Provost Katherine Kantardjieff is entering retirement after 35 years as a part of the California State University system. She has been California State University, Monterey Bay’s (CSUMB) provost since 2020.
“It’s just been a weird three years because when I arrived it was the middle of the pandemic,” explained Kantardjieff. While her time at CSUMB has been relatively short, the provost’s history with the campus is rich.
“[My father] was stationed here at Fort Ord in the 50s and this was kind of his first home away from home. … The army recruited him because of his language skills, and he was a translator for radio in Europe, so he was based here and he taught at the Army Language School,” she explained.
Kantardjieff explained that she didn’t always know she would be an educator and her 44 years as one started out differently than one might expect.
“When I finished college, my original goal was to be a veterinarian. I majored in chemistry because I love it and my father’s sister was a chemist, but I wanted to work in a zoo,” she explained.
“So an interesting blip on my resume was my last two years at college. I was a zookeeper, but quite by accident I fell into teaching,” she shared.
Kantardjieff shared that during her three years teaching high school before attending graduate school, she discovered that “[teaching] was a love… and a talent that I didn’t know I had. It’s been all about the students all that time. So I will miss the students and I will miss the spirit of [CSUMB].”
Kantardjieff’s time in the CSU system started at CSU Fullerton where she worked as a faculty member for 20 years. After that, she moved to CSU Pomona and chaired the chemistry department.
Then, Kantardjieff worked as the founding dean of the science and mathematics department at CSU San Marcos. These roles helped prepare Kantardjieff for the hard work that comes with being a provost.
“As a founding dean, I was tasked with actually building a brand new college. And that doesn’t come along very often, but it meant that I had to really have good skill sets with the day-to-day administrative tasks and operations,” she explained.
“But as a provost, I still need to be out in the community representing faculty and students in our academic programs. And so being able to do that well has also served me here in that once we started repopulating campus, I was able now to finally get out and become more involved in the community,” shared Kantardjieff.
With the COVID-19 pandemic being an integral part of her time as provost, Kantardjieff said she “will remember the tremendous resiliency of the faculty and staff and the students to get through the pandemic…. we’ve come through a lot and we’re gonna do more.”
Kantardjieff’s time as provost started out rocky, as the first week of classes was impacted by the wildfires of 2020.
“The Monday of classes we all had to figure out whether we had faculty in place to teach classes because many people had been evacuated. And we figured out that for about 5% of the classes, people couldn’t teach because they’d been evacuated, but everybody else was ready to go. And so we went ahead and started the semester,” said Kantardjieff.
The stressful times continued, as “four months into my being a new provost, the vice president for student affairs had to go on leave. President Ochoa called me and he said, ‘this is an opportunity for you to really learn about the campus really fast.’
So I got appointed as the acting vice president for student affairs. So for five months out of my first year, I was wearing two VP hats. I would also say that’s something else I learned about myself. Not only the resiliency, but how I am a lifelong learner,” she shared.
Kantardjieff said one of the highlights she’s taken away from her time in the CSU system is “related to student success and a lot of the creative and innovative things that I was allowed to do. When I moved from faculty to being a department chair and then a dean, the kinds of innovative teaching and learning as well as undergraduate research that I could enable people to do with students” was extremely rewarding for her.
As a scientist, Kantardjieff shared that she is “proud of leveraging technology to do not only interesting and fun things, but also to enhance learning.”
Kantardjieff feels very passionately that CSUMB “has the potential to be very transformational, given where it is in its life cycle, if you will, but also where it’s located and the region that we serve.”
She continued, “Education is a great equalizer and an enabler, and it empowers people to do amazing things. And I think Monterey Bay is positioned to do that well and having a president who knows that kind of power or empowerment will just help the campus all the more.”
To help get CSUMB to the next level, Kantardjieff has “put together several working groups tasked with exploring barriers to students in certain areas … as well as how we can work to redevelop a sense of belonging and help improve people’s mental health and wellness,” she explained.
One of these task forces is called P.R.E.S.S. “Actually, the president came up with this acronym. We’re both acronym queens. It [stands for] persistence, retention, engagement, satisfaction and success.
So it’s very student focused and it’s really about what we need to do to improve all of those things. So what are the barriers to students to persistence and retention? Well, we need to look at how we schedule classes. How do they overlap? Do we need to change the times of day?” explained Kantardjieff.
These task forces are also working on improving the paid internship and apprenticeship rates among CSUMB students.
According to Kantardjieff, another big goal is to increase mental health resources on campus.
The group looks for “ways that we can support that better or bring people together who are working on similar things in the spirit of continuous improvement,” said Kantardjieff.
Kantardjieff said that she has full confidence in the interim provost, Dean Andrew Lawson from the college of science, but that he “will have some challenges.”
“The provost has to worry about maintaining and sustaining academic quality. That means supporting the faculty and students, and that becomes even more challenging when you have resource challenges,” she explained.
Kantardjieff said that while CSUMB’s enrollment rate is down from the last few years, she is confident that the campus can get back on track.
“For the next year or two… [CSUMB] will need to be very strategic in how it allocates its resources,” explained Kantardjieff.
Her time at CSUMB has provided Kantardjieff with many insights about herself that she may not have learned otherwise.
“ I was more resilient than I thought I was… 10 years ago, I probably would’ve ended up in bed in the fetal position over some things,” she joked. “But I was tougher and I was able to handle things better than I thought I would be able to.”
Now that her time at CSUMB is coming to an end, Kantardjieff has decided to retire because she wants to “be able to take on that next chapter while I’m still healthy and can do it”. She has many plans for how to fill her days.
“Over the years I have started writing and in various stages of completion, four books. Two are fiction and two are nonfiction… so I hope to get back to those and finish them,” Kantardjieff said proudly.
Photography and writing are some of Kantardjieff’s biggest interests that she hopes to devote more time to.
Kantardjieff also hopes to get back into music, as she studied classical piano years ago but hasn’t had time to dedicate to the skill. She also has recently become interested in acrylic painting, and likes to watch tutorials on Youtube.
“I love doing creative things like that,” said Kantardjieff. “I hope I can get some traveling in again too. There’s some places I still want to visit.”
“I think the most immediate bucket list right now is the coast of Italy, around Positano. And then up towards Genoa and hiking along the coast. Those are two areas I’ve not been to,” said Kantardjieff.
“One of the perks of being a scientist is that conferences are in cool places,” joked the provost.
As Kantardjieff reflected on her time at CSUMB, she said that “commencement for me is the best day of the year. It’s hope and optimism. It’s the reward for all that hard work, and you should feel really proud of that accomplishment.”
Speaking to graduating students directly, Kantardjieff hopes “you have a strong sense of self and the courage of conviction to do the right thing when you get out in the world. To stand up for what you believe in, and be proud to be an Otter.”.