OpEd: Uniting for a Bold Educational Future


North County college presidents Dr. Sunny Cooke, Dr. Ellen Neufeldt and Dr. Star Rivera-Lacey.

Original article via Times of San Diego.
by Dr. Sunny Cooke, Dr. Ellen Neufeldt and Dr. Star Rivera-Lacey

As Women’s History Month closes, we reflect on the significant strides made by women throughout history and acknowledge the impact of contemporary leaders shaping the future. In North San Diego County, three of us stand at the helm of higher education, steering institutions that annually serve approximately 67,000 students — a substantial portion of San Diego County’s total college enrollment.

As industries across sectors strive to increase diversity, the reality is, the three of us are serving in an academic landscape where the representation of women in leadership roles remains alarmingly low. National surveys reveal that only 36% of community college presidents and 3 in 10 university presidents are currently held by women, with a mere 5% being women of color.

While these statistics paint a disheartening picture of gender and racial disparities in higher education leadership, we are proud that our institutions defy these trends. Our collective journey is not just a chapter in the ongoing story of women executives shaping higher education; it is also a testament to the power of collaboration and partnership between our colleges to transform lives and communities, and our respective journeys have informed our unique perspectives.

Dr. Sunny Cooke assumed the role of president of MiraCosta College in 2015, building on her nearly eight-year tenure as president of Grossmont College. At the start of her tenure at Grossmont, she was one of only six Asian American women holding a presidential role in higher education. This statistic changed, and now 4% of community college leaders identify as Asian/Pacific Islander.

Cooke’s personal narrative is deeply rooted in her parents’ immigration from India to Dallas, with just $40 to their name when she was five years old. Their story, like so many others, exemplifies the belief in education, particularly higher education, as the gateway to prosperity.

Dr. Star Rivera-Lacey’s journey was similar. Born to Salvadoran immigrants who settled in North County, she was introduced to Palomar College as a child during her parents’ ESL classes. She found her way to MiraCosta College, where services and mentors supported her as a first-generation college student.

Her trajectory led her to California State University San Marcos, where she discovered her passion for student services, culminating nearly 15 years later in her historic appointment as Palomar College’s first Latina president in 2021.

Dr. Ellen Neufeldt has served at the helm of CSUSM since 2019. Neufeldt’s father, the son of Canadian tenant farmers, was a first-generation college student leading him to a career as a faculty member. She recognizes the transformative impact of his education, which paved the way for her to become a university president within a single generation.

Neufeldt leads the national conversation on student social mobility, now widely accepted as a key measure for assessing college and university effectiveness. Under her leadership, CSUSM has achieved a ranking in the top 1% of the CollegeNET Social Mobility Index.

In a world that too often pits female leaders against each other, we find strength in the authentic friendship and progress we forge together. Our collaboration not only has its individual benefits — such as a safe space for us to share our challenges and successes — but also creates a positive ripple effect of collaboration that resonates through our students, employees, and industry partners (many of whom traverse our institutions).

Cross-institution collaboration is not only a best practice but an economic imperative. Given that most of our students are traditionally underserved in higher education — students of color, military-affiliated students, single parents, and older students — our shared mission of raising the educational attainment rate of our region is critical for individual social mobility and broad economic prosperity.

The majority of our students come from our region and remain here after graduation to live, contribute, and work. Over the years, our institutions have fostered affordable pathways from associate to bachelor’s degrees, launched grant-funded programs that offer students paid internships and research experience and collaborated on faculty and staff professional development.

Together, MiraCosta, Palomar, and CSUSM provide students with access to lucrative and in-demand careers in our backyards, propelled by innovative programs. MiraCosta’s recently inaugurated Artificial Intelligence associate degree, Palomar’s pioneering Early Care and Education apprenticeship initiative, and CSUSM’s progressive software and electrical engineering bachelor’s programs exemplify our commitment to cutting-edge education.

As our region’s needs continue to transform, we eagerly anticipate sustaining our joint efforts. We recognize that our graduates, supported by our dedicated faculty, staff, and regional partners, are carving their paths forward and elevating others along the way. This commitment mirrors our ethos as women executives in academia, striving to uplift and empower others through our collective dedication and leadership.

Dr. Sunny Cooke is president/superintendent of MiraCosta College. Dr. Ellen Neufeldt is chancellor of California State University San Marcos. Dr. Star Rivera-Lacey is president/superintendent of Palomar Community College District.

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