10 Questions with University of the Pacific’s Chris Callahan: helping students and Stocktonians

In Nov. 2021, University of the Pacific President Christopher Callahan sat down with Laura S. Diaz, a reporter for The Record, for “10 Questions” as he reflected on his time leading the university and his plans for the future.

Christopher Callahan became University of the Pacific’s 26th president on July 1, 2020. Though interviewed on Nov. 10—more than a year since he became president—he seemed as enthusiastic as if it was his first day and a global pandemic had not changed the dynamics of his job. 

Callahan has more than 25 years of experience in higher education leadership, most recently as the founding dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. 

While in Arizona, he also served as CEO of the university-owned Arizona PBS station and vice provost for ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus. Before making his way West, Callahan previously worked at University of Maryland at College Park as associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and senior editor of American Journalism Review. 

The conversation flew by smoothly. His background as a journalist could have contributed to the friendliness and familiarity he exhibited in his office that morning. 

Callahan—a first-generation college graduate and New York native—graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University, a master’s degree from Harvard’s University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked as a journalist for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. before venturing into academia.  

With extensive experience and a cross-country journey—and residing in Stockton now—he discussed his plans for Pacific and how they can involve the city.

Before focusing on academia, you had a working career as a journalist. Why the shift? 
The connective tissue—at least for me—was serving people, serving communities. As journalists, that’s one of the reasons that we get into journalism: to inform and serve our communities.  

Higher education very much has the same goals, (but) operationalized in very different ways. I would love to be able to say that this (switching to academia) was part of a master plan, (but) I had no master plan.  

Even though they may seem unrelated, my journalism background has really helped me in everything I’ve done. What does a journalist do? They look for interesting stories, collect information, analyze and then synthesize it to produce it in a way that can be consumed by others. Those are skills that are really helpful in many parts of life. 

How has the change from journalism to academia been?  
I think the similarities are that impulse, that desire to serve people, just in very different ways.  

And of course, huge differences. From the cultural differences, probably the biggest one is the pace of play, and they’re sort of extreme! So, newsrooms are by definition (fast-paced), there’s a deadline every minute and you don’t have the luxury of taking a lot of time.  

The academy—traditionally—is the opposite end of that spectrum, much more deliberative and slower moving. I think that’s probably the single, biggest difference and the biggest adjustment. With my journalism background informing what I’ve done in higher education, I think it’s helped and that higher education needs to move—maybe not at a newsroom pace—but at a faster pace.  

With the ongoing pandemic, has it been challenging to solidify a working team between administration changes?  
I would say no. The pandemic certainly posed challenges that we weren’t anticipating, but almost in the year and a half (as Pacific’s president), we’ve almost been going in parallel paths. 

One path—which was very necessary—was that there was this global pandemic that required a lot of time, attention and focus to make sure that we come out of it safely and healthy in all ways: physically, emotionally, financially, and culturally. So, that took a lot of time and continues to. 

At the same time, I didn’t want to lose that period of time, so we also focused on our strategies going forward. Part of that was building a team. There were a lot of fantastic people already here, and then we brought in other leaders. I firmly believe that you can’t be successful personally and institutionally, if you don’t have great people around you. A single leader can be brilliant, work unbelievably hard, and have a great vision, but they will not be able to achieve anything if they don’t have a great team. 

When assembling the team—both with people here and new folks—I try to find people who are different to me, in a lot of different ways, but share a passion for higher education and have a shared goal of where we want to take this university. I’ve been thrilled with the people we’ve been able to bring on. 

New recruits from other institutions in the president’s cabinet include: 

  • Chris Ferguson, vice president for enrollment management after working at Occidental College. 
  • Mary J. Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, Pacific’s first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion after working at University of San Francisco (and is a Stocktonian). 
  • Maria Blandizzi, vice president for student life after working at University of California Los Angeles.  
  • Elizabeth Orwin, new—and first woman to serve as—dean of Pacific’s School of Engineering and Computer Science after working at Harvey Mudd College. 

During the pandemic, has Pacific had some turnover in faculty?
We’re seeing what I think everyone is seeing across the country, which is—I think NPR was the first to dub it—The Great Resignation. 

At this point in fall 2021, there is a war for talent out there, at every level because there are more people—having experienced the pandemic—making life decisions. We have—probably—twice as many openings as we would typically have at this time of year (pre-pandemic). It’s not more than what you are seeing at other places, but we’re being affected in the same way. 

One of the things we’ve done when we are looking at this (staffing) is revisit how we presented our value proposition. I don’t think we were working “University of the Pacific,” (what it represents) really well. When I looked at the website, it could have been the ACME Company. It was just the basic details for a job posting.  

We weren’t talking about what makes this place special, which are an unbelievable amount of things! Not least of which is working at a mission-driven institution with core values and principles, to create the next great generation of leaders. I don’t think we were doing a very good job of articulating our value proposition. If you look at the website now, you’ll see a little more framing of that. 

What have been some challenges in retaining staff during the pandemic?  
Has there been an overarching issue? I don’t think so.  

I think the pandemic has triggered a lot of thoughtfulness in individuals about where they are in life, what’s important to them. Sort of a re-evaluation, almost less to do with the workplace but more about them as individuals—is what I am seeing—which is understandable! It’s been a hard 20 months on everybody, both unexpected and unprecedented. 

Additional to effects the pandemic has had on schools' enrollment, sometimes stigma comes to people’s mind when Stockton is mentioned. What are some plans in place—or to be presented—to entice students to attend Pacific in the city?  
We’ve started with a new enrollment chief, Chris Ferguson, who really understands enrollment in the 2020s in ways that very few people do: the level of sophistication in strategies, tactics, social media and digital marketing we’re using to bring in future students.  

Enrollment is down across the country, but our incoming first-year class this year was substantially larger than last year’s. We still have a bit of that COVID-19 (enrollment decrease) effect, but it is going in the right direction. 

All of our students have so many different choices in colleges and universities. Why here? What makes it so special? I think we’re doing a much better job of articulating the why, that reason. We have a great story to tell, and I think we are telling it better than how we may have in the past.  

About Stockton, before Jean [Callahan’s wife] and I moved here, we got all his information from bad, past stories. Then we got here and it seemed like there was no connection between the two. The Stockton that we were reading about and the Stockton we experienced, they seemed unrelated.  

Once we got here, we found this fantastic community: diverse, rich in all ways, natural beauty. There is so much here additional to all the things you can see and do by driving a little bit, but Stockton itself—I think—is a great asset for Pacific.  

We want to continue building on the great relationships (former Pacific president) Pam Eibeck established, because we think Stockton is part of the reason why you (students, staff) should come to University of the Pacific. 

What is Pacific—and your presidency—doing to assure students, to motivate them, graduate and be proud of Pacific?  
The key word: graduation. We are a student-centric university, we are about students.  
At Pacific, our reason if being is to teach our students. We’ve set one big, long-term goal: “to be the best student-centric comprehensive university in the United States.” But what does that mean? And how do you get there? How we’re going to get there is by focusing even more on the success of our students. 

Once students enroll, how do we make sure they succeed? Succeeding not only means a positive experience where they grow in all dimensions of their lives, but an important measure is if they are graduating and if they are graduating on time. Faculty, deans, cabinet members and university leaders are now working on new plans on how we can increase retention and graduation rates.  

When you look at the success of our graduates, it’s unbelievable! If you measure it by career earnings, University of the Pacific is in the top 2% of career earnings of all colleges and universities in the country, per a Georgetown University study last year. That’s higher than some Ivy League schools, higher than every University of California school. And these are fantastic schools! 

So, our graduates are succeeding at unbelievably high levels. Our mission now is making sure that everybody we’re bringing in does graduate so they can have the benefits of this great college education.  

You said “within 10 years, University of the Pacific would be the best student-centric comprehensive university in the United States.” Any details on the steps or plans towards achieving this goal?  
I’ll explain that so we’re all on the same page: a comprehensive university—as opposed to a small, liberal arts college—has many schools and colleges within. Student-centric means the prime mission is the education of students. 

Because by definition Pacific is a student-centric institution, all the measures are—or should be—about the success of students. You measure that by retention, how long it takes to graduate, graduation rate, how they do after graduation, job placement rates, experiential learning, opportunities for students, what do the new student classes look like as in how diverse they are in terms of ethnicity, gender and geography. 

Those are the things I look at in terms of getting what already is a very good university to be the best of its kind.  

In those 10 years while these plans develop, what is Stockton’s role? 
The success of Pacific—and the success of Stockton—are tied. I think we are tied together, and we should be. It’s a benefit to both the city and the university.  

We created a new webpage—Community Impact—because we are doing a lot of things already, but we weren’t articulating it very well. In that page, you’ll see just the Stockton campus has a positive economic impact on the city and surrounding area of almost $300 million a year.  

Then there’s the programs that we have, already linked to the city. For example, our Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy. We don’t have to go much further than COVID-19: they’ve vaccinated thousands and thousands of community members. On Saturday [Nov. 13] we’re opening our first Pfizer clinic for 5- to 11-year-old kids. Those are very community-embedded programs, which center around the notion of experiential learning and help the community.  

Our students are going out to the community and providing services. It is faculty supervised and guided, but it’s the students who are delivering—in this case—the vaccines. They are getting this great learning experience and at the same time providing a fantastic service, providing life-saving vaccines.  

Students are also part of the Civic Action Fellowship state program. We are one of the first eight universities to participate, where we have students embedded within nonprofit organizations in Stockton. 

We also have a program for the elderly, where we go out and set up Medicare information and testing clinics that have saved elder Stocktonians millions of dollars when helping them navigate the complexities of Medicare. We also recently held one of our diabetes clinics in Stockton. 

We’re working closely with the mayor and elected representatives, starting to see how we can do more for our student veterans, do more for the community, because it is a win-win situation for both Stockton and Pacific.  

Any message to Stockton’s community you’d like to share? 
Maybe the most important one: thank you, on behalf of Jean and me. 

I’m a New Yorker and spent most of my life in the East Coast, the last 15 years in Arizona, and now we’ve moved to Northern California, to Stockton. The welcome that we’ve received from the community and individuals within has been so warm—and I know this sounds a little corny—we've been made to feel like this is home from the day we got here. That’s really special.  

For folks who have lived in this community their whole lives, maybe that (warmth, welcome) is not as clear because this is what you know. But coming in from the outside and to have this real sense of community and this reception as we’re walking in the door, wow! That made us feel like we were home from the first day we were here, and we don’t take that for granted. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that because it’s a new experience for us. It’s been really special one, and one that we really treasure.