President Parnia Inaugural Address


President Ezat Parnia
Inaugural Address (as prepared)
September 8, 2012

Chancellor Scott, Chair Farris, trustees, students, alumni, faculty, teachers, staff, and friends, I wish to begin by thanking the members of the inauguration committee—its chair Ed Kormondy, plus Trustee Olin Barrett, Barbara Martin from the community, and others—who have put their lives aside over the past few months to make this event possible.

I want to thank my family. My wife Lisa Boucher who has been my confidante, advisor, and partner in life for more than 28 years and a working mom. My son Max who became the man of the house upon my departure in January to join Pacific Oaks and care for his mom and little sister while joggling SAT classes, honor courses, and soccer schedule among other things. And my daughter Yasmin, whose funny text messages kept me going for more than six months until they all joined me. And you will appreciate this: she is a Lakers fan and it won’t take us long to convert her brother, who is the fan of that other team, I cannot remember the name, but I guess it starts with a “C.”

Nearly a year ago I was sitting in my home office in Boston when the phone rang. It was from the president of an executive search firm that specializes in higher education. She asked if I had heard of a place in Pasadena called Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School. I had. In fact just the year before, my niece had graduated from Pacific Oaks and I saw firsthand how it transformed her life.

And then the search firm asked if I would be interested in applying for the presidency.

I had a wonderful life in Boston. I was a tenured professor, my wife an executive at a retirement advisory company. My son was starting his junior year and my daughter was settling into second grade. My wife loved her job and I had a job for life. Our roots were deep.

I contacted my niece, who encouraged me to at least learn more about the opportunity. I spoke to my family who said the same. There was still some trepidation, a lingering feeling of whether this would be the right move for me and my family.

And then I visited the Pacific Oaks campus.

For 14 hours I spoke to the people who made this institution what it is: the students, faculty, teachers, parents, alumni, trustees, staff, and others. Many of you are here today.

That night all of my doubts about the move and opportunity disappeared. I knew in my heart and head that I wanted to join this community of academicians and learners who strive to make the world a better place. The pedagogy and andragogy based on John Dewey’s theories and ideas appealed to me. I didn’t want the day to end. I was taken by Pasadena and didn’t want to leave. If only I would be invited back …

I was.

I stand before you today honored and humbled to serve as the ninth president of Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School.

Before moving on I can’t let this story pass without introducing the individual who was my bridge to the Pacific Oaks experience, my niece Negin Zomorodi.

This week marks the beginning of the 54th fall semester of Pacific Oaks College. Our students join millions of others who will be engaged in a formal educational experience this academic year. They do so because we all believe in the value of education. The time and resources we place in the keep of this cause is our greatest investment as a people.

Today higher education is what high schools were decades ago and the pathway to new jobs. Just think back to the 1980s as our industrial sector went through a painful transition.

There were those who said that America is declining while Japan was taking our place as the world’s most innovative and productive nation. Today we are hearing the same commentary about China.

And then something happened. Thanks to our higher education system, many workers left behind by closing factories and a fading manufacturing sector were given an opportunity to participate in new ways. They sought new degrees as teachers, nurses, IT specialists, computer technicians, and other professionals. We gave people options unmatched in other nations to find an academic discipline and explore a path to a new way to apply their talents. The community Colleges played an important role and we were able to transform our workforce and economy through higher education.

And yet we have much work to do.

Last century a solution to improving education was to build more schools. With more schools came more access. We are good at building schools, we have more than 10,000 here in California alone, but access is no longer good enough.

On average 7,200 students drop out of high school each day; that’s 1.3 million a year. In the past, people who dropped out of high school could still find opportunity. This is no longer the case. Because most of today’s jobs require more than manual dexterity, they require knowledge workers.

William Gibson once observed that the “future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed.” Education is the only equalizer and the glue of our democracy. We have to bring balance to a world that is becoming more uneven, and the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening faster than ever before.

We need to connect more people to a quality education so that they can participate in the future. And yet again, just providing access is not enough. Rebuilding our institutions is not enough.

We need to rebuild what is inside our schools with more emphasis on culture-centered learning—in addition to science, technology, and math—as a catalyst for creativity and personal value.

To renew education we must be bold and ask ourselves regardless of the level of our students—preschool, elementary, secondary, and beyond— if we are helping them to answer three critical questions that are key to individual value and one’s opportunity to participate:

What am I good at?

Why am I good at it?

And how am I going to use this talent to make a difference?

If a student cannot answer these fundamental questions, it means that we have fallen short as educators.

It all starts by better understanding who we are educating. In the time since I began speaking today approximately 72 children have been born in this country. These 72, plus the more than 4 million others who will be born over the next year, will be more diverse than ever before, more likely to be bilingual, more exposed to different cultures. Plus they will be called on to work harder to get as far as we have.

Fifty-one percent of all children under the age of 1 are of Hispanic origin. Hispanic citizens are also the fastest growing population among college students.

As our classrooms further transform into more diverse student populations, to renew education we need teachers who can validate and embrace the unique identity and value of each individual. Cultured-based education, a commitment to social justice, and a transformational educational experience are on the path to this renewal. At Pacific Oaks, this is our model of education and it works.

I recently visited a classroom at our Santa Cruz instructional site. There I met an adult learner Mr. Jose Rocha, who shared with me his experience before coming to Pacific Oaks. He told me about countless nights sitting in class without anyone acknowledging his heritage or background. He didn’t participate in classroom discussion; instead he just sat in silence taking notes. Neither the faculty nor his classmates showed an interest or an awareness of him as an individual or where he came from.

Nevertheless, he finished his two year studies. And then he transferred to Pacific Oaks. He told me how much our academic community has taken a genuine interest in who he is.

Today, he is not afraid to engage in class discussion. He feels safe at Pacific Oaks and has become an active learner, a participant, and our college is better for it. He is proud of his heritage and plans upon graduation to help his community develop a preschool series where diversity is valued and at the heart of its approach to education. That, my friends, is the Pacific Oaks model at work. There are stories like this in every one of our classrooms. We believe in our model.

Thanks to educators and scholars like professors Betty Jones and Louise Derman-Sparks, we are already known nationally and internationally for our pioneering work in early childhood education. We know that we can play a more prominent role in renewing education throughout this country, including becoming more active with shaping state and national thinking on early childhood education and beyond. This work began at our Children’s School nearly 70 years ago and I know we can make an even bigger difference in the decades ahead.

And yet we cannot do it alone. For more than 60 years, Pasadena has been there for Pacific Oaks. We are not just in the city but of the city, among its bedrock institutions and one of the many reasons why our students come to Pasadena. We have programs and partnerships in motion with Madison and Washington Elementary schools, the city of Pasadena Social Services Department, Los Angeles Community colleges including Pasadena City College.

And we’re just getting started. As we grow and become stronger, so will Pasadena as more students, faculty, staff, and alumni come here to live, work, and learn.

And we cannot do it alone on a national scale.

Three years ago Dr. Michael Horowitz, one of the nation’s leaders in nonprofit professional school education, read a story about how Pacific Oaks College was in financial trouble. He was in Chicago and had known of the college’s reputation through his wife’s work at the Erikson Institute.

Dr. Horowitz began making phone calls to see if he could help. He was just starting a new nonprofit education system, one with a mission aligned with that of Pacific Oaks.

You see it’s harder for small colleges to make it on their own as the challenges ahead in higher education are vast with more emphasis on regulation, academic outcomes, more technology, and escalating costs.

Today, TCS Education System is a partner with Pacific Oaks. In just three years we have gone from 365 students in fall 2009 to 925 this fall and from a deficit to a surplus budget.

Dr. Horowitz himself served as interim president of Pacific Oaks prior to my arrival and on behalf of our institution I thank him and for all that he and TCS ES have done for helping us to prepare for the future.

I also thank all eight presidents of Pacific Oaks, who have gone before me and today I stand on their shoulders and specially President Evangeline Burgess. Without them, and the others who joined them, this institution would not be here today.

I close with a reflection of where it all began for me. I grew up in Tehran, Iran, and from an early age I recall my mother instilling the importance of education.

The year that is stuck on my mind is 1969. We had a black and white television with awful reception in the basement of my parents’ house. My best friend and I would get up early on weekends and adjust the rabbit ears to watch American football. We would go to movies together, American movies. And it was from those windows from afar that I was exposed to American culture and the American dream.

I knew when I was 10 years old that I just didn’t want to come to this country, I was going to come to this country for my higher education. My best friend and I dreamed and dreamed. And when I came of age, I left my homeland for a new one. My mother’s voice for the value of education stayed with me, and I enrolled at the University of Hartford. Later I would move just up the road from where we stand today to continue my graduate work at Claremont Graduate University, where I studied with Peter Drucker.

My best friend saw what I did. To him it was proof that dreams could be realized. He followed soon after.

My friend eventually moved to Europe after earning a master’s degree from the University of Hartford. He has come all the way from Sweden and is attending today’s event to witness my inauguration and share in this moment. My dear friend Sia Tavakoli, please stand and be recognized.

I have to admit that as a young boy, I never dreamed about becoming the president of an academic institution; however, I always knew that if I studied hard and worked harder that I would make it.

It has been said that the two most important days of our lives are the day that we were born and the day we understand why. For me that second day arrived when I came to an understanding that I wanted to be an educator, to help others realize their value and how they are going to use their talents to contribute to common good.

The students who attend Pacific Oaks and the academic community that helps them grow professionally and personally also have lived that second day. They know why they are here and how they want to make their country, community, and family better than the day they entered this world.

At Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School it is our cause to help distribute the future to all, to help students of all ages and backgrounds to answer the three questions of …

What am I good at;

Why am I good at it;

And how I will use my talents to make a difference.

Let me conclude by sharing a quote from Rumi, a 12 century Persian poet: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Friends, it is the honor of my life to answer the call to serve this great institution and city of Pasadena, and I thank you all.