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At Cuesta College, Gil Stork has seen it all

jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Interim Cuesta College President Gil Stork’s eyes shimmer as he speaks of the institution that he has been selected to lead — a school that he has served for more than 40 years.

The task is an arduous one. Stork must contend with a $6 million budget shortfall this fiscal year and the recent warning that the school’s accreditation is at risk. He’s already made difficult decisions, cutting most of the college’s summer classes; more are to come.

Stork’s supporters say that beneath his gentle demeanor is a man who is capable and willing to make the tough choices necessary to move the college forward at this critical time.

“He is a leader in the truest sense of the word,” said Pat Mullen, president of the Cuesta College Board of Trustees. “His history with Cuesta College and his leadership skills make him uniquely qualified to lead the college at this time — even more so given the challenges we face.”

Stork, 68, said he accepted the job knowing what’s at stake. And he is prepared to do what it takes, he said, to make sure that when he leaves, the college is a better place.

“The challenge is very huge, but also appealing,” Stork said. “Because if it wasn’t going to be a challenge, then why in the world would I want to do it? I might as well stay home and play Legos with my grandkids.”

A family man, Stork has been married for 45 years and has five children and nine grandchildren. He said his family’s blessing helped him decide to take the position. He also acknowledges that it was a job he was keenly interested in just over 10 years ago, when Marie Rosenwasser was selected.

His decision to take the job, Stork said, is not about career advancement or his résumé.

“This is a professional opportunity with an organization that I have such great passion for and have spent two-thirds of my life engaged in,” Stork said. “I’ve worked under every president of this institution and two interims and have seen the dynamics of what happens during the good times and bad times.”

Stork said he would consider taking the position permanently if asked and would dedicate no less than five years to the job. The college has not begun its search for a permanent president. Blanket of support

Stork’s long history with the college is a key asset to his leadership — something that those who know him say will be essential in guiding Cuesta through its current struggles.

He joined the college 43 years ago when he was recruited as an assistant football coach and physical education instructor. He soon began teaching mathematics and later filled two dean positions before retiring in 2004 as the vice president of student services. There hasn’t been a semester since he retired that he wasn’t on campus, continuing to teach math.

“He is the right person at the right time,” said Grace Mitchell, who served as Cuesta’s president from 1989 to 1999. “He understands and values what the college means not only to the students, but to the community. His experience is not just in years, but it is broad.”

Psychology professor Randy Gold joined the college in 1968 — one year after Stork.

“He brings almost the entire Cuesta College history with him,” Gold said. “One of his primary assets is his history of knowing where the college has been and how it came through similar challenges in the past.”

“He has a great relationship with many people, and I think he can more readily (than past presidents) get different areas in the college to work together to solve some of the serious problems we have — because we do have some serious problems,” Gold said.

Stork said he will depend on that support to lead the college.

“During the bad times, it is how we engage people to come together and set aside their personal interests and their self-preservation to collectively make good decisions about the future of the college,” Stork said. “I am counting on people to believe in us and trust that we can get through this.”

Changes ahead

Future budget cuts are inevitable. Administrators are in the process of evaluating every detail of the college’s budget and realigning the school’s strategic plan.

Stork has pledged to keep spring and fall classes intact, but in order to do that, Cuesta had to cut most of the school’s summer classes.

The challenge, he said, will be to find a way to keep from completely eliminating other programs while staying within Cuesta’s budget.

“The easy thing to do is just eliminate programs, but it is not necessarily the right thing to do,” Stork said.

California’s Education Code states that the mission of community colleges is to offer academic and vocational instruction to prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges and make them job-ready.

Community colleges throughout the state are facing the same financial challenges as Cuesta College. The current trend shows that the colleges are scaling back their offerings to solely serve their core mission.

Mitchell said that four-year universities continue to raise fees to support increased costs, which leads to community colleges “getting inundated with students that they can’t support or serve financially.”

The irony, Mitchell said, is that community colleges are needed more now than ever.

“In this day and age, nobody has one career, and where are they supposed to go?” Mitchell said. “No one has told community colleges in the state that they should redefine and become elitist, transfer-only institutions. Their mission is still to serve those groups, all the groups of people, and they are not being allowed to (do) it.”

Looking forward

Stork, making a $195,000 annual salary, has offered to serve as interim president for two years.

His current contract will expire at year’s end, but the trustees have the power to extend it another year.

Stork said the main focus in the coming year will be on repairing the college’s accreditation. An added emphasis will be placed on revising the school’s budget.

“We have to find a way to operate within our means, once we understand what our means are,” Stork said. “Being able to do decent planning in this volatile economic climate requires skill and requires people working hard together.”

Stork said the current programs and services will have to be reshaped — including the possibility of charging more for community classes.

“Change is difficult for everybody,” he said. “How we prepare people for those changes is as equally important as making the changes. They may not like it, but at least they understand the rationale.”

Stork said the college has suffered in the past because of quick reactions to the state budget and that his goal is to create certainty on campus.

“We can do a better job of anticipating what may be the worst-case scenario and create a floor of certainty so that it can only get better, rather than worse,” Stork said.

At the end of his journey with the college, be it one year or six years from now, Stork said he hopes to be remembered for his dedication.

“As grim as things seem, I have a great deal of optimism of where we are going to be in a year.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.

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