Chapter 1: Leveraging Institutional Culture to Foster Innovation

by Eduardo M. Ochoa, Ph.D.

Posted on September 08, 2020

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In 1994, the U.S. Department of Defense closed Fort Ord as part of its Base Realignment and Closure process, the largest U.S. military base to be closed at the time. Built in 1917, Fort Ord housed 50,000 service members at its height and was the staging ground for the Korean and Vietnam wars. Fort Ord’s closure meant that a third of the economic base of the region was eliminated in one stroke.

To compensate for that loss, community leaders (including Leon Panetta, Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton at the time, and State Assemblyman Sam Farr) lobbied for transfer of the land to California and for the creation of a new California State University campus. And so, with barely six months of advance planning, California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) opened its doors in fall 1995. The Monterey Bay area is a remarkable mix of a multi-billion-dollar fresh-produce industry in the Salinas Valley and the affluent communities of the Monterey Peninsula, including word-class destinations like Carmel, Pebble Beach, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The leading citizens of California’s Central Coast hoped that a university would help the region’s economy recover from the loss of the base by generating direct economic activity and by stimulating and diversifying the mix of industries in the region. The CSU Chancellor at the time, Barry Munitz, in turn was intrigued by the opportunity to recycle an Army base with plentiful space but a dilapidated physical infrastructure. He envisioned a 21st century quasi-virtual university, designed from the ground up to leverage distance learning technology and obviate the need for traditional investment in bricks and mortar. 

The creation of a brand-new university also attracted faculty, staff, and administrators excited by the prospect of adopting innovative practices and methods of teaching and learning. In fact, practically every cutting-edge practice in higher education circa 1995 went into the mix: learning communities; outcomes-based curriculum design; capstone projects; multi-disciplinary programs; tenure and promotion criteria based on Boyer’s model of scholarship; and university-wide service learning requirements. The founding faculty and staff also brought with them a commitment to make CSUMB the vehicle for access to higher education for the underserved communities of the Salinas Valley, especially the sons and daughters of (mostly Latino) farm workers. They envisioned CSUMB as a transformational force in promoting social equity and justice in California. In a remarkable process that engaged not only faculty, staff, and administrators but also members of the external community, they captured all these aspirations and more in the University’s Founding Vision statement, a document that continues to be a touchstone for CSUMB’s work and helps the institution remain laser-focused on its mission.1

As it turned out, Chancellor Munitz’s aspirations for a quasi-virtual university were not fulfilled, because the state of distance learning technology was not developed enough to support them. However, that strand of the institution’s DNA accounts for a comfort level with technology among the faculty and staff that continues to this day. CSUMB was an early adopter of open source technologies like the Moodle learning management system, as well as cloud-based software services like Google Suite. More generally, the interest in starting a new university from scratch, without the weight of legacy systems and structures in either academic or business practices, led to the development of a culture of openness to innovation and change in the University. As in other institutions of higher education, the committee approach to searches for new hires among both faculty and staff—as well as the ongoing strong commitment to the University's vision—meant that this culture of innovation continued to replicate itself. 

The interest in starting a new university from scratch, without the weight of legacy systems and structures in either academic or business practices, led to the development of a culture of openness to innovation and change in the University.  

When I arrived as president in 2012, CSUMB was 18 years old and was a largely mature, heavily residential campus. As such, it drew traditional-age students from across the state and had been developing the capacity to serve that type of student body, i.e., residence halls, nice educational facilities, student support services, co-curricular activities, Division II athletics, etc. After the first 10 years of feverish growth and innovation, CSUMB had spent the next eight years consolidating and developing institutional capacity in its basic functions, and generally becoming more of a “normal” comprehensive university. The last step in that process just as I arrived on campus was the revision of its general education program to a more conventional format aimed at facilitating transfer of credits from community colleges and other four-year universities.2 

After the first two stages of CSUMB’s life—the “wild and wooly” period of improvisation and growth, followed by the years of consolidation and development as a more conventional residential campus—I proposed to the university community that it was time to re-engage with the original vision of the institution and focus more intentionally on the University’s mission of regional stewardship. To that end, I outlined three broad areas of focus for the next phase of the life of the institution: identifying and developing our distinctive programs; reaching out to the region and offering thought leadership in addressing our community’s challenges and opportunities; and making a significant contribution to advancing innovative educational practices in U.S. higher education.3 

In the past six years, we have made considerable progress on these three fronts. We have launched programs in hospitality management, agribusiness, and agricultural science to support the two key regional industries. We have continued to strengthen signature programs in marine sciences, health sciences, and cinematography. And we have developed two award-winning innovative academic programs in computer science and developmental math.4

We have also established CSUMB as a key institutional thought leader and convener of the disparate regional sectors and interests, a neutral meeting ground where the hard work of searching for common ground on controversial issues can take place. The tri-county central coast region faces the challenge of overall low educational levels of its workforce: only 28% of its 25 or older residents have a four-year college degree (if Santa Cruz County is excluded, the percentage drops below 23%). The entering first-year class of our campus already reflects the diversity of our region (38% Latino; 31% White; 8% African American; smaller percentages of Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Americans). In order to further advance on our mission to provide access to higher education, we needed to reach out to K-12 and other stakeholders to increase the numbers of college-ready high-school graduates in our region. To that end, CSUMB led in the establishment of Bright Futures5, a cradle-to-career educational partnership for Monterey County. The initiative involves colleges, K-12 school districts, non-profits, businesses, and philanthropy all working together to align our efforts toward achieving our agreed-upon big goal: to raise the share of young people achieving a postsecondary credential from current levels to 60%. Bright Futures is part of Strive Together6, a national network of community partnerships utilizing collective-impact practices to raise educational outcomes. 

In order to further advance on our mission to provide access to higher education, we needed to reach out to K-12 and other stakeholders to increase the numbers of college-ready high-school graduates in our region.  

If we succeed in providing more local young people with a college education without there being high-skill, high-value jobs to employ them, they will simply leave the region. So as regional stewards we are also working with a number of regional economic development organizations7 to identify current and future industries in the region and their workforce needs and developing career pathways between our academic programs and local jobs. In that way, many of our students who want to remain in the region and raise families here will be able to do so and contribute to the flourishing of our community. 

Our funding vision statement is a rich document with many substantive ideas about how the University could develop. But precisely because it is such a rich document it can accommodate a number of directions for developing the University. An influential group of founding faculty were primarily motivated to serve the underserved communities of the Salinas Valley, especially the Latino community. Influenced by the civil rights movement and the Chicano movement from the 60s and 70s, their primary focus was on educating students to be advocates in promoting social equity. Accordingly, the emphasis of the academic programs was in the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities. In the six years prior to my arrival, my predecessor had appropriately moved to strengthen the STEM disciplines. However, this presidential focus was overlaid on top of the existing orientation, without an explicit dialogue or integration with the humanities focus. The underlying rationale needed to be articulated and embraced by the entire University. In the absence of that rationale, other disciplines oriented toward career advancement for students remained an afterthought.

Additionally, while the founding vision statement is compatible with many strategic directions, it had become a sacred text, and as such was occasionally invoked as a conversation stopper, by characterizing a potential innovation as incompatible with it. 

What was needed was an active critical intellectual engagement with the founding vision statement that would peel off encrusted assumptions, uncover its living content, and subject it to critical intellectual evaluation. I was confident that we could do this and be able to craft a narrative that resonated with its key elements while providing us with the direction we needed for the 21st century. 

What was needed was an active critical intellectual engagement with the founding vision statement that would peel off encrusted assumptions, uncover its living content, and subject it to critical intellectual evaluation.   

As luck would have it, we were due for a new cycle of strategic planning. This provided us with an opportunity to engage the entire campus community in a retreat dedicated to engagement with our founding vision statement. We framed this as the opening step of the strategic planning process, which would provide a context and broad input to the work of the strategic planning committee. We structured the retreat by first reviewing the process framework of strategic planning and the concepts of mission, vision, values, goals, strategies, and tactics. Our founding vision statement—which up to this point had been referred to as the Vision Statement—is in fact a rich founding document containing elements of all the aforementioned concepts. So, after laying down the foundation of these strategic planning concepts, we used them to parse the founding vision statement, unpack the various elements, and identify them as belonging to each of these various categories. The different ideas in the founding vision were tentatively identified as referring to either mission, vision, values, goals, strategies, or tactics. Then we broke into small groups to review the tentative assignment of the various elements of the founding vision statement into these categories, to see whether each of the groups agreed with them. The groups discussed whether a particular concept or idea was core to our mission and therefore a constant; whether it was potentially changeable, but still valid; or whether it was something that had been superseded by changes in our environment. We also gave the groups the opportunity to add new elements to the various categories that might have been missing in the original founding vision statement, but perhaps needed to be included as our University moved forward. 

This exercise was able to unearth the existence of elements in our founding vision statement that fully supported the new directions that the University was going in to respond to changes in the faculty and in the environment. We were able to find support for a commitment to innovation, creativity, and change that went beyond the specific directions that had been developed in the early years. We found surprisingly pragmatic elements in the founding vision that fully justified greater emphasis in professional programs and in helping our students achieve both upward mobility and greater social consciousness. The narrative about CSUMB that highlights innovation and openness to change was successfully decoupled from a limited set of directions and linked to the new opportunities and challenges faced by the University and our students in the information age. Basing ourselves on founding principles, we were able to promote broad acceptance of the compatible and mutually reinforcing goals of advancing social equity and promoting upward economic mobility for the students that we serve. We did this by articulating the continuity of our new directions with the institution’s core values and commitments.

1 “Vision Statement,” California State University. Monterey Bay (CSUMB),
2 The previous model consisted of broad learning outcomes rather than courses. While visionary, it made the transfer of credits extremely difficult and opaque. 
3 Office of the President, “2012 President’s Welcome,” CSUMB.
5 Bright Futures Education Project, “7 Goals,”
6 “StriveTogether,”
7 Among others, the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (