Editorial: President Varlotta’s Q & A lacked transparency

The Echo Staff

On Thursday, Feb. 18, The Echo editorial staff was invited to attend Associated Students of California Lutheran University Government’s annual Q & A with the university president.

As a news publication, we were eager to receive this invitation from ASCLUG to attend a meeting with President Lori Varlotta. After attending, however, we were upset with the lack of transparency and authenticity in her responses.

We know from past Echo reporting that problems on campus do not just disappear. Surely, there are things we–as students, who do not wield the power–do not know, but as students, we are the primary stakeholders. We are the ones directly impacted by the university’s decisions, for better or for worse

When questioned about social media posts about unaddressed sexual assault cases on campus, Varlotta said during the Feb. 22 Q & A held on Zoom that she would speak “in the hypothetical” and suggested that students should assume all cases are adequately addressed.

“I’m really glad that this question came up because so often it’s the case that people think that nothing happened [to address the sexual assault],” Varlotta said during the meeting. “I can assure you that when cases come forward, they are investigated very vigorously and sanctions–if the person is in policy violation–the sanction is levied.”

As members of an all-female editorial staff, we don’t take sexual assault allegations lightly. The Echo has reported on the failing Title IX reporting and adjudication system at Cal Lutheran and has seen many of these cases fall short of sexual assault survivors’ expectations of justice.

We know this is a problem, to the extent that two of our professors received a grant to study the efficacy of Title IX reporting at Cal Lutheran.

We also know this isn’t just a Cal Lutheran problem, as a Mother Jones investigation found that more than 1 in 4 undergraduate women are survivors of sexual assault. We would hope, however, that the university’s first female president would acknowledge the problem.

Jim McHugh, former associate vice president of Athletics and Title IX coordinator, was laid off in December 2020 after eight years in his role. On May 11, 2020 it was announced Angela Naginey would replace him as Title IX Coordinator.

“I just want to make you all aware that the higher-up that was fired was Jim McHugh, who we all know wasn’t doing his job,” Senate Director Garrett Wyatt said after Varlotta left the Zoom meeting.

When the topic pivoted to COVID-19 guidelines, Varlotta did not directly answer student senators’ questions.

Sophomore Senator Ariana Gamble asked if students could have some leniency in the COVID-19 guidelines so they may study with classmates in the residence halls’ shared study spaces.

In response, Varlotta said “I love your comment–I mean we need to do more coordinated activities outside… I think it’s possible to do, you know, marshmallows… I don’t know if we’re allowed to have–[Associate Vice President of Planning & Services] Ryan Van Ommeren will strangle me if I talk about a bonfire–but I don’t know what we’re allowed to do, but let’s figure it out.”

Gamble later clarified that she was not interested in gatherings, but rather flexibility to study together. “When I was speaking… I wasn’t talking about parties,” Gamble said. “I quite literally meant like study groups and just having the space to have like one or two friends in your dorms, like that kind of leniency.”

Later in the meeting when Greg Pimentel, sophomore senator, asked President Varlotta about the potential repercussions for sports teams when parties involve athletes, Varlotta asked Pimentel what sports team he was a part of.

“Well, I’m glad that you asked that question because I am, I’m, you know, I’m a straight shooter and, you know, I call it the way it is and I was very disappointed that the outbreak that we had in the fall seems to be related to an activity that was hosted by the baseball team,” Varlotta said.

Pimentel is a pitcher on the Kingsmen Baseball team. 

“That doesn’t mean that all of our issues here, all of our parties–because I know about a few [parties] now–are hosted by athletes, but I’ve been working very closely with the Athletic Director with Dan Kuntz and with Vice President [Matt] Ward to make sure that athletes and all of us understand that we will hold students accountable who are hosting parties,” Varlotta said. “I know that you want to get together. I know you want to have parties. I want to have a party… You know that there will be consequences to that team, when we suspend play, when we prohibit practice, perhaps that would indeed be an outcome.” 

The Echo reported on an off-campus gathering including Cal Lutheran students on Feb. 12.

Near the end of the meeting, Wyatt asked President Varlotta why the furloughs that were implemented in the fall semester hit those who work most closely with students the hardest and didn’t affect those who receive the highest salaries, such as the cabinet.

“Folks that we laid off… many of them were at the higher levels of the institution. Several of them were… associate vice presidents, so it’s not that only lower-level folks were quote furloughed or laid off,” Varlotta said. “The layoffs occurred at the higher levels. The senior cabinet took… a cut in the sense that we paused our retirement for everyone and because our retirement is based on our salary, the cut that we took to retirement was the largest by far. The vice presidents’ cuts in retirement was much more than anybody else’s. So in some ways, from a financial perspective, the loss that we incurred was higher than the loss in others.”

We would like to hear the full truth.