Lori E. Varlotta has made friends with firsts. She was first in her working-class family to graduate from college. Sept. 30, she will begin her tenure as the first female president in Cal Lutheran’s 61-year history.
With more than three decades in higher education, the 56-year-old Varlotta currently serves as president of Hiram College in Ohio — where, again, she was the first woman to hold that office.
“Her many gifts, talents and deep personal commitment to equity, inclusion and diversity make her the right person for Cal Lutheran at this time,” said outgoing President Chris Kimball when he introduced her to the campus community in mid-June via Connecting@CalLutheran webinar.
Described by colleagues as an educational philosopher and a concrete practitioner, her wide-ranging resume includes more than a decade at CSU Sacramento where, as senior vice president for Planning, Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, she also oversaw Student Retention and Success and NCAA Division I Athletics.
From ‘the city of bridges’
Affirming the importance of a sense of place, she describes herself as a “proud daughter of hard-working, blue-collar parents from Pittsburgh, Pa.”
“When I went to Notre Dame and then on to Syracuse, it became clear I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I never knew there were two sides,” said Varlotta, who attended the University of Notre Dame on an academic
Endearing lessons gleaned from her parents, her “wise but uneducated” immigrant grandparents and her neighborhood convinced her she grew up on the right side of the tracks for her.
Varlotta stepped onto the South Bend campus as a pre-med student. To what she calls “her parents’ chagrin,” she changed her major to philosophy, a discipline she says has served her well.
She knows the barriers first-generation college students face because she confronted them. After graduating from Notre Dame, she returned home looking for a job. Because she was unaware of such services as a campus career center, networking events and internships, she asked her parents how to find work. They pointed her to the Sunday newspaper classifieds and told her to circle once the jobs that interested her and twice those that interested her and for which she was qualified.
That landed her a post at Robert Morris
University in Pittsburgh. And within months, she said, she found her calling.
Measuring what matters
Varlotta expresses pride in collaboration with staffs across the nation to design co-curricular programs, especially those designed to foster diversity, leadership, social justice and community-based research.
She engaged Hiram’s faculty and staff in a yearlong effort to create assessment and accountability tools with the goal of growing enrollment at the 1,200-student institution and increasing its financial sustainability.
A Jan. 16, 2020, article on thechangeleader.com details this process, during which Varlotta put transparency and inclusion “front and center.”
“I believe it is important to measure and to set a course clearly and collectively charted,” she said.
Three years ago, Varlotta and her staff launched a 1:1 mobile technology program — the first at a four-year college in Ohio. Funded by the largest gift in the college’s history, Tech and Trek equips full-time students with an accessorized iPad Pro and a pair of hiking boots so they can integrate their classroom learning with what they discover in their field research and exploring their community.
At a crossroad
The philosopher in her emerged as she used a roadway intersection as the analogy for this unparalleled time in our history.
“I am standing with all of you at this very moment at a time I consider to be one of the most scary intersections I have ever approached in my career,” she told the Cal Lutheran community.
The surface, she said, is paved by the devastating COVID-19 crisis with its impacts hitting individuals, families, countries and economies.
Underneath, she continued, is a deep and damaged foundation built on institutional racism.
“This flawed foundation weakens our entire country,” she said. “I know, however, it disproportionately dispirits, dehumanizes, haunts and hurts our friends and colleagues of color and so many others from traditionally underserved groups who have come to live with us, to learn with us and to work with us.”
Varlotta offered this message of hope as she begins her new post: “I believe institutions like Cal Lutheran are the very places that can help mend the world.
LORI E. VARLOTTA
BA University of Notre Dame
MS Syracuse University
PhD Miami University
FIRST JOB OUT OF COLLEGE
Resident director, Robert Morris University
Thirty-five years of experience, including Hiram College; CSU Sacramento; University of Wisconsin, Whitewater
“Lipstick Leadership in Higher Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education
Long-distance runs, mountain hikes
She loves to cook classic Italian and pan-Asian fare