and clear that the campus could use a little love and nurturing of its people — reassurance that they are very talented, hardworking and student-centered.”
Embracing their role as the first couple of Cal Poly Pomona, the president and Betty Ortiz are the most active Broncos on campus. Their daily calendar is packed with meetings, performances, academic presentations and sporting events. They know virtually every faculty and staff member by name, and they always greet students when they pass them on campus.
Ortiz’s warmth and passion for the university has been his greatest strength, especially in working with faculty, says David Speak, political science professor and chair of the Academic Senate. It’s brought energy to his office and the campus, and it has carried him through challenging times.
“The president came with a commitment to trying to make better relationships exist between administrators and faculty. And he certainly has accomplished that. That’s been a two-sided effort,” Speak says.
Every president leaves a mark on his campus, and Ortiz is no different.
I hope I have left this a better place than when I arrived. I mean that in all aspects. The creation of the Cal Poly Pomona family, which I think is very alive in this institution, is probably the one thing I would hang my hat on. There are a lot of other positive things that we could look at and identify. But I think that could all be encapsulated in the Cal Poly Pomona family.
It’s been a great ride.