The curse of Cuesta College

January 16, 2010


Baseball buffs are familiar with the “Curse of the Bambino.” True believers insist that the Boston Red Sox went 86 years without winning a World Series as punishment for selling Babe Ruth, “The Bambino,” to the New York Yankees in 1919.

I submit that there has been a similar “Curse of Cuesta College,” that dates back to 2000, the year Gil Stork was passed over for the presidency of the school.

This was not a good decade for Cuesta. Most, if not all, top managers put in place by former president Grace Mitchell in the ‘90s, bolted for early retirement, or other jobs. Faculty morale plummeted. Critically, the major effort to pass a new bond measure was soundly rejected by voters. A Cuesta Trustee caused a minor brushfire when he wondered publicly whether a black person would be comfortable living in San Luis Obispo.

One Cuesta president ended up being shown the door. Another president barely made a footprint, hurrying for the exit, so desperate to leave Cuesta that he took a position in the Middle East. Worst of all, there are those who now look south, to Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, for a model of what a local community college can be.

To me, it is nothing less than a curse, a payback to those who conspired to deny Stork the job he sought, and deserved, after Mitchell retired in 1999.

Stork first came to Cuesta in 1967 as a math instructor, a graduate of Cal Poly, a survivor of the horrific Poly football team plane crash in 1960. He has been with Cuesta since their third year in existence. Can you imagine the institutional memory this man must have? Over the years, Stork filled a variety of positions in both the classroom and administration, being groomed for the top job by his mentor, former Cuesta president Frank Martinez.

His chance finally came in 2000. Stork applied and was interviewed, making it as I recall as far as the semi-finals before being cut. The faculty union was against him. Several of the Cuesta Trustees apparently had their own agenda. Ignore the guy who knew Cuesta, the man who had been groomed to take over and lead.  Better to bring in an outsider, The Powers That Be decided. So they stuck it to Stork and looked north.

There isn’t much point in rehashing the obvious, but the hiring of Dr. Marie Rossenwasser turned out to be a complete and total disaster on every level. The woman, despite having a degree in Communication, somehow managed to alienate nearly everyone she contacted. Her top administrators quickly bailed. The bond failed. Cuesta started sinking and Rossenwasser was forced into retirement.

Enter Dave Pelham, the new president, in 2007, The Man From Weed, who looked around and decided he didn’t like much of what he saw. He tried to fire staff and make deep cuts. When the Trustees rejected his attempts, Pelham responded by applying for a job in…Alabama? That’s pretty harsh. That job fell through, but Pelham jumped ship anyway, and headed overseas.

The Trustees finally got their act together and Pat Mullen called Stork and offered him the position of interim president. Stork wisely insisted that his contract be for twelve months. He also wanted real authority to govern, not just be a figurehead.

There you have it.  Ten lost years. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 years down the drain. Cuesta has no one to blame but themselves.

So here’s the question: Are the Trustees going to waste more time and more money in doing yet another national search, and taking yet another gamble on an Unknown Candidate? As far as I’m concerned, the most qualified person to lead Cuesta College currently has the job.  The Trustees would be wise to make it official and extend Stork’s contract through 2015, Cuesta’s 50th anniversary.

Time to end this curse.

David Congalton is a Contributing Editor to CCN and also served as the director of the Cuesta College Writers’ Conference from 1994 to 2005.

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The problem is Pelham tried to govern the school and not lead it. There is a reason the viejos hang a carrot in front of the donkey cart. Jackasses are easier led than driven.

“The woman, despite having a degree in Communication, somehow managed to alienate nearly everyone she contacted.”

What sort of degree would one need to avoid opening a sentence with the appellation “the woman”? A double doctorate in wingwistics and hyperbolic topology? And how much education would it take to realize that a communications degree is not an education but a proxy for one? And further, who thinks there’s any correlation between degrees and agreeability?

But heaven help us if the U.S. loses its edge in rural community colleges. China and India would take over the entire textile industry in no time.

Agreed that Stork is likely the best man for the job, but its strange to hear someone blasting Rossenwasser. I wasn’t around for her tenure, but as a Cuesta student studying journalism, I interviewed a ton of staff after Pelham left, and everyone seemed to miss the Rossenwasser glory days, Stork included.


I don’t think I agree with you on many issues of the day, but on the Dr. Stork issue, you have been spot on for 10 years.

Well done!

Why has there been no analysis of merging Cuesta and Allan Hancock? A merger could result in cost savings, expanded class choices for students, etc. Dave, please start talking about this possibility, inviting guests to talk about the issues involved, find ways to solve the political issues, and create an improved higher education institution. Only in the public sector do we fail to look at the obvious!

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