President Ochoa sees the university poised to present ground-breaking solutions to the challenges facing higher ed

By James Tinney

Eduardo M. Ochoa has taken a circuitous route to his new position as interim president at Cal State Monterey Bay.

It may just be, however, that he has arrived in exactly the right place at the right time to make a difference both at his new university and in the future course of higher education.

Ochoa, 61, comes to CSUMB after a varied career, during which he has earned degrees at Reed College, Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in disciplines including physics and philosophy, nuclear engineering and economics. He has worked in the Cal State system as a faculty member and administrator for 29 years, and most recently served as assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the Obama Administration.

That wide-ranging experience has convinced Ochoa that colleges and universities must do things differently in an era of shrinking resources and growing demand for college graduates.

“We need a new model for higher education, one that has a lower cost structure while maintaining or improving outcomes. That is the outstanding issue for higher education nationally,” Ochoa said.
At Cal State Monterey Bay, Ochoa is leading a young institution, begun by education innovators. He said that CSUMB’s focus on learning outcomes – structuring classes around specific goals of what students are expected to learn – positions the university well to be a leader in this new educational era.

By remaining focused on specified learning outcomes, Ochoa said, the university can experiment with how to structure classes most efficiently to achieve those goals.
Ochoa said the traditional lecture-based teaching model has changed little since the days that monks or other religious leaders stood behind a lectern and read documents to a mostly illiterate audience.

“That’s just not the world we are operating in now,” Ochoa said.

Today, seemingly unlimited information is just a Google search away. The challenge lies not so much in gathering data, but in evaluating it critically. Students also need to learn the skills of working across disciplines and in teams to prepare them for the modern workplace.

He believes that advances in the cognitive sciences – how people think and learn – are opening up new strategies toward more effective teaching.

During his time in Washington, D.C., Ochoa discussed this topic with Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and administration science advisor. Wieman’s data-driven research indicates students only retain the first 10 minutes or so of a lecture in short-term memory. In his study, teachers who had students participate in hands-on exercises every 10 minutes produced far better learning outcomes than those who simply lectured straight through.

Ochoa is also interested in the idea of “flipping the classroom,” a new approach that is already being tried by a few Cal State Monterey Bay faculty members. That means streaming lectures online so students can watch – and perhaps re-watch confusing parts – at home. Then, class time can be used for group discussion and interaction with faculty to deepen understanding of the material.
Similarly, Ochoa sees the wise use of information technology freeing up faculty members from routine tasks and giving them more time for high quality interaction with students.

Ochoa draws from many years of experience as both a faculty member and administrator in helping plot the future of CSUMB. He was a lecturer in economics at Fresno State University for three years, then became a tenured professor at Cal State Los Angeles from 1984 to 1997, where he served in a number of additional roles. He was dean of the College of Business Administration at Cal Poly Pomona from 1997-2003, and provost and vice president for academic affairs at Sonoma State from 2003-2010.

While at Sonoma, he worked with President Ruben Armiñana, one of the CSU’s longest-tenured presidents.
“Eduardo is a higher education leader whose experience, training and vision make him a perfect president for CSUMB. We worked very closely while he was Sonoma State’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs and he provided exceptional academic leadership to the university before leaving for the U.S. Department of Education, where he provided that kind of academic leadership at the national level,” Armiñana said.

“He works hard in making the future of higher education better in quality and efficiency. I value him as a friend and colleague.”

Ochoa describes his two years in the Obama Administration as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” but acknowledges that dealing with the partisan gridlock and bureaucratic politics in Washington, D.C., wasn’t the best fit for his personality. He points out with a measure of pride, however, that his two years as assistant secretary exceeded the average tenure of 18 months in the position.

Leading a university that serves a diverse student body and maintains a broad focus seems to be a better position for a man whose life story is an interesting take on the American Dream.

Ochoa grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he attended a bilingual school. His father worked for a U.S.-based pharmaceutical firm, and, after attending a conference hosted by the company in the U.S., he had hoped to move his family to this country. When a transfer was not forthcoming, he contacted an employment agency, received about 100 job leads, left his two sons and his pregnant wife in Argentina, bought a Greyhound bus pass and spent months criss-crossing the country looking for work.

A biochemist, he was hired to run the clinical lab at Portland’s Good Samaritan Hospital, and then brought his family to join him.

In a commencement speech this spring at Cal State Los Angeles, Ochoa told the students of his personal journey and the role that education has played in his life.

“It led me to serial careers as an engineer, professor and administrator, and, two years ago, to being appointed by President Obama as assistant secretary for post-secondary education,” Ochoa said.

“It is a testimony to this country that this could happen to a 14-year-old immigrant boy. But it is also a testimony to the power of education.”

Photos by Randy Tunnell