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It was a pivotal election, both candidates spending many months and much money on the campaign. Both candidates had graduated from the same college. The more conservative candidate won.

Except, it wasn’t the presidential election of 2004, and the candidates weren’t John Kerry and George W. Bush — Yale University alumni who were both members of the university’s secret Skull and Bones society. Instead, it was a year later, and the vote would determine the city of San Diego’s first “strong mayor.”

The candidates, Donna Frye and Jerry Sanders, had not graduated from a prestigious Ivy League institution, like their parties’ presidential contenders. Instead, both got their degrees from National University in La Jolla.

In recent years, National has grown to become the second-largest nonprofit university in California. It says it has more than 25,000 students, which makes it second only to the University of Southern California among the state’s private universities. Yet its name has remained largely unknown outside of the state.

Dana Gibson, who became the university’s third president — and its first female one — earlier this month, said she hadn’t even heard of National when she was first approached about the job. That, she said, is about to change.

In a recent interview, Gibson, who previously worked as a vice president of business and finance at Southern Methodist University, sat down to talk about her new position and employer and her plans for making National University’s name … well, national.

Why did you decide to make the move? Is there any prior history with the university — how did it find you, and how did you find it?

Well, actually, they used a … a higher-education recruiting firm. They contacted me because Dr. (Jerry) Lee (the chancellor and former president) was looking for someone that had a finance background, which I do, as well as the insight of an academic. And I was on faculty, and went through the whole faculty, research and teaching process earlier. So I had the unusual financial background for the office at the time. I think that’s why the search firm contacted me. Actually, I kind of didn’t know anything about National. They sent me a whole bunch of information, and the more I read, the more interested I became.

I think what prompted me here was a lot of what Dr. Lee had accomplished with the university. Over the time period he’s been here, it’s been a huge turnaround. And also the mission that they’re trying to accomplish.

And what is that mission?

Well, I think it’s the idea of trying to serve underserved populations in higher ed. That used to be considered just adult learners. Now, I don’t think it’s just adult learners. I think it’s a diverse population from many different standpoints. It could be adult learners vs. traditional college-age. It could be minority populations. It could be lower socioeconomics. Whatever the target is that gets more folks educated and into higher education. Because I’m very passionate that higher education makes a difference in people’s lives.

They’re doing it in several ways. Always keeping the cost and affordability at the front of their mind, looking at the programs that are relevant, making sure that it’s accessible and high quality for the students. There is a lot of that. The one-month format makes it work well for people that are working, so there is just a whole plethora of what they’ve tried to accomplish, and what they have accomplished that was very intriguing to me.

I know one thing the university has been recognized for is the number of underrepresented minorities that have completed the program. Even compared to down the street, at [University of California, San Diego], you’ve done a better job. So what’s kind of been the trick, the key to that?

I think it’s several different things. And again, being new, it’s just what I’m reading into that. But I do think it’s the types of programs are of urban interest, the fact that, as a private institution, we’re about half the price that other institutions are. The other thing with that is the accelerated pace. Let’s say if you’re working — a lot of people have to work and go to school — it’s easier to focus on that one course for a month than on portions of four courses for the four months that is a semester. So you can have that focus, and yet you still can, considering how we’re offering a one course format, you can take a full course load and qualify for financial aid. So you could have that focus and you can still qualify for financial aid at the same time.

And what are the demographics of the average National University student? Are they older than the traditional student? Are they from a lower socioeconomic status than a traditional student?

I don’t know about socioeconomics. I do know that the average age is 36. That’s much older than the traditional university. I was at the University of Colorado, at their Denver campus, which is an urban, downtown campus, and their average age was 29. And we felt that was older than the average. And here being at 36 is somewhat older. And I think that’s the big driver. Older students have a different expectation for their customer service and their education. And they want the educational process to be high quality and focused, because they’re working and don’t want to waste their time.

Let me ask this: You are a private, nonprofit university. How is that different from being a public university — you’ve worked at the University of Colorado — and being for-profit university?

Well, first of all, all of my experiences have been at nonprofit universities. I have worked at both public and private universities. I think there are big differences between private and public. I think public institutions have a harder time, because they have to respond to state issues, being as flexible and driven for kind of the customer. Because they’re answering to the state.

So basically the politics gets involved?

I don’t know that it’s politics, I think it’s more just that you have so many processes in place at states. That tends to make it slower. Like, you have to go through program-approval processes in some states. You’re not flexible to react to relevant educational changes. It’s just part of the public process.

And I think most public universities have increased their class size quite a bit. That’s something that we’re focused on here. We want to be about 20 to 1 on average class size. Most of our classes are not real large classes, so I think that’s more like private universities. That’s what you see at private universities, you don’t see that intro class being 200, 300 students that you can see at public institutions.

Let me ask you another question. When I was in college, I had a professor who had the experience of both private and public — I went to UCSD. And he said he went to school at a private university, and there was a captivating professor of history who would lecture, when he would mention something about FDR, he’d look out of the window and say, “Yes, we had some great times together.” And his point was that at a research university, you may not have many people who are interested in teaching students but are on the cutting edge of research. While at a private university, you have people that are really interested in teaching, but may not keep up to date with the most current research. Do you think that’s accurate?

You know, that I would say is harder. I think it’s more the mission of the university. The University of Colorado campus that I was at, because it had the med school, and some of the other health schools as well as some of our other programs, we were heavily targeted toward research. SMU was targeting research. So I think that may be true. I know that, for example, here at National, that’s probably another difference in nonprofit and for-profit setting. Scholarship is important, if you want to call it scholarship research. And what that is, is a professor renewing their knowledge base all the time is important here. Education is extremely important.

So it’s not saying that it’s not. I think at some of those other schools that have a very heavily research-focused mission, what you run into is an issue of, all of the sudden, some times some of the focus gets lost because they’re so interested in the research. If they build it into the programs, and involve some of the undergraduate and graduate students, it’s a benefit. But, most of the time, I see it only happens that they involve only the graduate students, and not the undergraduate students.

And what is the background of the faculty here? Are they researchers? Or are they more real-world-experience people?

I think you have some of both. They have some faculty that — for example, our current interim dean in business has led a research symposium every year in the finance area. So I think you have some folks that come from a more research-oriented background. We have some of our faculty that come from a more — if you want to say real-world or, I hate to call it that because academics is real, too. Maybe a better thing is business standpoint. They’re experienced there. I think it’s a combination of both, and I think it’s a strength in the instructional process for the students, because you have some people that come from an industry background, and you have some people that come from more of an academic background, so you have more of a blended approach.

National opened the first online high school in San Diego. Is online the future of education, both K-12 and higher education?

Well I’m president of National University. We also have the National system, and that includes the virtual high school, National Polytechnic (College of Engineering) and WestMed (College), which are other affiliates, and Spectrum Pacific Learning. Spectrum Pacific Learning is entirely providing online — they do kind of the background development. You have what you might call the subject-matter expert, and that might be one of our faculty, and Spectrum Pacific puts that course content online, and makes it into a good format for our students.

The high school is another one that provides online education opportunities. If you want to look at the demographics, more and more, if you look at the growth of online education over the last five years, it is huge percentages. I think a couple of things drive that: I think people are more comfortable with online, more now than ever in the past. Also, now, we have more percentages of those people who are interested in education, let’s say from kindergarten through 50 years old, who have now grown up with computers around them all the time. So it doesn’t seem unusual to take class online.

Just this morning, I was looking at your website, and it says you’re the second-largest private, nonprofit university in the state? Behind Stanford?

USC.

So Stanford is even smaller than National? You mentioned that when the recruiter called you, you hadn’t even heard of National, yet USC and Stanford are household names. Why do you think that is? Why is your reputation not necessarily what you would expect from your scale?

Well, I think several things, it’s a very young university in the picture of universities. Thirty-six-years-old is very young in the lifespan of a university. If you look at Stanford that’s, I don’t know, 120 years old or something. You build up over time some of that and some of the context for it.

I will use USC as the best example. (President Steven) Sample, since he’s been there, has made USC a nationally known university. Ten years ago, 15 years go — I’ve been in higher education for 20 — 15 years ago, I don’t think you would have known it outside of California.

So are you following some of those same strategies? Is there a National University football team in the works?

No, no, no, that doesn’t fit the model what National is all about. But I do think that part of those things, over time, will build image and reputation. The fact that over the last six years we produced more school teachers in the state of California than any other university in the state. That’s a huge demographic, and all of the sudden, those school teachers are talking to lots more students, so it becomes more known. I think it’s well-known now in California. I don’t think it’s well-known now outside of California. That’s what we have to work on, how do we get that name outside of California. That’s the question you’re asking. Theirs is not a regional knowledge, but more a national knowledge.

California higher education has a good reputation for that. I mean, you look at Berkeley, UCLA and then the privates, Stanford and USC. But again, University of California, San Diego — UCSD here — again is outside of California is not as recognized, and it’s a very good institution.

Let me ask you this question, something a colleague posed to me before I left the office: If I want to be a teacher, if I want to get my teacher credential, I have the choice of going to San Diego State and paying the in-state fee, why would I go to National, even though it’s nonprofit, and pay more? Why do the students that come here choose National over a public school?

In the public institutions here, San Diego State has good tuition levels. Some of the other publics, for example, Berkeley and UCLA, University of California schools, their tuition rates are what ours are, or higher than what National’s is. Those are problematic for a lot of students. Some of Cal State schools are a little bit less expensive.

What you see by choice is that the focus of our education — the faster pace, with a month of content going forward. We have a lot of students who start at community college, take a year, and then can finish in another two-and-a-half years. The shortened timeframe means that you’re out earning money faster. So you have to look incrementally, how much is the difference and how much faster are you going to start earning wages. And I think that’s probably part of the relevant decision for a lot of students.

And what’s the admission process like? What percentage of people that apply are accepted?

We actually don’t track that, not that I know. There might be some numbers out there. We are considered open admissions. You do have to have a high school degree and the basic information, but we give you an opportunity to come to National and try to be successful. And that’s not uncommon. A lot of the public institutions have that mission. A lot of the privates do not. For example, SMU, it would be considered like Pepperdine or USC or whatever. Their selectivity means that you need to have a very high SAT to be able to get in. A lot of public institutions in a lot of states are required to be fairly open admission. I think that’s the mission more of the Cal State schools here vs. the University of California schools.

We fall in the line, like the Cal State, which are more open admission.

And what’s the effect on graduation rates? Do you still see a high level of completion?

I think for a nontraditional university, we do. I can get the numbers, I don’t have them off the top of my head, but on what we call retention and graduation rates, the graduation rates are pretty good. You have to consider and factor in that a lot of times what they track in a lot of the publicized data is graduation rates for a certain time period, or retention rates for a certain time period. We may have some working adults that start and then stop for a while, then come back. They still get a degree, but it may take them six years to do it. Others are very focused and get it in three years. But, you know, the kind of the normal way of tracking that data tends to be the traditional four years that you’re an undergraduate. … But it’s not bad for a nontraditional population.

Your endowment is $300 million, which is very respectable for a university. Is that mostly alumni giving? Is it private donors that support the university?

It’s called a quasi-endowment. And quasi means that it can be non-restricted. Restricted donations, restricted amounts, we have a smaller amount of it that’s restricted. And that’s actually a huge benefit to the university, if it needed it at any point. But a lot of it has been self-generated, meaning that we reinvest what any of our — you know, if we sold some property over the years, that is reinvested back into the endowment and benefits the students in the long run.

And the last question for is, what’s on the horizon. What do you want to accomplish during your tenure?

Well, I think that actually it’s building on the success that National has had. Meaning, the quality, accessible education is what brought me here. That’s not something I want to deviate from. I think part of the additional steps is what you mentioned in one of your questions, how do we get this good story known to more people. It’s kind of regionally known, and that’s it. But how do we make sure that people in other areas know about how well National serves the underserved higher ed population. That’s what I want to be able to accomplish more, get that good story out there. Because it surprised me. Coming from another part of the country, I was like, “Wow, this university has done some good stuff. I don’t know why I haven’t heard about that.” Now that I’m here, it’s kind of like, OK, now I want to make sure that I can try that I can get that message out there more.

— Interview by VLADIMIR KOGAN

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