Changes at the top

New Chico State chief Gayle Hutchinson focuses on putting together administrative team

Gayle Hutchinson may be working out of a temporary office, but she’s already made a significant move as Chico State’s new president.

Gayle Hutchinson may be working out of a temporary office, but she’s already made a significant move as Chico State’s new president.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Return visitors to the Chico State president’s office should be prepared for some reorientation.

Superficially, at least on an interim basis, there’s been a geographical change. Gayle Hutchinson emerges from the opposite side of the reception room than Paul Zingg, her predecessor, who retired June 30. The official office is getting a spruce-up after 13 academic years with the same occupant, so Hutchinson works in a small space off the kitchenette.

Substantively, there’s a been a change in direction of the president’s attention. Hutchinson officially started July 1, and though she intends to spend her first 100 days listening and learning about the university she’s returned to after a three-year absence, her first full week included a significant shift in personnel.

In an email to the “Campus Community” July 5, Hutchinson announced that Lori Hoffman, vice president for business and finance, “will be departing from her position and transitioning during the summer.” Two days later, Hutchinson’s choice for interim VP, James Hyatt, visited Chico State for interview meetings and a public forum drawing around 150 attendees.

Hutchinson told the CN&R, in an interview Tuesday (July 12), that she received positive feedback and planned to offer the temporary position to Hyatt, most recently a financial consultant at San Francisco State after a year in a comparable interim business VP position at the University of Arizona.

This whole process may seem compressed, but Hutchinson said the groundwork was laid before her official start date. She jointly evaluated candidates with Academic Senate Chair Betsy Boyd, Executive Management Evaluation and Development Committee Chair Charles Zartman and Interim Provost Mike Ward—the latter likely to be replaced by the end of January.

If there were any notion that Hutchinson’s appointment was simply cosmetic, to give Chico State a “new-car smell,” as this reporter put it, while keeping the vehicle unmodified, her first days on the job show otherwise.

“I would call it a tune-up: tuning up the car in ways that capitalize on our strengths as a university but also take into consideration the direction that we—the people on campus as well as people in the community—feel that we need to move in the future,” Hutchinson said. “So it’s not necessarily [striving for] a new car; it’s taking that beautiful, classic car that’s served us well for a really long time and tuning it up so it can continue to last a really long time.”

Hutchinson has a long history at Chico State, dating to 1990, when she joined the faculty in the Kinesiology Department. She became dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences in 2007, leaving to take a provost position at CSU Channel Islands in 2013.

“Gayle couldn’t have been a better match for Chico,” said Boyd, an associate professor of agriculture who came to the university in 2008. “She understands the issues here and understands what we’re all about.”

Hutchinson noted that “a lot happens in three years, and I must dedicate myself to listening and really learning about those changes and how well those changes are working.” Yet she did not arrive, as most new presidents do, with a totally blank slate.

Thus, she had background on the Academic Senate’s vote of no confidence in her predecessor—a resolution that also included former Interim Provost Susan Elrod, who resigned soon after the Dec. 10 rebuke, and Hoffman.

Regarding the immediate change of business VP, Hutchinson said: “Presidents who come in are always looking for an opportunity to build [their own] team, and I’m grateful for her departure.”

Boyd called the replacement of Hoffman “one of the most positive steps in the right direction that [Hutchinson] could have made based on what the campus needed. There were a lot of people fearful that she would not act swiftly, and instead what she did was come in and very decisively maneuvered to make this change, but she also didn’t finalize it [before consultation].”

(Hoffman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Should other administrators fear the ax? Not immediately; Hutchinson said that because the university also has an interim provost, mounting two searches for top-level executives will demand significant effort—and collaboration—as the campus also prepares for a new strategic plan and for reaccreditation in 2019.

Consulting with others represents a shift in M.O., even if just in perception. Faculty took issue with Zingg’s administration for, among other things, initially appointing Elrod without input and a “lack of transparency” in budgeting (which hit Hoffman).

“Our vote of no confidence was a clear message that we can no longer have a healthy functioning university with those three individuals,” Boyd said.

Zingg, who rebutted assertions in the resolution, had a reputation as a students-first president. Hutchinson has no qualms with that priority; sticking with the auto analogy, she deems it important to care for the car to ensure conveyance of the passengers.

“Our first and foremost responsibility is to provide students with a high-quality educational experience … but we cannot serve our students well if we are not … a very strong working community,” she said. “We have extraordinary faculty here, we have outstanding staff, and we have at the moment a campus climate that is not as positive as it could be—and my job is to bring us together.”