President of Cuesta College resigns

Saying he is not an effective leader at Cuesta, Pelham takes job directing a college in Abu Dhabi

tstrickland@thetribunenews.com, acornejo@thetribunenews.com and bcuddy@thetribunenews.comNovember 17, 2009 

Cuesta College President David Pelham has resigned, telling board members and college staff in an e-mail Monday evening that he is “not the best person to lead Cuesta College.”

He told Cuesta College Board of Trustees President Pat Mullen of his decision Sunday night.

Pelham will leave at the end of December. His tenure, which began March 3, 2008, will be the shortest of any of the five presidents in the college’s 45-year history.

Pelham has taken a job directing a college in Abu Dhabi, a city in the United Arab Emirates along the Persian Gulf, officials confirmed Monday. Pelham did not reveal the name of the college.

Before Pelham leaves, an interim person will likely be appointed to fill the post, Mullen said.

In his e-mail, called “from Dave’s desk,” Pelham alluded to the Persian Gulf job offer, and wrote, “if I thought I could be an effective leader for Cuesta, I would not have listened (to the job offer).”

Pelham accepted responsibility for self-described faults and at the same time criticized a culture he described as intransigent.

He blamed himself for “not facilitating the changes in the organizational culture that need to happen.” Specifically, Pelham wrote, “We have to be able to:

• “Make decisions in a manner that is inclusive but faster;

• “Disagree on issues without undermining the credibility of those with whom we disagree;

• “Develop a collective understanding that how things have been done in the past may not fit our present circumstances; and

• “Find a way to truly demonstrate respect for each other while we struggle to move forward.” Pelham could not be reached to elaborate on any of the critiques. In his e-mail, he said was undergoing a surgical procedure and would not be back on campus until the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Mullen said Pelham’s short tenure “is not unheard of in community college ranks these days, given all of the challenges.”

“The state budget challenges are affecting all community colleges, and we are struggling with how to make decisions and meet the needs of our students given the state budget,” Mullen said.

“It was not a long tenure, but he felt that he wasn’t the right person in the long term to lead Cuesta College, and he had some other opportunities, and he decided to accept them,” Mullen told The Tribune.

Mullen would not comment further on Pelham’s announcement but said his role as president has been “satisfactory.”

June Stephens, executive director of the Cuesta Foundation, said she was caught off guard by Pelham’s resignation, which she learned about on Monday.

Stephens said “only he knows” what his criticisms allude to. She praised him for “a very honest evaluation of himself.”

Pelham replaced former President Marie Rosenwasser, who submitted her resignation and retired from the job under pressure from the board in September 2006, after serving seven years.

Pelham’s tenure has been marked by a wave of heated board meetings about state budget cuts.

The college staff has sought to find ways to save jobs amid Cuesta’s nearly $6 million budget shortfall. Pelham has overseen an approximately $60 million annual budget, 15,000 students, 43 administrators, 215 employees, 165 full-time faculty and 414 part-time faculty.

The college has campuses in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, in addition to classes at Arroyo Grande and Nipomo high schools.

The Abu Dhabi job was not Pelham’s first exit attempt.

In October, The Birmingham News reported that he interviewed for the chancellor position at the Alabama Board of Education but wasn’t chosen.

That same month, the Abu Dhabi college contacted Pelham about its job opening, said Stephan Gunsaulus, Cuesta College’s director of marketing and media.

Pelham had recently renewed a three-year contract with the college but that will now be nullified, officials said. His resignation voids any future payouts from the college.

Trustee Angela Mitchell said filling the president’s post is critical because the college is currently in review for reaccreditation.

Stephens said Cuesta is “a great community resource with talented and resourceful staff,” and will do very well as it moves forward.

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